Authentic Burma… Ava (Inwa) & Sagaing Hills
Lynne Morley travelled on our group tour to Burma (Myanmar). Here she describes a day trip from Mandalay to the ruined imperial city of Ava (Inwa) and Sagaing, an important religious centre. In search of Burma’s true culture and hidden treasures, she found that this excursion more than met her expectations.
During a recent visit to Burma, one of our “days out” was to a place described as Ava, (also known as Inwa) and to Sagaing Hills. I always like to do some research on where I am going to, but I couldn’t find out much at all about these places, so I really didn’t know what to expect.
After leaving our hotel in Mandalay, we made a brief stop at Shwenandaw Kyaung, a monastery renowned for its numerous teak carvings depicting Buddhist myths. It is the only surviving major structure from the original Royal Palace in Mandalay; it was dismantled and moved from the palace grounds in 1878, as King Thibaw Min believed it was haunted by his dead father King Mindon Min.
Banks of the Irrawaddy river, Burma
We drove along the river bank, passing bamboo shacks where many people live with their animals, followed by a 5-minute boat ride across the Irrawaddy river to the ancient city of Ava. This area is famous for its crumbling religious structures, dating back to when it was the nation’s capital in the 14th century. Over time, the kingdom grew weak and was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in 1838.
We travelled around this area by pony and cart, just two people and the driver, setting off through the most awful muddy lanes. We passed small villages, paddy fields and peaceful lakes with the odd stupa in the distance.
Horse and cart, Inwa
The first archaeological site we stopped at was Yadana Hsemee pagoda, a crumbling red and black walled complex with several stone images of Buddha inside that are still intact. Next, we went inside Bagaya Kyaung, a 19th-century teak monastery with huge columns that had just been painted with creosote to try and preserve them. As with all religious sites, we had to remove our shoes. It was so hot, I could hardly bear to walk on the shiny wooden floor. This place was almost derelict and really in the middle of nowhere. Outside there were local people selling fruit and drinks but I was more interested in capturing a photograph of a stupa reflected in the calm water of the nearby lake.
Yadana Hsemee pagoda, Inwa
After seeing the old Observation Tower (that is now classed as unsafe following an earthquake), we walked around Maha Aungmye Bonzan, a large, rectangular, brick monastery built by Queen Me Nu in 1838 – totally different to any other monastery we had seen. Two large chinthes (Burmese mythological lions) stand at its entrance, and the central ochre-coloured building, which is decorated with intricate sculptures, is surrounded by well-kept lawns, although there were cattle grazing on them.
Maha Aungmye Bonzan monastery, Inwa
Back in the cart again, we trundled off to catch the boat. We headed across the river again, that was so calm and flat, and then over the bridge to Sagaing Hills. I had no idea what to expect here. The pictures I had seen just showed forested hills with intermittent small, white and gold buildings, but I was completely astounded by what I saw. Sagaing has more than 1,600 pagodas and monasteries dotted about amongst the forest – more gold and white glistening in the sun than you can ever imagine.
View of Sagaing Hills
Our coach was too big for the narrow roads, so we had to transfer into a smaller tuk tuk that looked like it was 50 years old and struggled to get up some of the hills. Our first stop was at a children’s school/monastery where little nuns and novices, as well as local children, were being taught. We were allowed to walk around and see them playing and having their lessons. They were all very excited to see us, waving from the windows and wanting to hold our hands. It did make me feel quite sad for them but at least they were being fed and clothed and were receiving an education.
School children and novice monks, Sagaing
We carried on further up the hill, calling at Umin Thonese pagoda. We removed our shoes and walked up the many steps to find the most amazing white and golden, crescent-shaped structure overlooking the mountainside. There were so many doorways leading into this crescent and inside there were 45 Buddhas. It is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been to and so unusual – a real hidden gem.
Buddha statues, Umin Thonese pagoda, Sagaing
We continued further up to the top of the mountain, finally arriving at Soon u Ponya Shin pagoda, the most famous shrine in the area, dating back to 1312. The panoramic views from up there were fabulous; you could see the mountainside dotted with gold and white all the way back down to the river. You have to pay a small camera fee here, but it is worth it to capture the unforgettable scenery. As you enter the pagoda, there is a huge, gold Buddha inside a colourful building, then outside there are ornate walkways with a bright, shiny, gold stupa in the centre. The floor is tiled and kept immaculately clean. There was hardly anyone about. I could have stood admiring the views for a long time.
Soon u Ponya Shin pagoda, Sagaing
Sagaing Hills was a real surprise. No one in our group was expecting all we had seen. I had wanted to experience Burma before it became too commercialised – and today had felt exactly that. I truly felt like I had seen the real culture, countryside and hidden secrets of this amazing country.
My day was still not over. We were heading to the airport for our short flight to Pagan (Bagan) and the next part of our adventure.
Our group tour The Golden Land of Burma, departing in January 2020, includes an excursion to see the countless pagodas at Sagaing and the fascinating ruins of Ava. Alternatively, if you are interested in private, tailor-made travel to Burma, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.
You can see Lynne’s full article on Burma at her blogspot here.