Salay, Myanmar: Faded colonial glory

A Salay colonial relic: Beyond “faded” and all the way to “derelict”

The final stop on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise before Bagan was the former colonial outpost of Salay. We unfortunately arrived in the heat of the afternoon, maybe because our schedule had been off for the last couple of days due to a 3-hour delay when we ran aground on one of the Irrawaddy’s many sandbars. We’d been warned in advance to expect such minor mishaps and to be flexible, and the delay had been a non-issue for the most part (and actually kind of interesting to watch the maneuvers involved in extricating the boat from its predicament).

Anyway, for whatever reason, we trooped up to Salay in the heat of the afternoon, past small groups of locals resting in the shade and no doubt wondering what we were doing out and about at that inhospitable time of day. We wandered through an extensive group of monasteries and temples, to visit a small temple housing the Mann Paya Buddha, the largest lacquered Buddha in Myanmar. The Mann Paya is a hollow wooden statue said to date back to 1300AD that was found in 1888 bobbing in the Irrawaddy after a flood. Locals fished it out of the river, covered it with gold leaf and lacquered it. Yen speculated that it had come from a temple that had fallen into the river, a victim erosion.

Yoke Sone Kyaung monastery

Our next stop was a lovely old teak monastery, Yoke Sone Kyaung, built just prior to the British colonization of Burma. It housed many carved statues and wooden trunks and was decorated extensively with carvings inside and out. We laughed at one bas relief carving outside entitled “Passion for sensual pleasures (or) sensual bondage.” Hmm.

Something’s lost in translation with this carving outside Yoke Sone Kyaung monastery. I think it’s supposed to be about freeing oneself from earthly attachments.

Despite the scattered temples, stupas and monastery buildings, Salay derives its uniqueness from the once-elegant colonial buildings that line many of its main streets. These are remnants of the presence of British military and the Burma Oil Company which housed rig workers in the area starting in 1886. The owners have mostly abandoned the stately buildings to their fate and moved away, and we saw only one newly restored building, its bright pink paint standing out from the faded, peeling glory of its neighbors.

We wandered the streets as the afternoon cooled to evening, arriving at Salay House, another (the only other?) restored building dating back to 1906 that is now an inn and restaurant. It’s the only business of its type in tiny Salay and does boast a pretty garden and a nice river view (although I can’t imagine what I’d do in Salay on an overnight stay, much less for longer). There’s also a shop up front with a museum-style second floor that recreates rooms from the era. It was nice, but felt too touristy to us so we skipped the over-priced sunset drinks and headed back to the ship with a group of like-minded shipmates for our much-loved cocktail hour onboard.

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