Away from the gilded and jewel-bedecked temples filled with monks in maroon robes and nuns in pale pink, Myanmar hides a quiet, almost idyllic, rural landscape dotted with ancient ruins.
Just 21 km south of Mandalay, nestled in the confluence of the Myitnge and Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) rivers, across from the busy monasteries and shiny temples of the Sagaing Hills, you will find Inwa Island. A trip to the island is like a trip back in time.
Late last September, my travel companions in Myanmar – a group of photography enthusiasts, photographer Karl Grobl, local guide Mr MM – and I, piled into wooden boats and plugged our ears against the noise of the outboard motors. Looking nonchalant, the driver of the boat I was in alternated between steering the outboard with his foot and by hand, as he landed us safely on the muddy bank that passes for a pier.
At the Inwa Island “dock”, we were met by the usual assortment of locals with trinkets for sale, and a “fleet” of pony carts and their drivers to transport the day trippers around. The unpaved roads were muddy and wet; it was easy to see why horse carts are the preferred tourist transport on the island.
Officially called Ratanapura (City of Gems), the artificial island was created by Prince Thadominphya in 1364 to be home to the imperial court of the ancient Kingdom of Inwa (also known as Innwa, Ava or Awa). It was the capital during five separate periods from the 14th to 19th centuries, before being finally abandoned in 1839 after several major earthquakes. No other city in Myanmar has been the seat of government for so long.
Our second stop was across the island, at the Bagaya Kyaung or ‘Star Flower Monastery’, a beautiful old teak building, ornately carved and supported on 267 massive teak posts. Built in 1834, the monastery is still in use today as a classroom for the village children.
Too soon it is time to get back in our horse carts, to ride back across the wet bumpy roads and past the peaceful rice paddies, to our waiting motor boats.
Truly a charming and peaceful place –
a reminder of simpler times.