PALACES, PAGODAS, & PROSTRATED BUDDHAS IN BAGO
Midway between the Golden Rock and Yangon is the town of Bago. Though Bago is overshadowed by Yangon today, this provincial market town was once the capital of an independent kingdom and still has a hoard of superb Buddhist monuments and a palace worth visiting. Which is why we thought it warranted a stop-over!
Our day started at 4:00am as we wanted to see the Golden Rock illuminated by the warm light of the rising sun. Unfortunately Myanmar had other plans – we saw absolutely zilch as the entire mountain was enshrouded in fog!
Still, it was great seeing the temple complex abuzz with life, even at that early hour. We picked our way between blankets, our bare feet on the cold stone as thousands of people were waking up, making morning offerings of fruit to Buddha, and preparing their breakfast.
At the rock itself, the air was thick with incense and smoke, and we spent a couple of hours just taking it all in before heading back to the hotel for breakfast. After breakfast it was time to bid the Golden Rock goodbye and make our way down to the truck station. Coming up on the trucks was a little hair-raising, but the journey back down was a whole new level of adventure. First of all, just getting a place on the trucks was tricky, as thousands of people were trying to get back down to Kinpun at the same time. We eventually managed to get a spot on a truck, and were soon heading down the steep roads with 80 of our newest friends. It was hard work hanging on as the roller coaster ride took us around corners and incredible speed, but we were soon back in Kinpun. Certainly an adventurous end to our Golden Rock experience!
We found our driver and were soon on the road heading for Bago, a town with a long and rich history. Bago, once known as Pegu, was the capital of the Mon Kingdom from the 6th to the 18th centuries. Lynchpin of a vast trade network, Pegu and its rulers, the Mon Kings, amassed wealth that attracted traders from all over the world. Unfortunately this wealth inspired murderous envy among its poorer Burmese neighbours and there were frequent wars between the neighbouring kingdoms. Pegu was eventually destroyed in the 18th century and the Mon people were dispersed across southern Burma. The town never regained its former glory or wealth, but the remnants from its days as a royal capital were certainly worth a visit.
Our first stop of the morning was the local market place, where the heat and humidity mixed with the aromas of fermented fish paste, fresh flowers, and vegetables to create a sensory experience unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Not a great one to be honest…
From the market place we made our way to Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Monastery, one of the largest monasteries in Myanmar and starting point of the Saffron Revolution* of 2007. Home to about 500 monks, this expansive complex lacked the reverent atmosphere of the Myasekkya Monastery we visited in Sagaing, but it was still great seeing the monks line up for their mid-morning procession for food.
*The Saffron Revolution is used to describe a series of peaceful demonstrations that took place in Myanmar in September 2007. The protests were triggered by the decision of the then ruling military government to increase the price of gas and petrol by 500%. These nonviolent protests were led by Buddhist monks whose orange and maroon robes inspired the Saffron Revolution moniker. They were successful in getting prices reduced, though not to former levels.
After the monastery we went on to see Shwemawdaw Pagoda, which is to Bago what the Shwedagon is to Yangon. Richly gilded from base to tip, the pagoda is in fact even taller than its more famous cousin, standing at 114m in height. In one corner of the temple complex, a huge mound of bricks stands as the only reminder of a massive earthquake that toppled the stupa of Shwemawdaw Pagoda in 1930. Faded murals along the main entrance steps tell the story of the earthquake and the pagoda’s later reconstruction.
The last of Bago’s religious sights we stopped to see were the Shwethalyaung and Mythalyaung Reclining Buddhas. The Shwethalyaung Buddha is said to depict Gautama on the eve of his entering nirvana. Revered throughout Myanmar as the country’s most beautiful reclining Buddha, the statue is more than 500 years old and measures 55m in length and is 16m tall. After the destruction of Bago (Pegu), the Shwethalyaung Buddha became lost beneath countless layers of tropical vegetation. It was only in 1881 that the statue was rediscovered by a group of contractors tasked with building a railway for the country’s then colonial British rulers. After the undergrowth had been cleared away and the statue restored, an iron roof was erected over the Buddha to protect it from the elements.
Just next door is an even larger statue, the Mythalyaung Reclining Buddha. Built in the early 2000s, this 82m long statue had beautifully engraved feet covered in astrological symbols.
We then went to see Kanbawzathardi Palace, a reconstruction of the original Mon royal palace from the 16th century. Rebuilt based on knowledge gained from excavations and the original drawings of the building, the very ornate palace was rather gaudy and tacky, but still demonstrated how prosperous the Mon Kings must have been to afford such a monumental, gold-encrusted home.
Leaving Bago we got back on to the highway and continued on towards Yangon, passing numerous rubber plantations along the way. Like many of its South-East Asian neighbours, Myanmar is a major producer of this valuable commodity and rubber trees cover an extensive area across the country’s Southern alluvial plains.
About an hour outside of Yangon we reached our final stop for today: the Taukkyan War Cemetery. This cemetery contains the graves of more than 6,000 Allied soldiers from the British Commonwealth who died in battle in Myanmar/Burma during World War II. There were also numerous memorial pillars engraved with the names of over 27,000 soldiers who died in this region during the World War II but who have no known grave.
In January 1942, Japanese forces invaded Myanmar/Burma, starting one of the longest and deadliest land campaigns of World War II. Within 6 months, the Japanese managed to drive all Allied forces out of the country. Myanmar/Burma, along with other South-east Asian countries, were targeted for occupation by the Japanese as they wanted to interrupt supply routes to China that passed through Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, etc. Also, the Japanese knew that rubber was one of the few militarily resources that the Allies were not self-sufficient in and they thought it critical that the Allies be denied access to South-East Asian rubber supplies.
During the 3 years of Japanese occupation, Allied prisoners of war (POWs) were famously used as slave labour to construct the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway. This 415km-long railway linking Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, was built by the Japanese to help bring supplies to its forces fighting in Myanmar/Burma campaign of World War II.
Fighting between the Allies and the Japanese in Myanmar/Burma continued until the end of the war, which left the entire country scarred by battle, politically fractured and economically devastated. By April 1945, however, the Allies had driven out the Japanese and, subsequently, negotiations began between the Burmese and the British for independence – which was finalised in January 1948.
By this stage we were pretty tired – our day had started at 4:00am after all! Tired but happy. Today was our last full day in Myanmar – we fly out of Yangon tomorrow evening and then it’s back to the “real world”. To be honest, in some ways we’re looking forward to being home – to being somewhere where we can drink the tap water; eat any and all the food with alacrity (without having to worry about tummy bugs); and where life is just a little more …comfortable. But we’re also sad that our Myanmar adventure is already coming to an end. We want to see more of this fascinating country! We want to get know more of its beautiful people; to be flooded with the sights and smells of this captivating culture; and to enjoy more of the authenticity of life in this incredible country. But all good things must come to and end, and so we’re now back in Yangon for one final evening.