We generally try not to speed-tour a town, but when faced with a three-hour bus layover in one of Myanmar’s most historic cities, we had to make the most of it! We arrived from Hpa An to the 1000-year-old-town-meets-transit-hub and walked right up to the moto-taxis. “We have three hours in Bago,” we said, “Who can show us the city highlights for 10,000 kyat?” Maung was our man. With a huge smile of betel-stained teeth, he wooed us with his jovial ways and knowledge of town. Away we went, three to a motorbike, through cow traffic jams, 10th-century temples, snake monasteries, one of the world’s largest Buddhas, and somehow still had time to learn how to roll cigars and chew betel nut. Ready, set, go!
The crazy part about Bago (in its heyday, “The Port of Pegu”) is that it was the most powerful city in Myanmar and the linchpin of a trade network that extended across the Indian Ocean until the 18th Century. The story goes, the city amassed so much wealth that it caused terrible feuds with the neighboring capital to the point of Pegu’s destruction. One of the crowning gems that remains is the 10th-century Shwemawdaw Pagoda. Even taller than Yangon’s Shwedagon and nearly as beautiful, its glittering stupa can be seen from six miles away. Keeping with the theme of death and rebirth, notice the massive chunk that fell down in the 1917 earthquake and how they worked the rubble into the renovation.
Maung was not a proper tour guide, but hearing what the pagoda meant to him as a local was even more interesting. We walked the grounds, peering into little temples with locals praying or looking for a little relaxation at the end of the day (like smoking with your buddy and Buddha). The guy on the right coyly came up and asked us to take his portrait (see it in the slideshow). He didn’t want to even see the photo, just to know that his presence was recorded.
As soon as we left the pagoda, Maung bee-lined for the betel-nut stand. The vendor was rolling the leaves with tobacco and aniseed, cardamom, and cloves for “the sweet.” All the fresh ingredients suddenly started to look good, so…when in Bago. Watch this video for our first lesson in betel-nut chewing.
Our next stop was a cigar rolling workshop–mainly because Maung had a crush on one of the employees. We walked into the low-slung wooden space with ladies working away at their stations of tobacco, rolling paper (leaves), and filters (rolled newspaper nubbins). We had a grand time chatting with them, learning about the trade, trying a freshly rolled cigar, and most of all watching Maung work his mojo.
As quirky and perhaps ridiculous as it is, a visit to the Snake Monestary is a must in Bago. This holy place is devoted to a Buddhist abbot who was said to be reborn in the form of a giant Burmese python. The snake is 29-feet long and over 100-years old, so no matter what your views on the reptile, you’ve gotta pay respect.
Bago is home to one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world but the 10th-century artwork has incurred much damage through the years of abandonment and Maung was convinced we’d like this new Mya Tha Lyaung Buddha better. Stretching out 270 feet, this guy may only be 12 years old but he’s quite humbling. That dot on the left is me.
Bago, a city overshadowed by its bigger neighbors and checkered past, is still a spunky little town worth a day trip from Yangon or any layover. And if you can make a friend like Maung while you are there, you’ll be extra glad you came.