A one day break is a welcome respite from a swamp of office work. Taking advantage of the Thadingyut holiday I decided to explore areas around Yangon, and what would be the most ideal place other than the historic city of Bago. I have earlier planned to visit Bago when I arrived in January this year, but I kept postponing it until my calendar was filled with appointments, meetings and deadlines to catch. The Thadingyut offered a chance of slipping out early in the morning and getting back before dark.
We arranged a car with our regular driver who also acted as our guide and took a one hour leisurely trip. We go past the junction along the expressway to Nay Pyi Taw and continued driving through the old highway. It was nice to see the road with well-maintained trees on the island. It does not only beautify but also prevent accidents especially that outside of Yangon motorcycles crisscross the road, most often disregarding basic traffic rules.
Our first stop was Shwetalyaung paya. The paya featured two reclining Buddhas. The older statue, housed in a maroon-colored structure was built in 994AD by a king named Miga Dipa. The statue was large at 180 feet in length and 52 feet in height. At the back portion of the Buddha were ten plates that showed the story of its construction. A poignant love story, it showed how the king sent his son to the forest as a sacrifice to a heathen god. The son however met a beautiful lady whom she married and brought back to the palace. The king was not happy and looks for ways to get rid of the couple. The wife was caught praying to the Buddha and it enraged the king who was worshiping another god. The king decided to have them both killed but as the lady prayed, the idols of the king crumbled. The king was converted to Buddhism and he ordered the construction of the reclining Buddha.
Several hundred meters from the enclosed old Buddha, a newer version was constructed. There was no indication who ordered the construction of the new Buddha. When we arrived, it was in the process of being maintained and repainted with scaffoldings built around its head. The main difference between the two statues is the resting place of the head – the old is resting its head in boxes, while the new is resting its head on its open palm.
The next stop is Shwemawdaw paya. This is one of the oldest and most venerated paya in the country, said to be containing strands of Buddha’s hair. Located at the center of the city, it looked magnificent as you approach it from the outskirts. Inside, it looked similar with the Shwe Dagon except for the portion of the paya that was destroyed by an earthquake it 1917. That portion was not taken out, but instead retained with a memorial plate placed describing the event that caused its toppling. The paya was alive with many pilgrims visiting and several processions arrived in the paya while we were getting out, adding to the festive atmosphere in the place.
A funny thing happened when we were going out of the paya. As we were collecting our shoes, our guide pulled us and led us out through another exit as if he was avoiding somebody. When we were already in the car, he told us that there were government employees collecting cultural fees from foreigners and it was good they were not able to see us. Since we do look more like ordinary Myanmar, they were not able to notice us and we were not able to pay the fees. I told him that it is alright for me to pay because it is being used for maintenance and upkeep of the sites. We are more than willing to share in the keeping the sites available also to other people.
After the paya, we went to the Snake monastery which was located a little bit away from the city center, and the roads were not even paved. A small house in the monastery was home to a big python which said to be a reincarnation of a monk. When we arrived, three persons were inside the home with the motionless python. Our guide, a devout Buddhist offered money and this was accepted with a short prayer, promising luck to the giver.
The final stop was Kanbawza Thadi, the reconstructed palace of King Bayint Naung. The second part of the funny thing happened as we approach the gate of the palace. As we were entering, a man stopped us and looks for our gate pass. Our guide said we have no pass. The man said we should pay before we can enter the palace complex and visit also all other sites of interest in the city. It turned out that we should have paid the pass at the Shwemawdaw paya. Since we skirted the collectors at the paya, we still have to pay the whole amount of the gate pass at the palace gate. So we did, and at least we were not guilty of not paying for the cultural fees, while enjoying the sites we have visited.
Looking at the map, the palace is basically at the center of the city. The brochure distributed in the site stated it was built in 1553 by King Bayint Naung naming his capital Hanthawaddy. After his death, vassal kings from Taungoo and Rakhine burned down the palace. Quite interestingly, I viewed a series of Thai film during the same period of the reign of King Bayint Naung entitled Naresuan. The film was about the Siam prince Naresuan who was taken as a hostage so that the vassal kingdom where he came from will not revolt against the kingdom of Hanthawaddy. He grew up in Hanthawaddy and educated in a monastery. When he grew old, Naresuan decided to go back to Siam and that started his adventures. The story confirms the outreach and influence of the kingdom under King Bayint Naung that extends even to the land of Siam.
In 1990, excavation showed the remains of teak columns that stood as the huge posts of the palace. Based on the position and lay-out of the posts, the palace was reconstructed back to its original grandeur. The main royal audience hall reflected the magnificence of the palace. The remains of the old teak posts were placed alongside the present huge concrete posts. On the right side facing the audience hall was a smaller structure called the Bamayathana or the Bee throne room. It is a smaller version of the royal audience hall.
Unlike the other places of interest, I observed that the palace was devoid of commercial stalls that cramped the other sites in the city. A small souvenir shop inside the royal audience hall sells few souvenir items, but nothing else compared to the stalls that lined the entrances of the payas.
As we moved on, we cannot help but endlessly talk about the smorgasbord of religious icons, distinctively Myanmar architecture, political history, and other cultural heritage of the place. One day is not enough to fill the cravings of our eyes, and for sure coming back to Bago will be a priority whenever there is an opportunity for another day trip. Next time, we will make sure that we pay the cultural fees first!