Mandalay makes a good base for day-trips exploring the surrounding area, the highlight of which for many people is visiting the long teak bridge in Amarapura at sunrise or sunset. Each of the sites listed here – three royal capitals, plus an enormous unfinished temple – has its own appeal though, and most people opt to combine two or more into a day-trip by self-drive motorbike or taxi (with Mingun more usually visited by boat, which turns it into a half-day trip by itself). Accommodation in Mandalay will be able to help with transport, and drivers are likely to approach you in the street.
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Amarapura was the capital of Burma from 1783–1823 and again from 1841–1857, after which King Mindon moved the seat of power 11km north to the newly founded Mandalay. Set around Lake Taungthaman, it’s a pleasant place with several sizeable monasteries including Mahaganayon Kyaung, where tour buses arrive each morning so that visitors can watch the monks eat lunch. It’s a pretty intrusive experience and one that many travellers prefer to skip.
The main reason to visit Amarapura is for U Bein’s Bridge – at 1.2km, the longest teak bridge in the world. In theory you need to have a ticket to cross, but nobody seems to check it. The bridge gets particularly busy at sunset, both with locals (including large numbers of monks) and tourists, many of the latter hiring boats in order to get views of the sun setting behind the bridge. At the far end is a pagoda, Kyauktawgyi Paya, built in 1847 and said to be based on Ananda Pahto in Bagan. The bridge is arguably more atmospheric – and certainly has fewer tourists – at dawn.
The main reason to visit the town of Sagaing, the fourteenth-century capital of a Shan kingdom, is for Sagaing Hill, which is dotted with white-and-gold pagodas and offers wonderful views of many more. It’s around 21km from Mandalay, across the Ayeyarwady River.
The most common approach on foot is from the south side; the first temple you come to at the top is Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, which has fantastic views of the Ayeyarwady River and the surrounding temple-dotted hills. There are several other religious structures on the hill, the most interesting of which is Umin Thounzeh, a curved chamber containing 43 seated and two standing Buddha images, a twenty-minute walk from Soon U Ponya Shin.
Today it may be a sleepy rural area, but Inwa – formerly known as Ava – was the site of the Burmese capital for more than 300 years, across three separate periods.
Most people take a tour of Inwa by horse and cart , covering the four main sights, although it’s also possible to visit independently on foot or if you bring your own bicycle or motorbike from Mandalay (the circuit is 5km long). The closest to the start is the bulky brick Maha Aungmye Bonzan temple, where you should take a look in the creepy bat-filled undercroft. The second attraction, nearby, is the “leaning tower” Nanmyint, one of the only structures remaining from King Bagyidaw’s palace. Further west you’ll find Yedanasini Paya, a collection of stupas situated photogenically in fields, and then Bagaya Kyaung. The highlight of Inwa, this is a wonderfully atmospheric working monastery built from teak in 1834.
The village of Mingun, 8km northwest of Mandalay by boat, would not be visited today if it were not for King Bodawpaya, who in 1790 decided to build a gigantic temple here and had a temporary palace constructed so that he could live close by. It would have been the largest temple in the world but all that was completed by the time of his death – 29 years later – was the bottom portion. However, since this consists of a 70m cube of bricks on top of a huge terrace, it is still a pretty imposing structure.
To get an idea of the intended shape for Mingun Paya, check out the nearby Pondaw Paya. The other main attraction in Mingun village is the bronze Mingun Bell, also commissioned by Bodawpaya and found just north of Mingun Paya. With a circumference of almost 5m, it is said to be the largest intact bell in the world. A little further north is Hsinbyume Paya, with a design intended to represent Mount Sumeru, the mountain at the centre of the Buddhist cosmos, and the seas that surround it.