The Sagaing Region is located in the northwestern part of the country. It is bordered by India to the north and west, and Kachin State, Shan State, Magway Region and Mandalay Region to the east, and south.
Today agriculture is the chief occupation here and the area has no great political importance, but in the past, this region, particularly close to present-day Mandalay, was central to Myanmar’s development. For hundreds of years, this was the epicenter of Myanmar power and the region held the capital city from 1315 until 1841. First, it was Sagaing, then later Ava (Inwa).
The Burmese language and culture came into its own during the time which is today known as the Ava period. The first Ava period with a line of 20 kings spanned 233 years, and the second Ava period with ten kings lasted over 150 years. During this period, Ava, Sagaing, Mingun and surrounding areas were all ruled from Ava which is just south of Amarapura on the Ayeyarwaddy River.
Today Sagaing is home to many white and gold shimmering stupas on the surrounding hills, Mingun is a small riverside village, while Inwa is a rural backwater dotted with a few ruins.
The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu people are known to have moved into this area as part of their southward migration from China by the 1st century AD but little is known about their life in this particular region. The Burmans from Yunnan in China first migrated into Upper Myanmar by the 9th century and the area came under the Pagan Kingdom certainly by the middle of the 11th century when King Anawrahta in Bagan expanded his area of influence.
After the fall of Pagan in 1287, The Myinsaing Kingdom ruled central Myanmar from 1297 to 1310. This was founded by three brothers and was one of many petty kingdoms that emerged at that time. Thihathu, one of the brothers, became the sole ruler of the kingdom in 1310 and moved the capital to Pinya in 1313.
The western and northern part of this became the Sagaing Kingdom in 1315 ruled by Burmanized Shan kings, however, this collapsed in 1364 when the city of Sagaing was sacked by Shan raiders from the north-east.
After Sagaing fell to the Shan, the court moved across the river to Inwa on a man-made island between the Ayeyarwaddy River and the Myitnge River. This then effectively became the capital of most of Myanmar for much of the period between 1364 and 1841. After the fall of Bagan, Burmese supremacy had disintegrated so the kings of Inwa tried to reassemble the former empire.
It was able to pull Taungoo and the peripheral Shan states into its fold but it failed to re-conquer the rest. Things got worse in the late 15th century when Promr and its Shan states successfully broke away, and in the early 16th century, Ava itself came under attack in a series of wars.
Inwa fell to the Taungoo Kingdom in 1555, but then 80 years later, the king of Taungoo relocated his own capital to Inwa and there was an uneasy peace in the area for some time. In 1752, the Mon revolted against Burmese rule and sacked Inwa. A couple of years later, Alaungpaya, the founder of the new Konbaung Dynasty, crushed the Mon revolt, and after eight years with Shwebo as his capital, a city about 120 kilometers to the northwest, he re-established the court in Inwa.
During the 18th century, hostilities between the Siamese and the Burmese intensified and Ayutthaya, the Thai capital, fell to the Burmese for a second time. The Burmese took the treasures they acquired from Ayutthaya to the Ava Kingdom, along with 100,000 Ayutthaya residents and several members of the Thai royal family.
Among these was King Uthumphon, who although a captive, initially lived in the capital Ava but was then allowed to live at a monastery in Amarapura, where he stayed in the monkhood for 29 years.
King Bodawpaya, moved the capital to nearby Amarapura then, his successor, King Bagyidaw, moved the Court back to Inwa in 1823. When a tremendous earthquake caused extensive damage in 1841, Inwa was finally abandoned.
All three areas are close to Mandalay and this is the obvious point from which to travel.
Inwa (Ava) is accessible by road but by far the best way to visit is by ferry. You first need to take a taxi, van or pick-up to a small jetty about one kilometer south of the old British-built Ava bridge across the Ayeyarwaddy River. It is confusing because this bridge does not go to Ava but to Sagaing. From the jetty, a small ferry crosses to the other side in about two minutes and you will be greeted by horse cart drivers who will take you around.
We traveled by horse and buggy along very bumpy roads through beautiful countryside of palm trees and endless rich, green rice fields. There’s not much left of old Inwa, and what is left is really “archaeological ruins”. It is really a trip back in time allowing you to explore the remains of an ancient city which was full of old watchtowers, city walls, monasteries, and temples that feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Mandalay.
Sagaing is reached by a new three-span, four- lane bridge from Amarapura and is around 20 km southeast of Mandalay. There are buses and pickups to take you there and motor cycles and cars can be rented in Mandalay. You need some sort of vehicle to see most of the sights which are primarily on Sagaing Hill.
On the way to Sagaing, just near the bridge, you can see the ruins of Thabyedan Fortress, which was built under King Mindon between 1874 and 1878 to defend against the British during the third Anglo-Burmese War.
Mingun is best reached by river. There is a riverboat service from Mandalay which takes about one hour up-river and 40 minutes down-river and allows about two hours in Mingun. Smaller private boats can be rented for around $25 for half a day and you can chose your own departure time. Alternatively, it is about 18 km from Sagaing by road. It takes about 30 minutes. Once there, Mingun is best explored on foot.