Myanmar Travel

The Ultimate guide to travel in Ava (Inwa), Sagaing, Mingun

The Sagaing Region is located in the north­western part of the country. It is bordered by India to the north and west, and Kachin State, Shan State, Magway Region and Mandalay Region to the east, and south.

Today agriculture is the chief occupation here and the area has no great political importance, but in the past, this region, particularly close to present-day Mandalay, was central to Myanmar’s development. For hundreds of years, this was the epicenter of Myanmar power and the region held the capital city from 1315 until 1841. First, it was Sagaing, then later Ava (Inwa).

The Burmese language and culture came into its own during the time which is today known as the Ava period. The first Ava period with a line of 20 kings spanned 233 years, and the second Ava period with ten kings lasted over 150 years. During this period, Ava, Sagaing, Mingun and surrounding areas were all ruled from Ava which is just south of Amarapura on the Ayeyarwaddy River.

Today Sagaing is home to many white and gold shimmering stupas on the surrounding hills, Mingun is a small riverside village, while Inwa is a rural backwater dotted with a few ruins.

Getting There

All three areas are close to Mandalay and this is the obvious point from which to travel.

Inwa (Ava) is accessible by road but by far the best way to visit is by ferry. You first need to take a taxi, van or pick-up to a small jetty about one kilometer south of the old British-built Ava bridge across the Ayeyarwaddy River. It is confusing because this bridge does not go to Ava but to Sagaing. From the jetty, a small ferry crosses to the other side in about two minutes and you will be greeted by horse cart drivers who will take you around.

We traveled by horse and buggy along very bumpy roads through beautiful countryside of palm trees and endless rich, green rice fields. There’s not much left of old Inwa, and what is left is really “archaeological ruins”. It is really a trip back in time allowing you to explore the remains of an ancient city which was full of old watchtowers, city walls, monasteries, and temples that feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Mandalay.

Sagaing is reached by a new three-span, four- lane bridge from Amarapura and is around 20 km southeast of Mandalay. There are buses and pick­ups to take you there and motor cycles and cars can be rented in Mandalay. You need some sort of vehicle to see most of the sights which are primarily on Sagaing Hill.

On the way to Sagaing, just near the bridge, you can see the ruins of Thabyedan Fortress, which was built under King Mindon between 1874 and 1878 to defend against the British during the third Anglo-Burmese War.

Mingun is best reached by river. There is a riverboat service from Mandalay which takes about one hour up-river and 40 minutes down-river and allows about two hours in Mingun. Smaller private boats can be rented for around $25 for half a day and you can chose your own departure time. Alternatively, it is about 18 km from Sagaing by road. It takes about 30 minutes. Once there, Mingun is best explored on foot.

Brief History

The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu people are known to have moved into this area as part of their southward migration from China by the 1st century AD but little is known about their life in this particular region. The Burmans from Yunnan in China first migrated into Upper Myanmar by the 9th century and the area came under the Pagan Kingdom certainly by the middle of the 11th century when King Anawrahta in Bagan expanded his area of influence.

After the fall of Pagan in 1287, The Myinsaing Kingdom ruled central Myanmar from 1297 to 1310. This was founded by three brothers and was one of many petty kingdoms that emerged at that time. Thihathu, one of the brothers, became the sole ruler of the kingdom in 1310 and moved the capital to Pinya in 1313.

The western and northern part of this became the Sagaing Kingdom in 1315 ruled by Burmanized Shan kings, however, this collapsed in 1364 when the city of Sagaing was sacked by Shan raiders from the north-east.

After Sagaing fell to the Shan, the court moved across the river to Inwa on a man-made island between the Ayeyarwaddy River and the Myitnge River. This then effectively became the capital of most of Myanmar for much of the period between 1364 and 1841. After the fall of Bagan, Burmese supremacy had disintegrated so the kings of Inwa tried to reassemble the former empire.

It was able to pull Taungoo and the peripheral Shan states into its fold but it failed to re-conquer the rest. Things got worse in the late 15th century when Promr and its Shan states successfully broke away, and in the early 16th century, Ava itself came under attack in a series of wars.

Inwa fell to the Taungoo Kingdom in 1555, but then 80 years later, the king of Taungoo relocated his own capital to Inwa and there was an uneasy peace in the area for some time. In 1752, the Mon revolted against Burmese rule and sacked Inwa. A couple of years later, Alaungpaya, the founder of the new Konbaung Dynasty, crushed the Mon revolt, and after eight years with Shwebo as his capital, a city about 120 kilometers to the north­west, he re-established the court in Inwa.

During the 18th century, hostilities between the Siamese and the Burmese intensified and Ayutthaya, the Thai capital, fell to the Burmese for a second time. The Burmese took the treasures they acquired from Ayutthaya to the Ava Kingdom, along with 100,000 Ayutthaya residents and several members of the Thai royal family.

Among these was King Uthumphon, who although a captive, initially lived in the capital Ava but was then allowed to live at a monastery in Amarapura, where he stayed in the monkhood for 29 years.

King Bodawpaya, moved the capital to nearby Amarapura then, his successor, King Bagyidaw, moved the Court back to Inwa in 1823. When a tremendous earthquake caused extensive damage in 1841, Inwa was finally abandoned.

Places to see in Inwa.

Remnants of this royal city are interspersed between paddy fields and villages. Most visitors see them while traveling around in the back of a horse- drawn cart. This is a romantic but slightly uncomfortable experience because Inwa’s roads must be some of the worst in Myanmar. All of the following can be visited in a few hours.

The Bargaya Monastery

This was built in 1834 A.D. during the reign of King Bagyidaw. It is built entirely of teak wood and the monastery has 267 gigantic teak wood posts. The biggest post is claimed to be 18 m high and nearly 3 m in circumference. That is one massive log! The monastery is large and impressive and is a storehouse of Myanmar culture.

The monastery’s grand teak doors and walls are decorated with lovely bird, animal and flower carvings. The building has a three-tiered roof and its adjacent religious lecture hall on the eastern side of the monastery has a seven-tiered roof.

The monastery sits in lonely splendor in the middle of wide paddy fields, with palms and banana trees clustered in profusion around its shady base. It was undoubtedly my favorite place in Inwa and initially we were the only visitors present so it was a really magical scene.

This was previously used as a teaching monastery for the royal family, and it is still in use as a monastery today. As we walked around, we saw some monks reading scripture and children having lessons. Outside there are a few stupas that are worth a look.

Maha Aungmye Monastery

This is no longer a living monastery, but it is still in quite good condition and is popular with visitors. It is one of the finest specimens of Myanmar architecture during the Konbaung Period (19th century).

Its architecture simulates wooden monasteries with multiple roofs and a prayer hall with a seven­tiered superstructure. King Bagyidaw had the monastery built for his third wife, Queen Nanmadaw Me Nu, about the time he moved the royal capital back from Amarapura to Inwa in 1823.

The monastery is often referred to as the “brick monastery” because the brick and yellow stucco materials used in its construction are quite different from the traditional wooden monasteries. Don’t miss walking under the floor to explore the many passageways. Inside there is coolness and space. It was damaged by an earthquake in 1838 but was repaired in 1873 by Queen Sin Phyu Ma Shin.

The Watch Tower

This 30 m high tower is the only masonry building left on the site of King Bagyidaw’s Palace. The top part of the tower was shattered and the rest left leaning to one side after an earthquake in 1838. It has since been partially restored but it still leans noticeably.

It is a good place for a photograph but you are unable to climb the tower due to safety’ concerns. As with all other sites in Inwa, there was a vendor selling drinks and a few souvenirs.

Yedanasini Paya

This is a small temple which is often by-passed on the carriage trail, but we asked to stop and were rewarded by some fine views and interesting photographs. It has a beautiful sitting Buddha, exposed to the elements and there are some old brick stupas shaded by a giant tree.

Other attractions

There are several more pagodas scattered around Inwa and if you have the time it is worth seeking some out. Most cart drivers will not understand your interest in this and will be reluctant to go to the more outlying ones. Nogatataphu Paya is one to consider because it is only a few hundred meters beyond Yedanasini.

The city was once surrounded by a huge wall, which is claimed to have formed the outline of a seated lion. Some remnants of these massive fort walls and moat can still be seen and they interest visitors but they are merely a backdrop for normal life to the residents. The walls give you a reference point from time to time when they reappear to guard peaceful farmlands. Perhaps the most impressive part is the heavily reconstructed southern gateway.

Just north of Inwa, you can find the ruins of Thabyedan Fortress, which was built under King Mindon between 1874 and 1878 to defend against the British during the third Anglo-Burmese War. It is near the southern bridge to Sagaing and you need to look down the embankment before crossing the bridge.

Places to see in Sagaing

Sagaing was the capital of the kingdom for fifty years in the 1300’s, and then again briefly in the 1700’s. Little remains from that time. The town and wider area, however, is a major religious retreat today and there are 500 nunneries and monasteries housing 6000 monks and nuns, mainly in the surrounding hills.

The town is built near the jetty and has limited appeal, but the roads that meander up and down the hills lead to monasteries and nunneries hidden in deep gullies and tucked in behind cliffs and tall trees. All along the hills, you can see dozens of gold stupas and temples.

Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda

This is the highest and most important of the temples and was built in 1312 on Nga-pha Hill, one of the southern hilltops of Sagaing Hill. It was revered by many successive kings because it supposedly enshrines relics of the Buddha. This temple is decorated with glass tiles for an unusual shimmering effect.

It has some interesting paintings and statues, and fantastic views over the Centre for Buddhist Studies, other temples, the wide Ayeyarwaddy River, the Ava Bridge and across to Mandalay.

Many visitors decide to climb to the top without realizing the distance or the slope. The climb is steep, long, and hot. It takes at least 20 minutes, and most people will feel tired from the heat and effort. When we finally arrived at the top, we agreed that the pagoda was big and the gold was impressive but it was only the fact that there was a great view that made the climb worthwhile.

U Min Thonze Pagoda

This literally means “30 caves” but it’s really 30 colonnades. Using some imagination, the windows along the hillside can appear cave-like. Forty-five Buddhas sit cross-legged behind the multi-colored archways.

Tilawkaguru Cave Temple

Mural paintings can be seen in this cave temple which was built around 1672. The temple is in Myanmar style but it has Ayutthaya motifs on the ceiling and so it’s believed that its murals underwent a series of renovations by skilled Thai artists from Ayutthaya at a later date. At the nearby village of Ywahtaung, you can see silver workers producing bowls and other silver items by traditional methods.

Kaunghmudaw Pagoda

This huge pagoda is about 10 km from the town and was built in 1648 in an unusual domed shape. The enormous dome rises 46 m and was apparently inspired by the Mahaceti Pagoda in Ceylon. The pagoda was built to commemorate Inwa’s establishment as the royal capital of Myanmar.

Around the base of the pagoda are over 800 stone pillars while the dome houses a large white marble Buddha at its center and a relic chamber. The road to this pagoda passes several pagoda ruins left from between the 14th and 18th centuries.

Places to see in Mingun

Mingun is famous for its many Buddhist shrines, monasteries, meditation centers and monuments of historical and cultural importance. It makes a good half-day trip from Mandalay.

Mantara Gyi Pagoda

Something you can’t miss no matter how you arrive in Mingun is an enormous mound of bricks. It’s an unfinished stupa, built by King Bodawpava’s prisoners-of-war and slaves way back in the late 1790’s. The king decided he would build the biggest pagoda the world had ever seen. It’s 72 meters wide and was supposed to be 152 meters high when finished.

His slaves worked on it for about 30 years. When the pagoda’s shrine room was complete it is said Bodawpaya filled it with all the treasures he could get his hands on – gold, silver, and artifacts of all kinds.

By the turn of the 19th century, the economy of the country was on the verge of collapse, and that finally compelled the king to stop work on the pagoda. He died in 1819 and not one of his 122 children, was prepared to complete the task. Twenty years after his death the massive structure was cracked by an earthquake. Until 2012 you could still climb it, but then another earthquake damaged it even more so it’s unsafe to climb now.

There is a small chamber used as a place of worship, and there is still a wide white staircase leading from the unfinished stupa, down to the river which is guarded at the bottom by two large lion statues.

Mingun Bell

Another of Bodawpaya’s achievements is the second largest working bell in the world which was meant to be installed at the top of the giant stupa. It was cast in bronze in 1808 and weighs 90 tonnes. The Mingun Bell reigned as the largest ringing bell in the world until 2000, when it was eclipsed by the 116-ton Bell of Good Luck at the Foquan Temple in China.

Apparently, after the bell was completed, the king had the master craftsman killed to make sure he never again made anything as big. The Mingun Bell was knocked off its supports as a result of a large earthquake in 1839 but was re-suspended in 1896.

Like everyone else, international and local tourists alike, we crawled under and inside the bell. Unfortunately, there is graffiti inside the bell from people suffering from an inferiority complex who need to put their names wherever they visit.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

One of Bodawpaya’s grandsons had this pagoda built in 1816 dedicated to his first consort, Princess Hsinbmme, the Lady of the White Elephant, who died in childbirth, and who was also one of Bodawpaya’s granddaughters. It is built as a representation of the Sulamani Pagoda which, according, to the Buddhist plan of the cosmos, stands atop Mount Meru and is the center of the universe.

The seven wavy terraces around the pagoda represent the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru. There are also many small statues on the Pagoda representing various nat spirits, ogres, and naga serpents. This pagoda was badly damaged in 1838 by an earth quake but King Mindon restored it in 1874.

It is possible to climb the stairway to the top of the structure and there are great views of the Irrawaddy River and the nearby Mingun Pagoda. The temple complex is completely walled with a large gate providing access to the grounds. Local Buddhist people come to pay homage, make offerings and light incense sticks.

The pagoda opens daily during daylight hours. Entrance to Hsinbnune Pagoda requires a ticket for the Sagaing – Mingun archaeological zone.

Mingun Sayadaw Museum

The Mingun Sayadaw was a monk, best known for his memory skills. From 1930 until his death in 1993, he was based in Mingun. In 1933, he was conferred the rare title of Pahtamakyaw as he passed the highest level religious examination in the country.

In 1953, he became the first monk ever to be awarded the title of Tipitakadhcira. In the Sixth Buddhist Council held in 1954-56, he was considered the expert on the Vinaya, the portion of the Tripitaka dealing with disciplinary rules.

In 1985, the Guinness Book of Records recorded the Sayadaw as a record holder in the Human Memory category. The exact entry was ‘’Human memory: Bhandanta Vicitsara recited 16,000 pages of Buddhist canonical text in Rangoon, Burma in May 1954. Rare instances of eidetic memory – the ability’ to project and hence ‘visually’ recall material – are known to science.” This museum commemorates his work.

Mingun Home for the Aged

Although it is nothing like Mingun’s other attractions, many visitors choose to come here. The home was founded by Daw Oo Zun in 1915 with a view to looking after old destitute people in need of care and comfort.

In the Myanmar Buddhist tradition, elderly people are usually taken care of by family, but the residents of the Buddhist Home for Aged People don’t have any family members, so they are considered orphans, needing to be taken care of by the community. It was the first home for the aged establish in Myanmar and is entirely supported by donations from devout Buddhists and foreign tourist. About 100 residents live here.

Buddha images from the Ava period

Buddha images from different periods have different characteristics. Those from the Ava period usually have a large forehead, an oval shaped face and a pointed chin. The eyebrows are curved, the bridge of the nose is straight and low, while the lips are small.

Various materials were used to create Buddha images. Wood, bronze, and marble were all used. Many were painted with lacquer and then adorned with gold. Buddha images fashioned in sandstone were very rare.