Burma's most famous ancient capital
Between the decline of Bagan in the 14th century and the founding of Mandalay in the mid-19th, the city of Inwa, locally known as Ava, was the political centre of Burma. Today the evocative site consists of ancient temples and stupas in varying states of decay scattered across a rustic setting of farmland and villages. It makes for a scenic and atmospheric area to explore.
Initially ruled by Shan lords, a Prince Thadominphya is said to have founded Inwa in 1364 at the confluence of the Myint Nge and Ayeyarwaddy Rivers. He then set about improving defences by constructing massive walls on the south and west land sides of the city and digging a wide moat alongside connecting the two rivers, thus creating an island.###5193
Despite the excellent position, the capital still shifted locations on five separate occasions, incuding to Amarapura, Mingun and Sagaing, before returning each time to Inwa. In 1838, a series of earthquakes damaged most of the city and led King Tharrawaddy to move the palace away from Inwa, once and for all.
It's easy to imagine yourself back in time while exploring the ancient ruins and monasteries that dot the landscape. These days, the crumbling brick city wall, originally laid out in the form of a lion to encourage good fortune and prosperity, no longer connects the massive weathered brick gates that watch over the dried up moat, now filled with bean and peanut crops. A section of the central south wall has been restored.
If you’re arriving by motorised transport, you’ll be dropped in a small carpark by the jetty on the Myint Nge, where you take a short ferry ride across the river to the main entrance track to Inwa. The standard Inwa tour, conducted by pony and trap, makes a wide loop clockwise through farmland south and west of the ancient city before entering the old central section through the western gate and exiting on the eastern side. Usually four sights are included, though you’ll pass by many minor ruins where of course you can ask your driver to stop if you wish.
Heading south, a scenic lane skirts the old city with the moat, and glimpses of the brick wall, to your right and village houses to the left. Turning left onto the road leading to the old west gate, your first stop will be Yadana Sinme Pagoda, a modest sized but picturesque brick ruin housing a seated Buddha among old brick and plaster columns.
From here continuing through the surrounding farmland you’ll reach the spectacular unrenovated, all-teak Bagaya Kyaung Monastery. Ornamental carvings decorate this pagoda which doubles as a classroom for young monks who sit at small desks, hovering over their books. The gigantic wooden posts that hold up the structure can be as high as 18 metres and three metres in diameter; they were implanted with the use of working elephants.
You’ll return to the old walls and enter the city by way of the northwest gate. A second, inner compound held the main palace buildings and a section of old wooden palisade has been re-created. Entering this inner area, note the old ornate royal baths to your right while ahead of you is the peculiar 27 metre-high, leaning watchtower built by King Bagyidaw next to the site of the former palace. Unstable due to earthquake damage, visitors are not allowed to climb the rickety stairs. Vendors circle the sight selling jade necklaces, trinkets and small bronze bells so, if you are not interested in the wares, photograph it from a distance.
Continuing east, the next stop is the yellow-painted Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, or simply the Brick Monastery. Commissioned by Queen Chief Nanmadaw Me Nu in 1822, it’s one of Inwa’s best-preserved monuments. A stairway to the northwest of the entrance leads you to scattered stupas, a bell covered in Burmese graffiti, and a condensed view of Sagaing Hill and its bridge across the wide Ayeyarwaddy River. Opposite the pagoda you’ll find a couple of tea shops while heading back to the jetty are a couple of fancier tourist eateries set under the impressive old tamarind trees. Small River Restaurant in the garden of an old wooden colonial period building is a great place to sit with fair food but tour group prices.
Inwa is way too big to be walkable and a return trip makes for quite a long bicycle ride from Mandalay. Your best bet is to grab a taxi down there (20,000 kyat return), catch a ferry across the river and hire one of the pony and traps, which wait at the jetty. These seat two people and take up to two hours to complete the basic circuit for 10,000 kyat. The ferry across the Myint Gyi is 1,200 per person return and if you have come down by bicycle they’ll take that along for free, while a motorbike will set you back an extra 800 kyat. Mandalay's 10,000 kyat combo ticket is required to visit Inwa and there are ticket booths at both Bagaya Kyaung and Maha Aungmye Bonzan monasteries.
Another option is to take one of the day tours offered in Mandalay hotels. These start at 25,000 kyat or so and include Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing including hotel pick-ups and drop-offs. They don’t include transport though so will drop you off at the Myint Nge jetty and leave you to your own devices.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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