The country of Myanmar (Burma) has had its fair share of royal capitals, the last of which was Mandalay. After the fall of the Kingdom of Pagan, the capital jumped from place to place for several hundred years. Some cities would even get to be the royal capital more than once.
Just a short drive from Myanmar’s second city of Mandalay, three of these ancient capitals can be accessed within a single day. And despite being so close to one another, each town feels completely different. The next time you’re in the Mandalay region, take a trip back in time to Sagaing, the hilly home of ancient caves and panoramic views. Then head over to Inwa, an artificial island full of fascinating ruins. Finally, make it to Amarapura before sundown and walk across the iconic U-Bein bridge.
You can easily tour the ancient royal capitals around Mandalay by simply hiring a driver at your hotel. It shouldn’t cost more than around $40 USD, making this both an exciting and affordable day trip.
The hill town of Sagaing dates all the way back to 14th century, becoming the kingdom’s new capital after the fall of Bagan. Sagaing’s time in the spotlight was short-lived, though, and its capital status only lasted for about 50 years before Inwa took its place.
Hundreds of years later, the town still remains a popular spot for local pilgrims and foreign tourists alike. Sagaing is still home to hundreds of hilltop monasteries which have miraculously survived the region’s many earthquakes over the years.
The U Min Thonze Temple, which literally translates to “thirty caves,” is a captivating landmark that you’ll likely recognize from postcards. Built into the side of the hill, the main room of the complex houses no less than 45 Buddha statues, all lined in a row along the crescent-shaped hallway.
Another highlight of the area is the Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, constructed in the 14th century on top of Nga-pha Hill. Walking around the pagoda you can enjoy great views of the nearby hilltop monasteries, in addition to the Irrawaddy River and the Yadanabon Bridge in the distance.
While Sagaing provides great views of Myanmar’s most important river, be sure to view the hills of Sagaing from a boat on the Irrawaddy if you get a chance. It’s easily one of the most stunning sites on the long journey in between Mandalay and Bagan via river cruise.
After Sagaing’s short time as the capital, Inwa (also known locally as Ava) became the next center of the kingdom for hundreds of years. While Sagaing probably looks almost exactly as it did hundreds of years ago, Inwa and its many structures were mostly destroyed by a large earthquake in 1839.
We may never know exactly what Inwa was like in its prime, but the manmade island nonetheless makes for a worthwhile visit. The ancient Buddhist ruins scattered amongst the lush greenery look like something out of an epic adventure film.
Inwa is a short boat ride from Mandalay, and to see all the sites in a couple of hours, hiring a horse-drawn cart is a must. On the typical route you’ll be taken first to the Yadana Sinme Pagoda. This ancient brick pagoda is easily one of the highlights of the tour.
Next you’ll be taken to the Bagaya Kyaung Monastery, a structure made entirely out of teak. If you’ve already visited central Mandalay, you’ll notice the strong resemblance to the Shwenandaw Monastery, the only surviving structure of the Golden Palace.
Built in 1834, just several years before the large earthquake, Bagaya Kyaung still remains in use today as a classroom for young monks. The structure stands tall thanks to the support of over 200 teak pillars. Also look out for the intricate peacock carvings, a national symbol of Myanmar.
Standing at 30 meters (90 feet) high, another major Inwa landmark is the Nan Myint Watch Tower. Though once part of the palace of King Bagyidaw, the tower is unfortunately one of the least interest sites of Inwa today. This is due to the stairs being in too poor condition to climb.
Supposedly, the tower is scheduled to be repaired soon, but there were no signs of any construction going on at the time of writing.
Finally you’ll be taken to the stunning Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery. The large structure was built in 1818 by King Bagyidaw’s chief queen. It remains in surprisingly good shape, especially when compared to the other sites around the area. This is partly in thanks to major renovation efforts which took place just a few decades after the earthquake.
Like many other monasteries in Myanmar, this one contains multiple roofs and a large prayer hall. What sets it apart from most Burmese monasteries, though, is that Maha Aungmye Bonzan was built entirely out of brick rather than wood.
There are a few more things to do and see in Inwa, like the Thabyedan Fortress or the Inwa Archaeological Museum. But if you want to see all three ancient capitals in a single day, then you may not have enough time to veer from the usual Inwa horse-drawn carriage course.
GETTING TO AND AROUND INWA: If you’ve hired a driver for the day, he may or may not inform you of the extra charges you’ll need to pay to get around Inwa. These charges very likely won’t be included in the daily driver fee. Hiring a horse carriage will cost you around 10,000 kyats to be taken around the route outlined above. You’ll also need to pay 30 or 40 kyats for a round trip boat to and from the mainland. There are no ATM’s on Inwa (or any other ancient capital, for that matter) so make sure to have enough cash in hand when heading out for the day.
While Amarapura is most well-known for the U-Bein bridge, not many visitors realize that it was also a former royal capital. In fact, it was the royal capital on two separate occasions, both in the 18th and 19th centuries.
After a large fire, the capital returned to Inwa before moving back to Amarapura a second time. Plans were already in place, however, to build a new capital in Mandalay in order to fulfill a prophecy made by Lord Buddha himself.
As most of Amarapura’s structures and relics were taken over to Mandalay, little from this ancient capital’s 19th century glory days remain in the town today. Amarapura still remains, however, one of the most visited spots in all of Myanmar thanks to the magnificent U-Bein bridge.
The U-Bein bridge, stretching out to over a kilometer long, is widely considered to be the longest teak bridge in the world. And it’s also the oldest, dating back to 1850. The bridge gets swamped with tourists just before sunset, but if you can, try to come a couple of hours early. In the late afternoon, you’ll find mostly just friendly locals walking across. It won’t be too crowded and you can enjoy views of the Taungthaman Lake in peace.
As the sun starts to set, you can then position yourself to the side of the bridge and avoid the hordes of tourists now walking on top of it. It’s possible to hire a boat to take you out to the water to get the optimum sunset view, but some owners charge at least 10 or even 20,000 kyats for their service. Just like on Inwa, there are zero ATM’s in the area so make sure you bring enough cash in advance.
Your hotel should easily be able to arrange a driver for you who will know all the spots. Starting around 9am and lasting until after sundown, the total cost for the day should go for around $35 – $45 USD.
Keep in mind that your driver is not necessarily a tour guide, so he may or may not do any explaining about the places he’s taking you.
As mentioned above, you will also need to pay extra for transport to and around Inwa.
Some common additional stops along this route include the alms giving ceremony at a Buddhist monastery in addition to some local crafts workshops.
BY PLANE: There are a number of way to reach Mandalay. The city hosts an international airport and direct flights are available to and from cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Kunming, China.
BY BOAT: Another popular way to reach Mandalay from Bagan is a boat ride along the Irrawaddy River. The cheaper ‘express’ option ($35 USD) takes around 12 hours and you can read all about it here. while luxury cruises are also available.
Mandalay is a fairly small city so basing yourself relatively close to the moat should be good enough to reach all of the major sites.
Independent apartment or vacation rentals aren’t allowed in Myanmar so you’ll only be able to stay at licensed hotels.
There are plenty of options in Mandalay, ranging from budget backpacker hostels with shared bathrooms to luxury hotels.