I like cities and Mandalay was no exception. There was plenty to see, do and experience in the city centre, but what I hadn’t realised was that a visit to Mandalay means you get four for the price of one as there are three ancient royal capitals right on its doorstep.
Back in the day new kings liked to make their mark on Myanmar and establishing a new capital city was as good a way as any. The oldest in the area is Sagaing which took on the mantle in 1315 after the fall of Bagan and like that city, it’s a place where temples dominate.
But while the landscape in Bagan is flat dry and dusty, Sagaing’s white and gold stupas are dotted over low green hills. It’s also packed with monasteries and nunneries and as 45% of the population are monks or nuns they are very much in evidence as you drive the winding roads or walk up the covered stairways to one of the viewpoints.
We headed to Pon Nya Shin Paya at the top of Sagaing Hill, a peaceful temple with a colourful tiled floor, 30m high central stupa and paintings showing the king’s dreams and other Buddha stories. It also has fab 360 views across the hills and down to the Ayeyarwady river. Then we visited nearby Umin Thounzeh, a cave temple where there’s a curved building with a spectacular sweep of 45 Buddha images.
About 50 years later, Inwa which is just across the river from Sagaing, became the capital for the first of four times over a 300 year period. Inwa has a very different, quite rural feel where the main mode of tourist transport is a horse-cart which you pick up at the boat jetty.
Not surprisingly the horse-cart is a bumpy ride, but it wasn’t too long until our first stop at the small but lovely ruins of Yedanasimi Paya. There are just a couple of sitting Buddhas and some old brick stupas to see, but it has a nice feel and there was a father and son team quietly selling watercolour paintings. We were already in the market as had been eyeing them up elsewhere and as the two men were very sweet and not at all pushy, we quickly succumbed to a couple of paintings of monks.
Next was Inwa’s top attraction, Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery supported on almost 300 posts. It’s cool and dark inside with some intricate carvings in the large prayer hall, but it’s also a living monastery and there were young novices being taught in the ‘school’. This was actually just a corner of the main room that was hung with globes and had a few wooden benches.
The other Inwa sights of note are Nanmyin, a leaning watchtower which is all that’s left of the former royal palace and Maha Aungmye Bonzan, another monastery but unusually made from brick rather than wood. Despite that it does look very similar to a teak monastery with a tiered roof and ornate stucco that looks like wood carvings. Its also quite easy to climb on as one monk demonstrated while trying to get the best photo of a nearby gilded stupa!
The brick monastery was built by King Bagyidaw’s wife Me Nu who our guide told us was a local peasant girl who didn’t love the King and wanted to kill him, so she had caves created underneath the monastery to hide weapons. Luckily for him he sussed her plan and had her killed first. I read elsewhere that the King was overthrown by his brother and he killed Me Nu so not sure which story is true, but either way they were clearly brutal times.
After seeing the Inwa sights it was back to the river for lunch at Ave Maria, a really nice restaurant with a big garden overlooking the Ayeryarwady. It was the perfect place for some grilled butter fish and Myanmar beer, as well as the use of their very decent toilets.
The third capital we visited was Amarapura which didn’t come into play until the late 18th century and only lasted 70 years before the palace was taken down and shipped up the river to Mandalay. It’s only seven miles away so more of a suburb of the city now, but sits on a lake which makes for a very pretty setting.
One of Myanmar’s most photographed sights the U-Bein Bridge crosses the lake and is famous for being the world’s longest teak bridge. It’s not especially wide with no side rails, so being a vertigo sufferer I’d been slightly been slightly nervous about walking across it, but when we got there I realised the lake is shallow and the bridge quite low. So in the late morning it was really nice to just wander slowly across with a few locals and monks for company, stopping now and then to watch a football game on the lake shore or a shoal of fish swimming by. And of course to pose for photos with local people – we were often a tourist attraction ourselves in Myanmar.
It was quite a different experience to another of Amarapura’s sights, the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery. Our guide took us here for what’s known as the lunch parade. Every day at 11am all 1200 of the monks who live there walk to lunch while a truck load of tourists stare at them like animals in a zoo and take a ridiculous amount of photos.
We lasted about two minutes watching loud American and Asian tourists jostling for space and jumping in front of the walking monks with huge lenses on their cameras before saying we didn’t want to be part of it. Our guide was surprised but took us off to walk around the rest of the monastery which was lovely – and very quiet.
We really enjoyed seeing the wooden houses where the monks lived, spotting their dark red robes dangling on washing lines and the very large but pretty basic kitchen where the lunch was being prepared. There was a huge wok of boiling oil and then a massive pot of something pink was tipped into it. There’s also a small museum about the monk who founded the monastery which is in the house he used to live in.
We did this visit to Amarapura in the morning before heading off to Inwa and Sagaing, but then came back in the late afternoon for a visit to silk weaving workshop Shwe Sin Tai where it takes an astonishing 45 days to make two metres of material. Afterwards we wandered through the myriad of market stalls to pick up a boat on the edge of the lake for our final treat of the day, a return to U-Bein Bridge to watch the sun go down.
Lots of people walk onto the bridge for this, but it can be very crowded and as we’d walked across it earlier we were very happy to spend an hour floating around the lake and then taking our position alongside the other boats to watch the sun go down behind the iconic bridge. A truly memorable way to end a truly fabulous day.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and check out the Myanmar section of my blog for more posts about this amazing country, including one about Mandalay City and Mingun which is just to the north of it along the river.