The central plains – the arid lands between the Ayeyarwady River in the west and the Shan hills to the east – have seen many kingdoms rise and fall, including that of the Pyu who were the earliest inhabitants of Myanmar for whom records exist. The ruins of Thayekhittaya, close to the busy trading town of Pyay, still hint at the grandeur of the Pyu dynasty, which was at its peak from the fifth to ninth centuries. The mighty sixteenth-century dynasty based further east in the town of Taungoo, on the other hand, left fewer tangible traces but the town is still a rewarding place to spend a day or two exploring off the tourist trail. The same cannot be said of the military junta’s twenty-first-century stab at a “royal capital”, which is the literal translation of Nay Pyi Taw.
Certainly the new capital has nothing to compare to Bagan, but then again few places in the world can offer a spectacle as breathtaking as its vast stupa and temple-strewn plain. In the eleventh century, King Anawrahta of Bagan became the first to unite the lands that now form Myanmar, and today the legacy of his embrace of Theravada Buddhism exerts a stronger influence on tourist imaginations than anywhere else in the country.