Published/Last edited or updated: 26th September, 2016
Just southwest of Mandalay and across the Ayeyarwaddy River, white and gold pagodas decorate the hillsides of the ancient capital of Sagaing, sometimes referred to as mini-Bagan. Several hundred monasteries and nunneries dot these holy hills, home to some 6,000 monks and nuns.
Sagaing, now the capital of the eponymously named state, began life as the capital of an independent Shan Kingdom from 1315-1364, before the action moved across the river to Inwa. Sagaing tootled along quite happily with an occasional new pagoda here and fresh stupa there until it experienced a second flowering as the Burmese royal capital from 1760 till 1763, during King Naungdawgyi's reign. Then the fidgety capital moved back again to Inwa.
Its present incarnation falls somewhere between small provincial town and Mandalay satellite and it is curious how present day capitals of two such vast provinces are located a stone’s throw from each other across the river. Unlike larger neighbour Mandalay, which has just the one hill, Sagaing has a range of tree-covered hills stretching along the riverbank which, liberally sprinkled with gold and white stupa spires, creates an iconically Asian scene. Its pagodas and temples make for a very popular side trip from Mandalay and since the access bridge across the Ayeyarwaddy is to the south of Mandalay, it’s easily combined with Inwa and Amarapura. The three sights make for a splendid day tour plus, at a pinch, you could include the other west bank ancient city of Mingun too, though Mingun is usually visited by boat. Note too that as Sagaing is the start of the road to Monywa, if you were doing a daytrip out that way you could make Sagaing Hill a stop on the way if time allows.
The two most spectacular sights, both on Sagaing Hill itself, are U Ponya Shin and U Min Thounzeh Pagodas. These can be included in an hour or two’s side trip though Sagaing does offer quite a few other attractions and you could spend a lot longer here if you have time. The myriad minor pagodas and forest paths are great to explore, while the riverfront lane at the foot of the hill offers scenic river views. In the town itself, located behind and to the south of the main hill, there is a lively market, colonial buildings and pottery workshops to visit. Guided tours often include a nunnery, though we would suggest only going along with a guide to break the ice.
You can drive to the top of the hill or walk up stairs; in this case beginning from the so called One Lion Gate. Sagaing Hill undulates off to the north but the first hilltop site you’ll reach is U Ponya Shin Paya. The large golden chedi is said to date from the early 14th century and the temple affords spectacular panoramas of pagoda-decorated hills, with the Ayeyarwaddy River flowing beyond. For locals this is the most prestigious spot on the hill and the carpark comes with the requisite souvenir and snack stalls. Check out the large seated Buddha, set among shimmering turquoise wall tiles.
Second in popularity, but we’d say the more aesthetically pleasing and not to be missed, is U Min Thounzeh Pagoda. It lies around 10 minutes stroll further north on a second rise, so you could ask your driver to pick you up there or a sealed road links the two pagodas. In Burmese it’s called a cave temple, though a shallow overhang would be more accurate; a crescent-shaped indent in the rock houses a row of 45 seated Buddha images. The golden statues, set in a turquoise coloured tiled mosaic hall, form an impressive sight.
Just a bit beyond Sagaing Hill sits Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, famous for its unusual white chedi in a distinctive Sri Lankan style. More than 800 stone pillars fill the complex, covered with more than 120 images of nat spirits and with a photogenic white marble Buddha at its centre. This pagoda lies around four kilometres behind Sagaing Hill to the northeast, so you need to drive down there on a detour back to the bridge.
If you’re walking back down the steps to the lion gate, Sagaing Hill Restaurant opposite makes a reasonable lunch stop. They have an English menu and garden seating but it is aimed primarily at tour groups so isn’t particularly cheap. Otherwise you’ll find plenty of more local-style eateries back on the town’s main street.
The centre of town makes a pleasant diversion, time permitting, and there’s a lively market a block south of the main road. To the south of the railway bridge, Sagaing’s Strand Road makes for a scenic stroll, with the river on one side and a series of older colonial buildings on the other. Some organised tours will also include pottery and silver-making workshops, which are located on the main road to the north of town, so you could include them with a peek at Kaunghmudaw.
There is a 5,000 kyat ticket to enter Sagaing Hill's pagodas, and this ticket also gives you entrance to the ancient capital city of Mingun.
Sagaing’s too far for Mandalay guesthouse bicycles so either a rental motorbike or taxi is the way to go if you’re travelling independently. A local taxi-truck (500 kyat), available from the corner of 29th and 84th street in Mandalay, will drop you by Sagaing market, from where you need to hire a moto-taxi. Return taxi fare from Mandalay would be around 20,000 kyat, or around 35,000 if you want to include U Bein as well.
There is a country lane that links Sagaing to Mingun, but drivers will balk a bit at the 40 kilometre round trip, so Mingun is best reached by boat from Mandalay’s Strand Road jetty.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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