Mandalay (Seat of Ancient Kings)
Myanmar’s second-largest city and its last royal capital, Mandalay is home to the rebuilt Mandalay Palace; the original, destroyed during WWII, was home to then-Burma’s last monarchy. Downtown Mandalay is heavy on the concrete and urban sprawl; unlike Yangon, it looks nothing like it did when it was part British Burma. Mandalay is laid out on a grid, and from 35th Street north to the citadel walls can be easily traversed on foot or by bicycle. Mandalay offers a sharp contrast to Yangon and is interesting taken from both a historical and an urban-planning point of view. A further juxtaposition to the big, dusty city is its nearby hill station Pyin U Lwin (née Maymo). Here is where Upper Burma’s strongest colonial legacy lies, in the form of manicured gardens, horse-drawn carriages, and homes straight out of the English countryside.
With its royal palace and impressive moat sitting at the foot of a high, pagoda-topped hill, Mandalay still evokes images of a romantic, bygone era. It remains the principal cultural and economic city of upper Myanmar. Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Mandalay also lies within easy striking distance of former colonial hill stations, ancient cities and other cultural attractions.
As the last seat of the Myanmar kings, Mandalay left a bittersweet legacy to the people. King Mindon of the Konbaung Dynasty, who reigned from 1853 to 1878, created this capital out of the wild woodlands at the foot of Mandalay Hill. King Mindon was a deeply religious monarch who made Mandalay and the neighboring town of Sagaing important centers of Buddhism, with many great pagodas and hundreds of beautiful monasteries and nunneries.
Mahamuni Buddha Image
The city’s notable attractions include Kuthodaw Pagoda, where Buddhist scriptures are carved on 729 marble tablets, billed as the “biggest book” in the world. One particularly beautiful legacy of Mindon is the all-teak pavilion he lived in just before his death, Golden Palace (ShweKyaung). Once completely gilded inside and out, only the interior gold remains undamaged. The rest of his palace was destroyed in World War II and a replica was built on the site. Nearby Mandalay Hill is crowned by a pagoda from which visitors can enjoy a 360-degree view of the city and surrounding countryside. Mahamuni Pagoda to the southwest of the palace holds one of Myanmar’s most revered Buddha images, a 4-metre-high statue covered with a thick layer of gold leaf applied by generations of pilgrims seeking merit.
Nearby Amarapura was once the seat of kings but now the best craftsmen of Myanmar work there embroidering tapestries, casting bronze, carving teak or weaving silk. Just outside of town is the 1.2-kilometre U Bein Bridge made of teak and spanning Taungthaman Lake. Inwa, just across the Myintge River from Amarapura, was another capital city, of which little remains but a handful of wellpreserved monasteries and a few segments of the old city walls peeking out from the tree roots and cultivated fields that have taken over the area.
A one-hour boat trip upriver from Mandalay – through the habitat of endangered Ayeyarwady dolphins – will take visitors to Mingun, the site of a huge, unfinished temple dating back to the 18th century. Had it been completed, it would have been the world’s biggest temple. The Mingun Bell is displayed in a nearby pavilion, believed to be the largest hanging, uncracked bell in the world.
Those seeking to escape the heat of the central plains need only travel 70 Kilometres east of Mandalay, up a winding road to the old hill station of PyinOoLwin. Although the main road through town serves as a busy trade route for trucks carrying goods to and from China, exploring the area’s back roads will reveal quaint Edwardian cottages dating back to the colonial era, as well as gardens where flowers, strawberries and even coffee beans are grown. Colourful horse carriages can be hired to visit beautiful National Kandawgyi Gardens, while those seeking exercise can hike forest paths to some of the natural waterfalls just outside of town.
Situated 11 kilometres south of Mandalay, Amarapura is one of Myanmar’s former capitals. It was built by King Bodawpaya in 1783 and served as the centre of power until 1857, when the capital moved to Mandalay.
Today, you can find ruins of the city gate, the palace, and tombs of old kings. There are also numerous stupas to be seen in the area, including the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, as well as the Maha Gandhayon monastery.
U Bein Bridge
The biggest draw in the area is the unique U Bein Bridge, a beautiful 1.2 kilometre structure built from teak planks and said to be the longest of its type in the world. The local mayor, U Bein, salvaged the wood from pieces of the dismantled teak palace at Amarapura when the capital moved to Mandalay in 1857.
The bridge’s attraction is not simply in its structure, but that it remains a central part of the community, with hundreds of locals and saffron-robed monks walking their bicycles home along it, and fishermen going about their daily work in its shadow (although there are increasing numbers of tourists, too). The best time to see the bridge is at sunset, and the best photo opportunities are afforded by hiring a boat to get a close up view of the bridge from the water.
For a foreigner, the history of Myanmar has become as repressed as its people for the past half century. The country closed its borders to the world and with the physical isolation came cultural barriers.
Before coming here, all I had generally heard about was the military junta which took control of the country in 1962, its human rights abuses and the imprisonment of The Lady. I was probably aware vaguely of the period of British colonialism but I can’t remember ever hearing it talked about much in the conversations of global history which, admittedly, I tend to flit in and out of and pay only passing attention.
I certainly knew nothing of the centuries before the British invaded and so it was a surprise to be taken to the remnants of an ancient city and told it was the capital of Burma for about 360 years (on and off) between the 14th and 19th centuries. That’s much longer than any other capital of this country.
The city is called Inwa and it’s about 20 kilometres away from Mandalay. What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s built on an artificial island, made in the 1300s by connecting the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers with a canal. The city of Inwa was also once surrounded by a huge wall, which apparently formed the outline of a seated lion.
Visiting Inwa, the old Burmese capital
What is left of the city is quite spread out and, after getting a small boat across to the island, there are plenty of horse-drawn carriages waiting to take you around. We canter and trot from sight to sight.
The old Bagaya Monastery is made completely of teak wood and in good condition for something built in the 1770s. It was used during the peak years to educate the royals… so it was quaint to walk in and find a small school still being run in one smoky corner of the building.
The watchtower, 27 meters high, looks precarious these days and you can’t climb up it. I took a while to work out it was actually on a lean and that it wasn’t just the heat playing tricks with my eyes.
There’s the large Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, built in 1822, that has rooms and passages all connecting to each other inside, where the cool air is trapped by the stone. Oh, and there was a cute little kid who insisted I took his photo and kept posing in front of different things.
The ancient walls give you a reference point from time to time when they reappear from behind some trees. Old temples sit by the side of the dirt tracks, protecting the ancient Buddha statues within.
There isn’t a whole city these days, though. A series of devastating earthquakes in 1839 destroyed most of Inwa and the decision was made by the King to not rebuild but move to the nearby location of Amarapura.
But life has sprung up again and across the island today ‘modern’ life takes place. People walk their animals to water, they tend their crops, they bicycle past with the spoils of their farms.
Like much of Myanmar, the ancient parts of the country’s history have not become too overrun with progress. It probably helps that there’s little progress outside of the main cities. It means that, even though not all structures are in good condition, you can get a better sense of the past than in more developed countries.
- Walk up Mandalay Hill, passing numerous shrines on the way to the pagoda at the top, which offers the reward of a spectacular view of the countryside beyond the city limits.
- Visit the Craftsmen Quarter to watch skilled artisans making silk fabric, gold leaf, marble statues, marionettes and embroidered tapestries.
- Explore the remnants of upper Myanmar’s ancient kingdoms by visiting Mandalay Palace and taking a tour of Inwa’s narrow country lanes by horse cart.
- Take a one-hour boat trip up the river from Mandalay to see the huge, unfinished pagoda at Mingun, keeping an eye out for elusive Ayeyarwady dolphins along the way.
- Spend a day or longer in the old hill station Pyin Oo Lwin, which offers colonial architecture, mountain scenery, cool temperatures and popular attractions like National Kandawgyi Gardens and Peik Chin Myaung Buddhist cave complex.