The city of Mandalay, Myanmar does not have a particularly bustling, big city feel, but sometimes just being surrounded by groups of people and modern conveniences can detract from the situation. And by “modern conveniences,” we mean less than cutting edge technology such as motorized vehicles and asphalt. Taking a half-day trip to Inwa, less than an hour outside central Mandalay, will rid you of perhaps a few more modern conveniences than you would like, but with the right attitude, it can be an unforgettable wander through time passed. In Inwa, you will gaze in wonderment at monuments large and small from the 18th century, and walking the small surrounding paths will give you an even greater sense of what life must have been like those centuries ago, and also what it is like today for the locals that still make their livelihoods in this gem of a district.
First stop: Maha Aungmyay Bonzan, an early 19th century monastery
It’s not ancient, but this structure, built between 1818 and 1822, has a captivating feel to it, and you’ll be sucked into walking all around and through it. Unusual for the era, this structure as built of brick and stucco, not wood. The tiers and interior spaces are quite nice to walk about, and like just about everywhere in Inwa, there are few people to distract from the experience. Get there using the pedestrian-only (no horse carts) shortcut off to the right once you’ve walked inland from the river a few minutes.
Breathe in more of your surrounding as you walk to Nanmyin Watchtower
The Leaning Tower of Pisa of Inwa, the watchtower is precariously tilted and not safe to climb. This being Myanmar, of course you could ignore the warnings and climb it anyway, but it’s probably not a good idea. You can’t go inside the tower either, but walk around and look at it from near and far for varying impressions. Vendors just at the entrance sell some unusual, handmade art and crafts. With some solid bargaining skills, you can pick up something nice to bring home for a reasonable price.
Exit stage left for the even lesser traveled path
As you look at the tower head-on, you can see a path running off to the left, which soon banks right so that you are walking away from the back of the tower. On your right will be farms, and opportunity to see locals that have nothing to do with the tourism business. Oxen carts are still used for transit and to tend the land, and when you are in the middle of these machine-less fields, the silence can be both intimidating and beautiful.
Bagayar Monastery is yet another highlight
Your walk from the precariously leaning tower to the next stop may get a bit tedious, so now would be the time to think horse cart. You shouldn’t pay much more than 40,000 MMK (less than 3 USD) for two people for the ride to monastery then back to the ferry boat afterwards.
This teak monastery, sometimes called the “Star Flower Monastery,” also dates from the early part of the 19th century. You’ll find local monks and children about, as this is very much an in-use Buddhist monastery. Check out the atmospheric interior spaces, but do watch your step while pattering about bare-footed.
Head on back in your horse cart
The trip back on the horse cart will take about fifteen minutes, and most likely use a different route than that which you walked, allowing you to see some new scenery. Temples and monuments - both to deities and simply the past - glide by you on either side, rising up out of the fields. However, lest the lullaby of long ago set you on your laurels, you will also see some relatively new additions punctuating this veritable scroll painting sweeping past your horse cart. If you’re lucky, you may even see and hear a modern buddhist temple blaring dance music, flashing its lights that gaudily adorn both exterior and interior spaces.
Regardless of where you find your thoughts, reality is always to be close at hand and hard on the posterior: The horse cart ride can be quite bumpy and dusty. Take solace in the fact that at least some parts of the road are paved, and, after all, the discomfort is just part of the experience.
Step back in time 200 years for just half a day
With even more sights than discussed here to amble through, Inwa provides a great escape to a historic district frozen in time. Prepare to sweat, get dirty, and walk around barefoot in less than sanitary conditions, but also prepare to make memories that will be indelible.
Your driver will drop you off at the ferry launch for the quick and nominally priced ride across the river to Inwa. There is no bridge, and cars are basically not allowed anyway. Once you disembark, you’ll be hounded by locals selling rides on their horse carts to get around. They will try to scare you with stories about how far away everything is. If you are in reasonably good shape, don’t listen to them. Walking all the way in and then catching a horse cart back is, in this author’s opinion, the best way to approach your visit.
Horse carts want 80,000 MMK(6 USD) to give you the whole tour, but it’s better to hire one when you are tired of walking.
Some sights are free, but some require the 10,000 MMK (7 USD) combo ticket, which you will probably be buying anyway for other sights in the city proper.
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