Ava: the ruins of an ancient Burmese capital

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

The turbulent, shifting history of ancient Burma has left a seemingly endless legacy of old abandoned capitals. It seems that every second monarch relocated the royal seat or was forced out of it, sometimes separately from his head. As Burmese cities were - and in places, still are - mostly wooden, they could not survive the fires of war and the pressure of time, with only the stone temples, left standing in the middle of what has become agricultural land. One particularly rural former capital is Ava - once a mighty city ruling over half of present-day Myanmar, nowadays a sprinkle of crumbling stupas amid palm groves and rice fields. Lacking the splendor - and the state of preservation - of Bagan or Mrauk U, Ava beats both of them in sheer peacefulness. It makes for a very nice day walking between villages in step with oxcarts and horse carriages, locating the ruined pagodas, and soaking up the views. A riverside citadel summarizes the hike.

Bagaya Kyaung

© Mark Levitin

One unique - and rapidly disappearing through neglect - specialty of Myanmar is teakwood monasteries. Bagaya Kyaung comes as a perfect example. Unlike many other ancient wooden masterpieces in Greater Mandalay, it is more or less preserved (you would not believe it at first sight, but try and see the other similar relics for comparison) - for the sake of tourists, of course, but it is the result that matters. Despite the hefty entrance fee for foreigners, Bagaya Kyaung remains a functioning monastery. Photographers will appreciate the scene of young novices attending classes under the medieval woodcarvings - especially early in the morning when low-angle sunbeams enter the dark interior through windows and cracks in the walls.

Temples and other ruins

© Mark Levitin

The territory of old Ava is vast. It will take a full day to cover every ruin, at least half a day for the main sights. Horse carriages and tuk-tuks intercept tourists offering rides, but it is much more fun to explore the area on foot. Noteworthy spots include the "leaning tower of Inwa", an old watchtower - the only complete structure remaining from the ancient royal palace; Maha Aungmye Bonzan, a dilapidated brick monastery on unusual squat shape, Yadana Sime, Tilaingshin and Shwezigon pagodas, and ubiquitous clusters of medieval stupas in various stages of decay. Mainly neglected, crumbling and overgrown, all the ruins in Ava look like something out of an adventure movie and make a perfect setting for a photo shoot.

Other attractions

© Mark Levitin

The ancient Burmese capital of Ava may lay in ruins, but life goes on. Farmers grow rice and herd cows next to crumbling defensive walls and fish in the old moat. As it is common in Myanmar, the daily life of local villages is at least as attractive and photogenic as the ruins themselves. Traditional crafts can be observed - for example, Hantarwady village produces classical lacquerware. Brewing coconut booze is another local tradition - here and there, you will see little shacks with big earthen jars full of fermented liquid. Give it a try, it is cheap, sweet, and about as potent as beer. The jars keep it cool, which is pure god's grace in the heat of Central Myanmar. Singyone Citadel, a well-preserved old fortress, stands at the far end of Ava, guarding the river - exploring it will be the logical finale of the historical hike.

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