Road trips are synonymous with freedom, adventure and the exploration of, not just the places you visit, but also landscape within yourself. While I’m not sure our road trip to Bago enabled us to do all that, it certainly opened the landscape of Myanmar up to us.
7am on a Sunday morning with glorious sunshine beating down upon us, we set off north to visit the town of Bago. The night before we had been uncertain if we were even going to make it as our original driver, a local taxi driver and friend of one of the group, texted to say that he’d been involved in an accident and couldn’t make it. Thankfully, he was unhurt, but his car wasn’t and therefore unsafe for us to use. He did however pass us on to another friend who was able to drive us instead and so our road trip was rescued and we set out optimistically, anticipating a day filled with giant Buddhas, golden pagodas and lots of fun.
Bago, or Pegu as it was once known, is a little over an hour north from Yangon. The roads, while still busy on this holiday weekend, were wider and smoother than the road that had taken us east a few weeks earlier. The traffic remained consistently inconsistent in its lane use, speed and accuracy, but we learnt that if you start to use your horn about 100 meters up the road from where you want to pass, then the traffic knows you’re there and will stay out of the way. I use pass advisedly because you can both over and undertake here, depending on which side has the most room and the least obstructions to the driving line!
We arrived in Bago at about 9.30am and quickly began our exploration of the former capital. Our first stop was one of numerous giant reclining Buddha’s that inhabit the town. Many of them are quite ancient yet they all look new and shiny due to extensive restorations. This was evidenced by the bamboo scaffolding encasing our first Buddha, yet we could still clearly see his face, and the men working on whitening his features and repainting his eye-liner. We also met a postcard seller who serenaded one of our group with The Beatle’s ‘Let it Be’ before selling us the oil-painted postcards ‘his father’ had painted!
A second reclining Buddha (the Shwethalyaung Buddha) was even grander in scale, all 180 ft. of it a monument to doomed love. My feeling was that the Buddha looked a little bit too much like the cat that got the cream, reclining with gay abandon on a gigantic mosaic pillow rather than representing the conversion of King Mgadeikpa from cruel, tyrannical parent who tortured his son for falling in love, to a good Buddhist like his new daughter in law. He was rather splendid though.
Here, we also learnt the bumpy route of tourism. Foreigners pay K10,000 ($10) to get a pass to visit all the sites in Bago. Straight forward enough, except when you realize that that money goes straight to the government and is not used for the upkeep of the sites. However, if you want to take photos you are charged another k300 (20p) and that money does return to the people. You are given a little ticket to attach to your camera and woe betide you if you don’t have one, you will get politely hassled by men with varying degrees of English trying to explain, unclearly, what you need to know. As we had walked in and missed all the signs and booths relating to payments we were immediately targeted and it took some careful interpretation before we got it all straight, but we got there in the end.
A short but hectic ride across town lead us to the (very) golden Kanbawzathadi Palace. A lesson in Myanmar architecture, it dates from the Mon period and lay overgrown and forgotten until the 1990s when it was restored. In my opinion you CAN have too much gold but it was certainly an impressive building and the huge teak pillars, foundations sent from all over Myanmar hundreds of years ago, which were uncovered during the excavation, were something to behold.
Of course, we also visited Shwemawdaw pagoda, Bago’s answer to Yangon’s Shwedagon. It is, in fact, very similar to Shwedagon in style and layout (I got as lost here as I did at Swedagon) although its faded, golden stupa is taller, standing at 114 meters high. I always find that it’s the shrines around the outside of the stupa that are the most interesting things. On this occasion I found a few that were more like fairground attractions than prayer spots, with a merry-go-round of little boats which people threw money at and another with undulating money pots and silver rotating rods that represented waves. Both seem strange ways to become closer to enlightenment, but I think the strangest is to be seen at the Snake monastery.
Here, people crowd around to see a century old, nine-meter long python believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist abbot. They lay money on its body as it rests in its, rather small, enclosure. I found it rather bizarre and not a little disturbing to see such an enormous reptile, resting with its head in touching distance, being revered by a stream of people.
Less creepy, but just as strange, was the Japanese war cemetery. Hidden away within the confines of a monastery we found a small, unloved memorial that hid a mass grave of Japanese soldiers. Not what we had expected at all and in stark contrast with the British War Cemetery at Taukkyan, which stood proudly by the side of the road and was definitely well kept. I guess the losers really don’t like reminding of their history.
Other Buddha’s that we visited included the four Kyaik Pun Paya Buddha’s just outside Bago. These 100 ft. tall effigies sit back to back, pointing to the four cardinal points. Certainly impressive, and all slightly different, they were worth the burnt feet we suffered as we walked barefoot on the marble around them in the midday sun.
As we returned home we also stopped off at a nature park, which we had managed to, mistakenly, up grade to National Park. Therefore we were somewhat surprised to find skinny Disney characters and some sad looking bears and monkeys in rather concrete, uninspiring enclosures. We were looking for elephants, promised in the guidebook, but sadly invisible. We had got onto a very dilapidated bus to find them. The seats moved and the engine smoked having literally been kick-started by the driver. We were thankful to get off at the first stop, where the elephants were promised, and ended up having a short, semi- scenic walk through a part of the forest, the highlights of which were the loud group of teens who insisted on joining our photo shoot and having their picture taken with the albinos; and the enormous monkey who headed us off on a very rickety bridge.
We arrived home just before dark, hot, sweat soaked and dusty. We had seen a lot and had a lot of laughs, and while it might not have been a road trip in the truest sense of the word it was a Myanmar road trip, and that was good.