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.
Top image © Martin M303/Shutterstock
Although there are a few exceptions such as ordination halls, most of the structures in Bagan are either stupas (paya) or temples (pahto). The former are usually placed over relics or important Buddha images, and are solid spires or cylinders with pointed or domed tops. The latter, on the other hand, are square or rectangular structures that can be entered.
The exterior walls of both are often decorated with stucco; one popular image is the bălù pàn-zwèh, the face of an ogre holding garlands of flowers in its mouth. The earliest buildings bear evidence of being designed by Mon architects, brought back by Anawrahta after he conquered Thaton.
The interior walls of many temples bear murals based on the Jataka, stories of the 550 previous reincarnations of Prince Siddhartha and of his life before he gained enlightenment as the Buddha. Other murals depict mythical creatures such as the kein-năra bird-man, a symbol of fidelity. The earliest paintings reflect Indian artistic styles, as many artists were Brahmin. Writing on the walls ranges from records of donations to curses on anyone desecrating the temples. In the earliest temples these are in Mon or Pali, while Bamar was used later.
The most popular side-trip from Bagan, MOUNT POPA volcano rises 1518m above sea level and is considered to be the home of the 37 nats (animist spirits). Although a handful of pilgrims do ascend the main peak, most people instead visit a temple on top of a volcanic plug known as Taungkalat (737m) on the southwestern flank. There are almost eight hundred steps to ascend, and the tiring walk is not helped by the many monkeys (or by locals asking for donations for sweeping monkey droppings off the steps).
Views from the top are good, but opinions are divided on whether it’s a worthwhile half-day visit. Some travellers come away disappointed, particularly since most people on a budget don’t arrive with a guide able to explain the mountain’s religious significance (travel agents and accommodation in Bagan can arrange a guide for around $30). With or without a guide, many trip itineraries will include a visit to a toddy (palm wine) producer on the road between Bagan and the mountain.
It seems strange to say that a country’s capital has little to offer visitors, but then NAY PYI TAW is not an ordinary capital. Its construction was started from scratch in a largely rural area in 2002, with the purpose kept secret until an announcement in 2005 that government offices would be moving to the new site from Yangon. The story goes that civil servants were given just a weekend’s notice of their relocation, officially undertaken because Yangon was getting too congested. Local gossip suggests that the move actually came at the suggestion of former Prime Minister Than Shwe’s astrologer that a foreign attack was imminent, with Yangon’s position on the delta making it vulnerable.
The main reason to visit Nay Pyi Taw is simply to get a sense of the city’s oddness. Its eight-lane highways are almost empty, except when an official travels through and roadblocks are set up to keep out other traffic, and link a series of grandiose government buildings and vanity projects. The most visible sight is Uppatasanti Paya, a huge pagoda paid for by General Than Shwe to atone for his sins and completed in 2009. Though impressive in scale, close up it’s already getting a bit tatty; the terrace offers views of the city’s overweening scale. The only other attractions are the Water Fountain Garden in the centre and a zoo/safari park to the northeast of the city.
The lively port town of PYAY (known as Prome by the British) boasts a stunning pagoda, but is otherwise interesting mainly for its commercial bustle (reflected in a colourful central market) and for providing access to ancient ruins at Thayekhittaya. Pyay sees relatively few tourists, since most people rush north on the highway from Yangon to Mandalay rather than take the more attractive (but longer) alternative western route via Pyay and Magwe.
The most obvious attraction in Pyay itself is the hilltop Shwesandaw Paya, which has a stupa built on the same scale as Yangon’s Shwedagon. Said to contain strands of the Buddha’s hair and also a tooth (the latter is in a golden bell, revealed just once a year for the November full moon festival), it’s a major destination for pilgrims.
The most interesting day-trip is to Thayekhittaya (also known as Sri Ksetra), an archeological site 8km east of Pyay. It was the capital of a Pyu kingdom from the fifth to the ninth centuries, but its importance had faded by the time it was sacked by Bagan’s King Anawrahta in 1057. There’s a small government museum and an 11km path through the site that you can explore on foot or by ox-drawn cart. The route includes three pagodas, including one dating back to the fourth century, which doubled as watchtowers along the city walls.
TAUNGOO was the centre of a sizeable sixteenth-century empire that defeated Siam and brought the Shan lands under its control. Its king, Bayinnaung, has been much loved by the military junta and the current government. The town has no major attractions but is a pleasant place to spend a day on the journey between Yangon and Mandalay.
The forests around Taungoo are key logging areas – Myanmar Beauty guesthouse can arrange a visit to a camp to see elephants at work, but it isn’t cheap – and the town’s central market is the only one in the country selling off-the-shelf items used by elephant handlers. They don’t see many foreign visitors in the market, so you’re likely to draw plenty of friendly attention.
The grandest pagoda in town is Shwesandaw Paya, just west of the market, which dates back to 1597. Further west still, beyond Kandawgyi Lake whose shores are a popular leisure spot, is Kaungmudaw Paya – a much smaller pagoda with pleasant views over the surrounding fields.