MANDALAY, A FORMER royal capital and Myanmar’s second largest city, plays a key role as the country’s cultural and religious centre with over half of all Burmese monks living in its surroundings. Famous for its numerous handicraft workshops and art performances, Mandalay is centred around the reconstructed Royal Palace located at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The diversity of must-visit sites in the city includes the Mahamuni Temple, home to the country’s most revered Buddha image, covered daily by worshippers with multiple layers of gold leaves, Shwenandaw Monastery, the sole remnant of 19th century Golden Palace, the Jade Market, source of the world’s finest jades and the Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the World’s Biggest Book for its 729 text-inscribed marble slabs of Buddhist scripture, each housed in its own small stupa.
Mandalay is just one of the four ancient capitals located a stone’s throw from each other, constituting the country’s densest concentration of historical and cultural sites. Sagaing, the oldest capital in the region, situated on the southern bank of Ayeyarwady River, is dotted with hundreds of white-painted pagodas and monasteries that homed over 3,000 monks. Just on the opposite bank of the river, on a fortified man-made island, rests another ancient capital, Inwa with its impressive old teakwood Bagaya Monastery and the ruins of the Fort and the Royal Palace. Amarapura, the next Burmese capital that spreads around the Taungthaman Lake, is well known for its iconic U Bein Bridge, the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world. The bridge rests on over a thousand wooden piles standing above 6 meters high of the waterline in the dry season but is almost completely submerged during the monsoon.