Scattered among the sand flats and low hills in and around the city of Mandalay are the remnants of four royal capitals spanning more than 500 years of Burmese history. They encompass some of the country’s most iconic sights, from Mandalay’s exquisite teak Shwenandaw Monastery and Amarapura’s much-photographed U Bein’s Bridge to Inwa’s stucco monastery and the glittering, pagoda- encrusted ridges of Sagaing. Just upriver from Mandalay, the massive unfinished stupa at Mingun is another of the region’s unmissable sights.
The first of the great centers built in the region was at Sagaing, on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady, where a huge con- centration of religious monuments are a legacy of a kingdom that ruled over much of central Burma in the early 14th century. On the opposite bank, Inwa (Ava) was founded in 1364 on a manmade island protected by formidable walls. Today, its scant remains rise forlorn from an expanse of rice fields, best explored by horse cart via a tangle of sandy tracks.
Amarapura, spread around a lake on the southern fringes of Mandalay, became the next Konbaung capital in 1783 and retains some imposing monu ments, among them the majestic Pahtodawgyi Pagoda and U Bein Bridge. Much of the city was ruined by the massive earth quake of 1839, and it was finally deserted in the mid1850s in favor of a site at the foot of Mandalay Hill.
Called Yadanabon – a Burmese corruption of the site’s ancient Pali name, Ratanapura (“City of Gems”) – Mandalay city was founded in 1857 as the Konbaung capital, a role it retained until the Third Anglo- Burmese War in 1885. Although shortlived, Yadanabon’s golden era left in its wake an array of superb religious buildings, as well as the colossal royal palace – a forbidden city hidden behind walls and a wide moat.
Modern Mandalay has grown into a vast metropolis, whose heat and chaotic traffic are well worth braving for its wealth of his- toric sites, which include the Mahamuni Temple, Myanmar’s second most venerated shrine, and the Shwenandaw Monastery, a remnant of the old palace. While most of the royal enclave was destroyed in World War II, many of the city’s gilded and carved structures still survive, hinting at the splen- dor that must once have held sway here.