Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar : Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun, Mandalay
Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar : Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun, Mandalay is part of the Tentative list of Myanmar in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Click here for a short description of the site, as delivered by the state party.
- ●● Tentative
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
The impressively titled TWHS Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar comprises the former royal residences of Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun and Mandalay. They're located near Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city. Except for Mingun, the cities served also as state capitals for periods between the 14th and 19th century after the demise of Bagan. The Burmese seem to be especially fond of switching their capitals, using over 20 of them since the year 849. The current one (since 2005) is the greenfield site of Naypyidaw.
I stayed in Mandalay for 4 nights, and - though admittedly I edged out a day for visiting the Pyu City of Halin - that was even not enough to see these 'Ancient cities' properly. I spent one day cycling around Mandalay proper. It’s a bit of a mystery what would be included in a future nomination here. The Royal Palace is the major landmark of the city, but it is (a) a complete reconstruction and (b) used as a military base. The army probably is still convinced of the strategic value of the fortress walls and moat surrounding this zone. The outer wall has a huge sign saying ‘The Tatmadaw Shall Never Betray the National Cause’, the only time I came across such a display during my two-week stay in Myanmar.
Although it’s a sensitive area, foreign visitors are welcome. I encountered a soldier with reasonable English posted at the only entrance gate, ordering tourists off their bikes in the most friendly way. The palace itself is worth a quick look from above from the viewing tower, but lacks any soul - so I cut my visit short and cycled onwards. Mandalay has numerous temples, monasteries and pagodas too of course. One of particular interest is the Kuthodaw pagoda – home to 729 little stupas together forming 'the world’s largest book'.
My first look outside of Myanmar’s bigger cities was via a boat trip to Mingun - the royal residence from 1810-1819. Already the spectacle at the ‘Mingun Jetty’ in Mandalay was worth the journey. The daily tourist ferry leaves at 9 a.m., and I arrived half an hour before. A number of less fortunate Mandalay citizens live close to the river, and have to wash themselves and their belongings in it. The harbour also provides small jobs for people in the loading and unloading of cargo from the ships. This involves getting the lower half of your body wet while wading through the dirty water, balancing a load on your head. It was incredibly dirty and smelly, and I encountered a dead rat on the shore (not my first in Myanmar).
The 1 hour boat ride is a pleasure. Mingun is the result of the megalomania of the late 18th century King Bodawpaya. He wanted to create the world’s largest stupa, but stopped the works before they were done. The remaining brick structure can be seen from the river from afar. He did finish the world’s largest ringing bell. The people of Mingun now all seem to live off tourism, but I found it a pleasant place to look around for an hour or two. Supposedly an entrance fee applies, but it was not actively collected when I visited. At 12.30 the ferry returns to Mandalay.
On my way out to Halin I had a quick look at Sagaing - capital of the eponymous kingdom of the 14th century and once again from 1760-1765 during the Konbaung Dynasty. The view from the bridge connecting Sagaing with Amarapura & Mandalay already is memorable: a hill dotted with innumerable golden stupas. A bit further along the road lie the more ancient temples and pagodas. These include the enormous Kaunghmudaw Pagoda (nicknamed 'the big boob'), where the controversial repainting from white to gold seems to have been completed.
I concur with what the other reviewers have said about the unlikeliness of this batch of Ancient Cities ever becoming a WHS in this form. But it's a very worthwhile region to spend a few days.
I agree with Paul that this tentative entry doesn't make sense as 1 WHS. However, I feel Innwa could easily be managed as a single WHS and is really a gem close to Mandalay. Sagaing has a special place in my heart for the countless monasteries and nunneries.
Following the fall of Bagan in the 13th century through to complete take over by the British in 1885, numerous kingdoms came and went across the area of modern day Myanmar – occasionally one was strong enough to control most of the country but often power was limited to a smaller area. But there was always some form of political entity based on the central Irrawady plain and the rulers of these built a number of capitals clustered in and around modern day Mandalay (some of them were used more than once and some kingdoms moved their capitals from one to the other!). 5 of these (including Mandalay itself) have been grouped together in this single potential “nomination” straddling all those years.
We visited the 4 non-Mandalay sites in a single day (with car), though perhaps doing it across 2 days is more normal but I don’t feel we missed a lot by crowding it together! I will describe them in the order in which we did them –
a. Amarapura. The last-but-one capital, founded in 1783 by King Bodawpaya. There was a gap in 1821 when the capital was briefly moved back to Ava and then finally the founder’s grandson, King Mindun, decided in 1857 to up-sticks and move everything to a new capital at nearby Mandalay (the area today is a southern suburb of that city) and frankly there is little to see. We were told that part of the moat and the location of the palace were visible but we didn’t see them. The main site is U Bain’s bridge which, at 1.2 kms, claims to be the longest teak bridge in the World! Otherwise it would seem to be of no architectural merit and is without carving or decoration – it is however an atmospheric place crossing a lake nad attractive whether in mist or at sunrise/set. The other locations of interest are religious and include the Maha Ganayon Kyaung where busloads of tourists gather each morning to photo the community of monks receiving their food. We shouldn’t have bothered and should perhaps have crossed the bridge fully (we only went half way!) to the Kyauktawgi Paya of 1847.
b. Inwa (Ava). Between 1365 and 1842 Ava was, on 5 occasions, capital of Burma or at least of an Ava Kingdom which controlled much of Burma. It lies a few kms south of Amarapura and is reached by pedestrian ferry boat across a small tributary of the Irawaddy at their confluence (though Google maps show that you could perfectly easily get there by road by continuing a bit further on the main road over the bridge and turning right!) At the other side you board horse carts for a pleasant ride through surprisingly remote agricultural scenery dotted with ruins. There is a fine teak monastery (Bagay Kyaung) which predates the one in Mandalay which is on the T List, a palace watch tower from the 1822 palace left leaning after an earthquake in 1838 (photo) and a cream stucco covered brick royal monastery also from 1822. A part of its paintwork was clearly new and we were told that the Archaeology Department had hurriedly had to stop the painting when it discovered that commercial emulsion paint was being used rather than a traditional formula – typical of the sorts of management problems any site wanting UNESCO inscription is going to have to overcome! The area has numerous other stupas, walls etc and, if more time was to be spent on the cities this would be my choice of where to spend it.
c. Sagaing. Was capital of a post-Bagan Shan kingdom from just 1315-1364. It sits across the Irawaddy from Inwa across a modern bridge. Its main claim to fame lies in its religious sites scattered on Sagaing hill. If you like the peace of visiting Buddhist monasteries then you could easily spend a day wandering the small paths which connect them. As far as I am aware there is nothing left of any “Royal city” and we concentrated on a couple of the monasteries at the top of the hill which give a wide view of the whole area. Lots more Buddhas and gold!
d. Mingun. Hardly a “capital” at all (although the T List entry says it was from 1810-19) Mingun is primarily of note for its enormous ruined Stupa. Commenced in 1790, it was still incomplete when King Bodawpaya died in 1819 (some say deliberately so, since it had been prophesied that he would die if it were completed) and was abandoned. It would have been 150m high and only reached a third of this. It is sometimes claimed to be the world’s biggest pile of bricks! An earthquake in 1838 then created enormous cracks across the structure. Ironically there had been another earthquake in the region a few days before our arrival and the walk to the top of the stupa was still closed for safety reasons. The other attraction at Mingun is the “Mingun Bell” – cast for the Monastery, it fell during the earthquake but was re-erected in colonial times and remained the World’s largest ringing bell until as recently as 2000! Mingun on the far side of the Irrawady can, in fact, be reached by road from Sagaing but the normal way to approach it is by boat from Manadalay. A flotilla of hire boats take passengers on a pleasant rip up the Irrawaddy for around and hour and back in 45 minutes. An hour at the site is enough.
Regarding Mandalay, which we visited the previous day. The T List entry is titled “Ancient Cities” (though, having been founded in 1857, Mandalay hardly qualifies for that epithet!) but it is unclear how much of Mandalay would be covered. The T List entry refers to areas producing “traditional artifacts” – but this doesn't seem relevant to a "tangible heritage" nomination! The Royal Palace area, encircled by a moat and wall, was destroyed in WWII and now only contains reconstructed buildings. There are significant original monasteries and temples across the city and Mandalay Hill to the north (where Buddha was supposed to have foretold of Mandalay’s creation 2400 years later!) with its holy sites. The Shweenandaw Kyaung monastery, outside the city walls is also on the Wooden monasteries T List entry. All well worth seeing (though Mandalay city itself is chaotic and ugly – its handicrafts and traditional entertainments are in fact a significant part of its interest albeit not relevant to any WHS status) but where is the authentic OUV?
So will this collection of sites ever be inscribed? I think not in its current form which is unconstrained, illogical and unmanageable! A lot more work needs to be done to decide which bits are of OUV, which link together and which can be appropriately managed! Until then it will remain as a “place marker” on the T List.
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- Full name: Ancient cities of Upper Myanmar : Innwa, Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun, Mandalay
- Country: Myanmar
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