As small kingdoms of medieval Myanmar wrestled for dominance in a bloody tug-of-war, capital cities flickered on and off like Christmas lights. In a dialectic way, this transience has created a valuable, durable legacy - scores of ancient temples in various stages of ruination. The vicinity of Mandalay, perhaps due to its central location, fertile soil, or both, is particularly rich in abandoned old capitals. Each one is different and deserves exploration. Ava is rural, dilapidated and peaceful, Amarapura is famous for its wooden bridge and lakeside activity, and the hilly Sagaing, just across the river from both of them, is about grand views and active monasteries.
Of the numerous monasteries in Sagaing, Thakya Dita stands out because it is not exactly a monastery but a nunnery. Active and open to visitors of both genders, it is a great place to photograph Burmese nuns in their pink robes. As always, it pays to be there around sunrise when the nuns set out to collect alms, walking in a perfect line. Taking panoramic shots is not a problem, but if you want a blow-up, use a decent telephoto - the nuns appear rather weary of camera-wielding tourists. Another noteworthy spot is the modern Sitagu Academy - again, not just a monastery but a Buddhist university aimed at serious scholarship. Of the more common - for Myanmar, at least - sights, Tilakaguru caves probably take the grand prize for ambiance, as well as historical and artistic value. The interior of this cave monastery is covered in 17th-century murals on Buddhist themes.
Pagodas are traditionally built on high ground, and Sagaing is not exempted from this rule. This means every temple provides panoramic views over all the rest. Sun U Pon Nya Shin pagoda, one of the oldest in Sagaing, crowns Nga Pha hill. This is the most common viewpoint, but in fact, as you climb higher, the scenery only gets better. Shwetaung U Maw pagoda is another great vantage point. U Min Thonze temple has rather photogenic rows of Buddha statues in a curving, green-colored corridor along its perimeter. Kaung Hmu Daw pagoda, set away from the rest, has an unusual near-spherical shape: the local legend claims it has been designed to resemble the breast of Sagaing queen, and it does look very much like a sturdy, young tit. Makes one envy the king, actually. While this may sound unsuitably frivolous for a Buddhist sanctuary, the Kaing Hmu Daw temple, in fact, worships nat (spirits) along with Lord Buddha, so it probably evens out on some mystical plane.
There are plenty of viewpoints all over Sagaing hill and around it with no stupas or shrines built on them. In fact, as you walk up and down, every clearing in the trees will show a slightly different patch of landscape. Early or late in the day, when the sun is low, moving a hundred meters means changing your angle just enough for the sunlight to highlight a new monastery. Like every large settlement in Myanmar, Sagaing town, a couple of km away from the hill, has its artistic specialty: in this case, silvercraft. Silversmiths can be seen in their workshops, processing the precious metal with only the most primitive machinery, or by hand. A few bronze foundries are located on the outskirts of jewelers' quarter, and for a tourist (even more so, for a travel photographer), the cauldrons of molten metal, the beeswax dummies and gypsum casts make a much better subject than the silversmiths. Both silver and - if you have the stamina and the masochism to carry them home - bronze items can be bought here at a fraction of their cost in Mandalay.
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