Exploring the many religious sites of Bago
04.08.2011 - 04.08.2011 29 °C
Yangon to Bago, Myanmar
The following morning, having hastily prearranged a taxi off the street, the night previous, we were soon heading through the sprawling, ramshackle suburbs of Yangon. After half an hour the dilapidated concrete and corrugated metal structures of the city were replaced by the bamboo and often stilted houses of the paddy field farmers. Set sporadically throughout the countryside men and women in conical hats still worked the water filled rice fields. The majority of the fields were empty of crops, filled, despondently with a murky brown water, with only a few showing the vibrant green shoots of life sustaining rice as this critical southeast Asian crop was tended and prepared for harvested.
Passing few urban areas en route to Bago the ever changing vista remained unaltered for the remaining hour that it took for us to reach our next destination. Yet eventually rice field faded back into rudimentary urban dwelling with scooters and tuk-tuks crowding the previously vacant roads.
During the late Mon dynastic periods (1287-1539) Bago acted as the capital of their southern Myanmar empire, until the Bamar took over in 1539. Today, Bago is a Disney-flavored theme park of brightly colored religious sites. Eager to explore this new city we set out, on foot, to the nearby 1476 Kyaik Pun Paya consisting of four 100ft high sitting buddhas placed back to back around a huge square pillar. Yet we were not to achieve our walking goal or at least not yet. Arriving on scooter two local tour operators caught us up, having been waiting for us at the bus station, to offer a tour of the temples. As they confirmed that they were agents for the tour operator we had spoken with in Yangon we agreed a price for the temple tour - $20 USD. Paying this amount to them ensured that we would circumvent the ticket booths at the major temples in Bago, which empose a Bago wide temple pass of $10USD each, that goes straight to the government. An ideal solution all round.
For the next four hours we toured the spread out religious sites of Bago crouched on a hard wooden in the back of their bouncing and jerking tuk-tuk. Discounting the ride (!) highlights included the snake monastery where the head of a monastery in Hsipaw reincarnated in the form of an 18ft long, 1 foot wide, chicken eating, 120-year old Burmese python. Bravely Trey offered a small donation to the snake (and monastery!) by touching her kyat note to the snakes nose and receiving an excited chant from the nearby attendant. With no liking of snakes I stayed alert ready to be the first out of the door should the snake awake for its slumber.
Close by we visited a cheroot factory filled with mostly young, dexterous Myanmar girls capable of rolling 1,000 of the tobacco filled green leaves every day. With consummate grace and skill they showed us the paper filter and the art of rolling a consistent, tightly bundled cheroot. For their efforts they will receive no more than a dollar per day.
At Shwethalyaung we were able to see the 180ft long, 53ft high reclining Buddha built by a monarch with a guilt complex - he had been worshipping pagan idols – and at Shwemawdaw Paya a pyramid of washed out gold rising to 376ft, some 90ft higher than Shwedagon. The highlight of our tour, however, was Kha Khat Wain Kyaung. One of the three largest monasteries in the country we arrived as some 300 monks began their afternoon lessons. According to the guidebook this monastery sees plenty of tourists but this being the rainy season we saw not another tourist. Sat at the back of the hall we listened to their chanting, National Geographic style travelers not for the first time feeling like explorers of a virgin land. Outside the hall vast kitchens were being used to prepare lunch for the following day (Buddhist monks eat only at breakfast and lunchtime). Four 3ft diameter, wood fired, woks were ready to cook the vast quantity of vegetables and rice that were needed to feed this thriving monastery of 1,500 monks.
Whilst slightly bottom numbing a tuk-tuk ride was, essentially, the only way to see the spread out sights of Bago. It was only unfortunate that at the end of the trip our guide tried to con us into paying double what we had agreed for the tour. After moneychangers in Yangon the previous day we were in no mood for more shakedowns and told him in no uncertain terms what our agreement had been. Yet, having purchased bus tickets from ‘a friend’ of theirs we were now very much on our guard in our dealings with the representatives of our tour company. This was very disappointing as the majority of Burmese are extremely friendly, honest people, demanding nothing more than a brief conversation and an opportunity to learn a little about one’s own life and country.
After our temple tour supper beckoned, yet dining options were limited. With Bago, essentially, sprawled along a single main road we grabbed a cheap tuk tuk and headed to the market, the typical hub of tempting morsels. Bago was no exception to the rule with a street side vendor offering extremely tasty fried mung bean cakes, fried bananas and sugar covered pancakes. As the seasonal monsoon prepared for its late afternoon performance we retreated to a nearby bar with our treats, securing a couple of the local Myanmar beers to wash them down. Sitting in now considered comfortable plastic chairs, sheltered from the now arrived monsoon we were able to relax and watch the Bago world pass by. Later in the evening supper consisted of disappointing Chinese food (not unusual in Myanmar with local food harder to find) but a half decent local band that kept us interested while we ate and reflected on the busy day.