SAGAING, Sagaing Region — A minivan carrying a group of tourists climbs a steep, narrow road up to the top of a hill, honking at every turn to warn cars coming from the opposite direction.
After a long, winding ascent, the van stops at the foot of a staircase leading to a pagoda. The group’s guide, wearing a large hat as protection against the sun, leads the way up the steps, explaining the history of the pagoda as he goes. The foreigners look like they’re bracing themselves against the tropical heat, but they listen eagerly to every word.
Increasingly, this is becoming an everyday scene on Sagaing Hill, located some 12 or 13 miles (20 km) west of Mandalay. Stretching along the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River from north to south, the hill comes closer than anywhere else in Myanmar to matching the country’s image as an almost mythical land of pagodas. As such, it is attracting an ever-growing number of foreign visitors eager to experience a place that is not just steeped in history, but is very much a living embodiment of a religious faith that is central to Myanmar culture.
Besides the white and gold of the pagodas, visitors can also see the colorful robes of monks, nuns and lay meditators who come here from all over the country to find serenity and develop their insight into the timeless truths of Buddhism. Strolling among the shady trees of this spiritual oasis are monks in their maroon-colored robes and nuns wearing pink; for the unordained, white is the color that most commonly signifies separation from worldly concerns.
‘A Holy Place’
For many in Myanmar, Sagaing Hill is the best place in the country to achieve peace of mind and make progress on the long journey to enlightenment. In the distant past, it was home only to wild animals, making it ideal for those seeking seclusion. These days, however, it has numerous monasteries and has become an important center for religious studies.
Despite the growing number of people who flock here, there is an air of tranquility that all who visit can readily appreciate.
“Sagaing Hill is a holy place, and we believe that we can find real inner peace and the
power of the Dhamma if we meditate here,” said U Aung Than, 50, a resident of Monywa visiting the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda after a two-week meditation retreat.
The Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, located at the top of the hill, enshrines a relic of the Buddha and is believed to have been built in the 6th century. There are other major pagodas on the hill, such as U Min Thone Sae, but also many small, centuries-old meditation halls and monasteries that attract visitors.
One of the most beloved of these is a small abandoned 18th-century monastery located in a secluded spot in the forest. With its ornate teakwood carvings, it is often likened to the much larger Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay, famous for its beautiful wooden sculptures.
“Although our clients are usually exhausted after seeing so many pagodas and temples in Bagan, they all say they love this little monastery,” said Mandalay-based guide U Tun Oo.
A Nun’s Life
At the foot of the hill, there are also dozens of nunneries, some of which welcome visitors curious about the unique way of life of Myanmar’s Buddhist nuns.
The Zeya Theingi Kyaung (kyaung means both monastery and nunnery in Myanmar) is one of the country’s most famous centers for young girls and women who strive to strictly follow the Buddha’s path. There are around 150 nuns and novices living here, all in pink robes and walking mindfully around the compound with their rosaries. The sound of chanting pouring from inside the main building adds to the feeling that one has entered a space free from the stresses of outside life.
Like the Mahagandaryone Monastery in Amarapura, where foreign visitors are invited to witness the daily lives of monks, the Zeya Theingi Kyaung is popular with tourists.
“Foreign visitors have been coming here for more than 10 years, ever since MRTV aired a documentary about our daily lives,” said Daw Gunawadee, a senior nun at the nunnery, adding that the filmmakers chose the Zeya Theingi Kyaung because it was recommended by Sitagu Sayadaw, the country’s most influential monk, as an example of a Buddhist learning center that hews closely to the Buddha’s teachings.
“Visitors really appreciate that we are well-disciplined and well-organized here, compared with other centers across the country,” she added proudly.
During the peak travel season, thousands of visitors pour into Buddhist learning centers like the Zeya Theingi Kyaung. If they are lucky, their visits coincide with religious ceremonies, during which they will be treated to meals of traditional Myanmar food offered to the nuns and shared with all who come to the monasteries on these occasions.
“Some of our clients were fortunate enough to join the nuns for a meal. They were so happy, and some even said it was the best meal of their lives,” said U Aung Khaing, a tour guide from Mandalay.
As the cars carrying the tourists leave the hill one by one, the sun spreads its orange rays and prepares to say good night. The lights of the pagodas and temples are lit as dusk deepens, and the whole hill twinkles in the twilight. Reflected in the waters of the Ayeyarwady River, the scene leaves a lasting image in the minds of all who see it.
“Farewell,” it seems to say. “And come again.”
This article first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.