Mandalay Stories and Tips

Exploring Amarapura - Myanmar's Historical Capitol

Novices at Mahagandhayon Monastery, Amarapura Photo, Mandalay, Myanmar

Amarapura was our first stop after flying in from Bagan as it was on the way from the airport to Mandalay. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had seen it after spending a day in Mandalay. Founded in 1782, it was twice the capital of Myanmar: (1783–1823) when the capitol was transferred back to Inwa (Ava) and (1837–60) when it was moved to Mandalay. Bruce, our guide, was quick to point out that its royal palace, great temples, and fortifications are now in ruins, either moved piece by piece to Mandalay or destroyed by earthquakes and fire.

Our first stop was U Bein’s teak bridge. At 1.2km, it is the longest teak bridge in the world and is in surprisingly good shape considering it is almost 200 years old. Much of the materials used to build the bridge came from the old palace when the capitol was moved from Inwa (Ava). It has been repaired in places with concrete posts in place of the original teak. Its curved design is such that, even in a heavy storm, the wind and waves would neither swamp nor damage the bridge. It is heavily used as there are a number of religious sites on the other side including the renowned Kyauktawgyi Pagoda.

Pam and I ventured out on the bridge but only got about halfway across before turning back. It shows signs of wear and tear but it is in incredible shape considering its age. Lake Taung Tha Man recedes in the dry season and farmers till the very fertile shoreline.

Our next stop, which is actually within walking distance of the west end of the bridge, was the Mahagandhayon Kyaung (monastery). We parked near as we could to the monastery and as we were walking toward it, Bruce launched into a rant about all the dogs in the neighborhood that hang out hoping for any leftovers from the monks’ meal.

The monastery provided us with a fascinating look into the lives of the 2,000 or so monks and neophytes that live here. Bruce explained that many of the novices end up here because they have no home or because their families cannot afford to feed them. No one is turned away, evidently. It could be seen as a kind of Myanmarese “Boystown.”

We were unimpeded as we stuck our noses into every building we saw. The open-air kitchen was perhaps the most fascinating place as the one meal of the day was being prepared in huge pots, some containing rice and others containing vegetables. This meal must be eaten before noon and no other food taken in until a little snack early in the morning, eaten before the monks make their begging rounds.

We joined many other tourists watching the monks line-up for their small bowl of food and then eat silently in an immense open-air dining area. No one seemed to be disturbed at the gaggle of tourists observing their mealtime ritual. Bruce said that anyone can ask to be fed from the same pots, although we didn’t see anyone but monks eating. There are donation boxes everywhere and most people dropped at least a few Kyat notes into them.

Our next stop was a silk weaving factory. I’m usually not much for visiting factories as they are usually tourist traps that exist for the sole purpose of getting tourists to buy their output. This factory was an exception. They didn’t try to sell us anything. We were able to watch the women operate the foot and hand driven wooden looms on which the incredibly detailed silk cloth is woven. Bruce translated for the owner or manager, who told us that one roll of fabric can take up to 2 weeks to create. I believed him after watching what the operator has to do to just add one more strand onto the fabric.

The factory we visited was one of many. Evidently over 10,000 residents of the area are engaged in the weaving industry, mostly working with silk but also with cotton. It was well worth the time we spent there.

Bruce also took us to a handicraft “workshop” that was, in truth, a souvenir shop. The only interesting items were the huge marionettes that are used in Bamar dramas. We had seen one of the plays in Bagan so it was kind of a kick to see the marionettes close up. The rest of the stuff was not very appealing. We got out of there as soon as we could.

We next drove to the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda north of the lake. Bruce referred to it as the “Snow White” pagoda and it is blindingly white. It was built in 1820 by King Bagyidaw as a memorial to his father. The lower terraces have marble slabs illustrating scenes from the Buddha’s life. The upper terraces are forbidden to women. We had heard that the views are spectacular but all the access gates were locked so that neither men nor women could climb to the top. Later we learned that the gates are locked most of the time for fear that a woman will sneak up on the terraces.

There were two attractions we missed that, had we known, we should have taken the time to see, especially in lieu of the handicraft shop. One was the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, which is on the other end of the teak bridge from the Mahagandhayon Monastery. The grounds are reputed to be beautiful and can serve as a welcome resting place before heading back across the bridge.

The second was the Bagaya Kyaung (monastery) which has a fascinating history, having been burned to the ground twice in the 19th century but finally reconstructed in 1996. It houses a museum with 500 Buddha images and a library containing 500 palm leaf manuscripts.

Amarapura is worth taking the time and energy to see. We enjoyed our time there and our only regret is that we were rushed, as usual.

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