Monywa

Monywa

A non-descript town belies an ancient wonder: the myriad cave temples of Po Win Daung. It’s Myanmar’s third largest archaeological site, full of hand-carved caves, Buddhas and frescoes, yet no one has head of it, which makes us like it all the more.

The town of Monywa on the banks of the Chindwin River is big, hot and scruffy. So, why make the effort to come here?

Because nearby Po Win Daung is Myanmar’s mini Petra, that’s why. Thousands of shallow caves carved by hand from sandstone sprawl across the scrubby hillside. Built between the 14th and 18th centuries, today it’s all remarkably wild and little visited, so you get to play Indiana Jones.

Accompanied by the chatter of macaques, follow labyrinthian passageways and decaying staircases to explore sun-scorched cave temples. Inside are rows and rows of stone Buddhas and pastel coloured frescos depicting Buddhist mythology in intricate detail. Some are well preserved, others crumbing back into dust which only adds to the atmosphere.

Monywa roughly translates as ‘cake village’ after a local king fell in love with a cake maker from the town. Some of the pagodas seem to follow this tradition; architecturally speaking, they look half temple, half wedding cake. Monywa also boasts the world’s second tallest Buddha, a vision in blingy gold.

On the road to Mandalay from the Indian border, Monywa is an important trade hub. Baskets of spices, dried fish, fresh coriander and limes are on display at the markets. You won’t be the first visitor here, but you’ll still be enough of a novelty to get a very warm welcome.

Nearby destinations

Central Myanmar

Forget what Kipling said, Mandalay is certainly no oil painting. But scratch the surface and you’ll find bags of history and culture amid the monasteries, temples, markets, gold leaf workshops and teahouses of Myanmar’s second largest city.

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Bagan is an ode to Buddhism: 3,000 terracotta temples across a vast plain, built in a game of spiritual one-upmanship in the 11th to 13th centuries. This is the zenith of Myanmar’s golden age and our favourite spot in the whole country.