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24-28 February 2013. It was a long day out. Mandalay to Amarapura and the monastery (see previous post), then to Sagaing, then Inwa, and finally U Bein bridge.

Sagaing is another of those places that used to be the capital of the kingdom – for fifty years in the 1300’s, and then again in the 1700’s. Those kings just liked to move around I guess, or one died and the next one took over and had a whim to live elsewhere, or spend all the money of the land if not on temples then on a new capital, usually both. Anyway whoever was in charge at the time decided to make a new capital at Inwa, which is on a man-made island with the Irrawaddy River and the Myitnge river forming two sides, and canals forming the other two.

Whoever ruled during the two times Sagaing was capital sure had a lot of temples built, and maybe some came later, anyway Sagaing today has 500 nunneries and monasteries housing 6000 monks and nuns, and many Burmese people go there on religious retreats. All along the hills on the banks of the Irrawaddy, a bit south of Mandalay you can see dozens of gold stupas and temples, the highest and most important being Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda built in 1312. Once again it is important, and was revered by many successive kings, because it enshrines relics of the Buddha, who was obviously a very generous guy giving away body parts all over Indochina. Of course once he no longer had need of his body it was probably fair game for whoever was around to get a bit. I guess I’m a tad skeptical about all these relics of the Buddha; still it was apparently a good excuse to build some pretty impressive structures to house them. I’m sure I don’t understand what this means but Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda:  is known to have the earliest “soon” offered by celestial beings before any by human beings. It is also the first pagoda offered “soon” on the full-moon day of every year of all hilltop ones. It is reputed to grant 14 wishes such as being free of killing by others, getting promotions, and having an insight into things and event.*

What I found on the Internet on Sagaing and all the pagodas, and the history of the area, was very short on information, and very long on some wonderful purple prose from all the tour companies offering to take you there. I wish I knew what a “soon” was!

All we did was climb up to the top on the long covered stairway and gaze in wonder at the temple’s beauty. Hopefully that was enough to grant a few of those “soons” for us.

Next on the agenda was Inwa, which required a boat trip of course, it being an island. It was a short trip across one of the canals in a small open boat with a (hopefully) sturdy bow. All us tourists, and a few locals, piled in, and then to our great astonishment, a local lad rode his motorbike onto the bow of the boat!

I photographed this boat, with two motorbikes, arriving on the Inwa side.

We travelled by horse and buggy now, all over the countryside, for hours; beautiful countryside of palm trees and endless rice fields, rich and green. Inwa was the capital of the kingdom on five separate occasions from 1365 to 1839. It was sacked and rebuilt numerous times over those years but finally abandoned after it was leveled by a series of earthquakes. There’s not much left of it, and what is left has the feel of “archaeological ruins” even though some of the buildings are “only” about three hundred years old rather than two or three thousand.

At some point during our long journey that day we encountered this young woman displaying a fine example of using thanaka paste to create a beautiful leaf design.

Continuing on we came to this small, lovely temple, close by the U Bein Bridge.

U Bein bridge was built over 200 years ago from teak columns left from the royal palace when the capital was moved to Mandalay, by Mayor U Bein who wanted to unite the two villages on either side of Taungthaman Lake. Excellent recycling Mayor U Bein. The bridge is fifteen feet high, has over 1000 wooden posts, and is 1.2 km (3/4 mile) long. Of course we walked from one end to the other and back again.

What we enjoyed most was the life happening around us. There was a large group of people fishing from the shore under the bridge. They had several huge baskets filled with crushed ice, and were bringing in hundreds of fish in the nets and sorting them as they sat on the ground. Baskets of fish were loaded onto the back of motorbikes. There were hundreds of ducks that suddenly decided it was time to stop cruising, and at some signal, whether or internal or external we couldn’t tell, they suddenly all came together and rushed in one direction. There were people crossing the lake by boat or bicycle or on foot, and women selling caged birds, and people living in temporary thatch dwellings growing crops on land that would be underwater during the rainy season. The crops were lush and green.

On two separate occasions we travelled on the Irrawaddy River, once for one hour to Mingun, and the second time for over twelve hours to Bagan.

From Don: Thursday February 28, 2013. We were up at 5:00 am and out the door by 6:00 for the taxi ride to the dock to get the ferry to Bagan. The taxi ride took much longer than I’d thought it would based upon the map, and I was beginning to get paranoid about the possibility that our taxi driver was taking us off into the country where we’d be robbed by some of his friends. But no, as always my paranoia was unfounded and we arrived at the ferry dock in good time. There were steep steps down to the boat, and a foot-wide plank that I had to negotiate with my case, but one of the crew carried Ali’s case on board for her. We checked in and got tags for our bags, which then disappeared down into the hold. Tigers on guard!

It was a good thing that we got to the ferry early because all the seats in the upstairs lounge were already taken but we managed to snag a banquette with a small table downstairs just before the hordes arrived. Then, seeing that the promised complimentary breakfast was not in evidence, I headed back up to the top of the steps and bought some water and bananas to supplement our meager supplies. Then Ali went up and bought some oranges and coffee cake. At 7:00 am, after we were already underway, the complimentary breakfast, which turned out to be toast and jam with tea or coffee, finally appeared.

Down the Irrawaddy we went for hour after hour. It’s quite shallow in places at this time of the year so there was a pilot on board and occasionally one, or sometimes two members of the crew would stand in the bow with long bamboo measuring poles checking the depth and signaling to the captain on the bridge which way to turn.

Around mid-morning one of the crew came around with a sign hand-printed on an eighteen-by-twenty piece of brown cardboard: LUNCH: Fried Vegetables and Noodles 3000 Kyat 12:30. So Ali ordered one for us to share. Now we have way more food than we’ll ever eat on the boat: no fears now that we’ll starve to death.

Afternoon on the Irrawaddy River: steaming hot, hazy and lazy. The beer drinkers are already snoozing, while the rest read or sit baking in the sun on the open upper deck.

I particularly enjoy the days where I don’t have to do any thinking or planning or organizing, as I travel at human speed by bus, boat or train. Apart from a mild wondering about getting a taxi to the hotel when we arrive in Bagan there’s nothing much on my mind, and no anxiety about anything. Plenty of time, plenty of money, and a close relationship with my lifetime travelling companion: what more could I want?

Alison again: Life on the river – the Irrawaddy really is the “road to Mandalay”, and is still a major transportation route from Yangon, hence the many cargo boats we saw. And there’s always fishing, and as with the Mekong, people make temporary shelters and farm the land that becomes available when the water level drops in the dry season.

And one from Don


The town of temples – thousands of them, as far as the eye can see. You think you’ve seen temples? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Bagan in the next post.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.