Myanmar’s Centre of Buddhism: Visit Hidden Sagaing
Most tourists to Mandalay make a trip across the Irrawaddy river to the town of Sagaing. Known as the centre of Buddhism in Myanmar, this small town has more than 300 religious buildings. It is a beautiful place – peaceful with lush, tree-covered hills – but most tourists only make a quick visit spending 2-3 hours exploring two or three main sites.
Recently I was fortunate to spend a full day there with a friend of mine who was born and raised in Sagaing. I hesitated at his invitation as I have already been many times but he promised to show me something different so I agreed. We set off from Mandalay around 07.00, stopping at a tea shop for a quick breakfast before continuing across the Irrawaddy to Sagaing. The usually-busy streets were quiet at that hour and the sun was perfectly placed for great photos of the stupa-covered hills.
Our first stop was the Sagaing market. Despite having lived in Asia for more than ten years I still love visiting morning markets and seeing the vivid colours of the produce and interaction between vendors and buyers. Sagaing market did not disappoint! Stepping inside the garishly painted blue market building we were faced with row upon row of stall selling vegetables, fruits and meats. Most impressive, for me, was seeing all of the homemade snacks for sale such as semolina cake, sticky rice with toasted sesame and mouth-watering samosa.
We continued toward Sagaing Hill, the main destination for tourists, but instead of going directly to the top we stopped at a hidden monastic compound where around 200 monks were receiving donations from local Buddhists. I had seen alms collection in the streets of Mandalay and at several other monasteries but the peaceful setting surrounded by leafy trees made this experience much more memorable.
On the backside of Sagaing Hill we visited a small teak building, a former monastery that is shrouded by hanging vines and trees. Although it is no longer used as a monastery it makes for fabulous photos and a pleasant place to escape from the tourists at the top of the hill.
Before leaving Sagaing Hill we continued to a nunnery. Most visitors to Myanmar have seen images of monks draped in dark red robes but few are aware the Buddhism also has nuns. The nuns play an important role in the Buddhist culture as they offer support to the community in the form of education, providing assistance to those in need, raising funds for religious projects and supporting orphaned or disadvantaged girls. We arrived as they were preparing their lunch. Nuns receive uncooked food from donors then must cook the food themselves whereas monks receive ready-made meals. As they moved about in their light pink robes I felt privileged to witness such a unique aspect of Myanmar culture.
We decided to do a bit more exploring and drove to a pottery village. Throughout Myanmar small clay pots sit on the road side filled with drinking water for travelers. This is one of the many ways in which locals can ‘gain merit’ by helping others. I had never considered where these pots came from and my friend told me the best ones came from Sagaing so we went to check it out. The village is typical of many in rural Myanmar with wooden single-story houses but at the back of each compound was a second building which housed the pottery facilities. Using a mix of clay and water the potters form the water pot on a stone wheel, stamp it with a decorative pattern then fire it in the small natural ovens they have made. It was labour intensive but everyone seemed happy while working. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of it was seeing the finished pots being carried to the sales area- they would crouch down and pile up to 4 pots on their head, pick up one or two more in each hand and gracefully walk the 100 metres or so to the stall. The balance and strength needed to do this is incredible.
Midday was approaching so we made one last stop in Sagaing at a ‘buffet’ style restaurant for lunch. For around 1.50 USD each we enjoyed freshly cooked vegetables, fish in a spicy sauce and chicken with paprika piled atop a plate of steamed rice and served with soup. It was delicious and filling.
As we crossed back over the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay we paused for photos, capturing great views of Sagaing Hill and surroundings. It was a fantastic day out and reminded me that one of the best things about Myanmar is always finding new hidden places even in familiar areas. The wonders of Myanmar never seem to stop and for the curious traveler it offers endless possibilities.