I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published February 16th 2015
A guide to Bago, Myanmar for those pushed for time
Just two hours bus ride from Yangon, a visit to the Burmese city of Bago is something that must appear on anyone's "things to do in Myanmar list". The capital of the Bago region of Myanmar, the city has featured heavily in Burmese history since the days of the great 15th Century King Dhammazedi.
Nowadays, Bago is a thriving metropolis in its own right, despite its proximity to Myanmar's primary city, Yangon. It's also bursting at the seams with temples, monasteries, pagodas and a host of other glittering treasures for which Myanmar has become famous.
If time is on your side, I'd recommend at least a couple of days spent soaking up what Bago has to offer. What follows is certainly not a recommended itinerary for a visit to the region, but simply an account of my own, "blink-you'll-miss-it", whirlwind excursion through the city!
On returning from Kyaitiyo to Yangon I decided to hop off the bus at Bago and spend a few hours looking around. Not expecting to see much in that time, I set my sights on two locations in the city and hoped for the best.
I stepped down from the bus in Bago at about 3pm and was instantly met by flurry of motorcycle taxi drivers, all of whom promised me a good price for a guided tour of the city. After a quick toilet break and some even quicker – but certainly more intense – negotiations, we settled on 15,000 kyat for a motorcycle tour, including entrance to all Bago's sites. This is about $15USD and, as a ticket for Bago's religious sites alone would set me back 10,000 kyat, I decided this was a pretty good deal.
After being hastily informed that the last bus to Yangon would leave at 5pm and as such I should waste no time in hopping on the back of the bike, we were off, racing down the main Yangon-Mandalay road, heading north-east for the first stop on our tour.
As the Kanbawzathadi Palace was closed for renovation – and not as good as the one in Mandalay anyway, according to my guide/driver/travel buddy for the day – the first destination on our whistle-stop tour was the Snake Monastery. This is a working monastery, situated beside a small hillside "zedi" or raised temple, and, as the name suggests, it's also home to an enormous Burmese Python.
This snake, my guide informed me, is the reincarnation of the monk who oversaw the construction of the monastery, but who tragically died before its completion. Now he resides in a temple beside the monastery and is revered by the resident monks. Whether you believe the story or not, it's still a magnificent creature.
From here we headed back into town towards the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, Bago's most famous religious building. Similar in appearance to the Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas of Yangon, Shwemadaw's 376ft stupa is actually taller than those of its more famous cousins.
My guide beamed with pride as he informed me this, and then took me around to where the original stupa crown lies, having been displaced by an earthquake in 1917.
Four Figures Pagoda and Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung
Our lap of Shwemadaw Pagoda complete, there was no time to mess about. Off we roared into the lengthening shadows of the afternoon. The next stop was the Four Figures Pagoda in the western half of the city. This pagoda features four enormous (at least at this point I classed them as enormous, you will see what I mean in a moment) images of Buddha in a quiet and tranquil setting. Connected to the pagoda by a walkway is a small stupa, complete with grotesque statues of ogres and nats (nature spirits of Burmese legend), which is also certainly worth a look.
Statues of devotees of Buddha meditate in the grounds of the Four Faces Pagoda
My guide then led me across the road to visit the reclining Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung Buddha (easy for you to say), which made the "enormous" Buddha images of the Four Faces Pagoda seem somewhat diminutive in comparison. While the current Buddha statue – built in 2002 – lacks the historic pedigree of some of the town's other, older monuments, the 250ft long structure is truly jawdropping to behold. Visitors should note the prayer carved onto the souls of the Buddha's feet, the toes of which alone measure around 10ft in length.
Growing slightly concerned that I would miss my bus back onwards to Yangon, I relayed these fears to my guide who assuaged them with a smile, informing me that he had saved the best for last. He wasn't wrong; a short ride from Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung is the Mahazedi Pagoda, a spell-binding temple complex which is rather more open plan than the imposing complexes found in central Yangon, and fringed with a ring of trees.
Almost unique in this part of Myanmar thanks to its accessible staircase taking you up almost to the summit of the stupa, this pagoda affords visitors some of the best views in Bago, and gave my reeling head the chance to take stock of just how much distance I'd covered in the last hour and a half. The stupa was built to house a sacred Buddha tooth relic, which has since been relocated to Mandalay in the north of the country.
By now, my guide was checking his watch too, but after some niftily agile motorcycling through the late afternoon traffic, my capable chum got us back to the bus stop fifteen minutes early. "Great", I thought, "time enough for a quick drink and rest before the two hour journey back onwards Yangon".
It was not to be. "The bus is early, it's here now," my guide told me excitedly, "no time, you must go!" And so, having paid my fee and given him a bit extra in recognition of the fantastic job he did, I was on the bus and motoring down the Yangon road. My head-spinningly quick – but nonetheless fascinating – Bago adventure was over.