From Mandalay there were several interesting side-trips. We took a boat up the river to Mingun, site of the world's largest pile of bricks. This immense, uncompleted stupa made of solid brick was built by a despotic ruler several hundred years ago. Only the base of the pagoda was completed before he died. The remaining brick pedestal, over 70m high, was severely damaged in an earthquake a few years later. Nearby is the world's largest uncracked bell, weighing in a 90 tons.
We teamed up with another couple at our guesthouse to split the cost of a day excursion to the ancient cities scattered around Mandalay. We started in the morning at U Bein's bridge, a long teak bridge spanning the narrow neck of a flatland lake.
Sagaing Hill is the archetypal “holy mountain”, loaded with shrines and pagodas. We climbed to the summit in the blazing heat, stopping along the way to take off our shoes and enter the cool temples. From the flat platform at the top, we could see even more temples, their golden spires, white domes and gilded decorations shimmering in the rising heat.
We convinced our driver to search for a restaurant along the river that served “Burmese buffet”. After we sat down, small bowls with different meat and vegetable dishes as well as soup and rice were brought to our table. Dish and dish arrived until the entire table was full! As soon as one bowl was empty, it would be whisked away and instantly reappear, full. Most of the food turned out to be rather greasy and heavy as well as spicy. Most of the vegetables sat in a thick layer of poor-quality oil. With the afternoon heat, the meal turned out to be difficult to digest. Unfortunately most of the Burmese food that we tried was too heavy, so we mostly stuck to Chinese-style wok-fried food during our stay. We did try the famous tea salad, a strange mixture of bitter and salty flavors, as well as some other strange dishes such as ginger salad.
Down the river from Sagaing is Inwa (also known as Ava), another ancient Bermese capital city. Today nothing remains but a few oversized stupas sprouting from green rice fields. From a raised wooden teak monastery we watched as the sun settled slowly towards the horizon, its feeble light filtering through the palm trees that lined the nearby rice paddies and glinting from the golden spire of a distant chedi.