Things to see in Bago, Myanmar
As tourism increases in Myanmar, the local people are proudly showing off their country to the outside world. After decades of repression, they seem to take great joy in the fascination foreigners have with the Golden Land.
In the small town of Bago, a couple of hours east of Yangon, I met Kyee Maung (pronounced Chee Mwah). He used to be the headmaster at a school in one of the city’s outlying villages but now he takes tourists on motorbike tours of his region.
But he does more than just a trip around the sights and he wants to leave his international guests with more than just a cursory impression of Bago.
Kyee Maung uses his connections in the community to dig down to the daily life of many of the local residents.
How much can you fit into one day on the back of a motorbike? Well, if you’re Kyee Maung, a lot!
I thought I would share some of the highlights of the tour he gave me through Bago and the surrounding region. Although it’s the conversations we had and his views on the recent history of Myanmar that were particularly special, this photo essay will hopefully give you a good sense of some of the fascinating things he showed me.
(If you’re ever in Bago I would highly recommend spending the day with Kyee Maung – ask for him at the San Francisco Guesthouse.)
Stop 1: The Shwemawdaw Pagoda
We start the day at the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, the main sight in Bago. It’s a large and impressive pagoda that can be seen from much of the city.
Kyee Maung, of course, knew a little trick and took me in through the entrance where I didn’t have to pay for a foreigner’s entry ticket.
Stop 2: The Nunnery
Just next to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda is a nunnery which we just casually strolled in to. In their small teaching area, I was invited to sit down for tea and snacks.
I chatted with an elderly woman who comes everyday to do volunteer work with the nuns. (She seemed more interested in talking about her unmarried daughters to me than anything else.)
It was almost lunchtime for the nuns so she showed me the kitchen and the dining room where the women were about to eat.
Stop 3: Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Monastery
Across town we visited Bago’s largest monastery – home to about 400 monks. Kyee Maung showed me their dormitory accommodation where they sleep on the floor, with no barriers between them.
Then it was time for lunch. Each of the monks walks in one by one and is given food by donors (the more senior ones get more). It takes a big pot to cook enough fish stew for everyone!
Stop 4: Leaf market
One of the main industries in Bago is cigarette and cigar manufacturing. We visited a large market which is dedicated solely to the sale of the leaves used to wrap the cigarettes. There were more than a hundred little stores.
The workers spend a lot of their day sorting through the leaves which have come in wholesale, putting them into different piles based on quality, for sale at different prices.
Stop 5: Cigar and cigarette factory
Then it was on to a ‘factory’ where the cigarettes and cigars are made. Although in reality, it was just a house with a group of women sitting on the floor rolling and sticking together the cylinders.
They worked at such a past pace, where there still seemed time for some gossiping (and some giggling when one said I looked like Leonardo DiCaprio).
Stop 6: A smaller monastery
There are a lot of monasteries in Bago, as there are in most cities of Myanmar. Many children attend them as schools, even if they don’t become monks for their entire lives.
It seems young monks and just like most children – sometimes they misbehave. These youngsters were on detention and had to sit in silence and watch their teacher eat his lunch.
Stop 7: The snake temple
An enormous snake was the next stop. But not just any old snake, a sacred reincarnated one!
Local people would come and stare at the snake, say a prayer or two, and then throw some money at it. Kyee Maung told me the snake hadn’t eaten in six months and was probably getting hungry.
We didn’t stay too long here.
Stop 8: The Four Buddhas
One of the famous sights of Bago is the Four Buddhas (called Kyaik Pun Paya), with one facing towards each compass point.
There’s not too much other than the sight of the Buddhas itself, which can be seen in a matter of minutes.
Stop 9: The woodcarving factory
Just near the Four Buddhas, we stopped at a woodcarving ‘factory’. Once again, it was basically just a house but in this case the whole garden had been converted into what looked like a sweatshop.
Dozens of young workers were bent over making all sorts of ornate carvings.
Some of the workers are part of the family which owns the business but others come along and are paid for each piece they make. Most of the woodcarvings are exported to China, I was told.
Stop 10: The local pub
Along the way to our next stop, we made a slight detour to see a traditional local pub. The people come here to drink something called ‘Dodi juice’ which is made from the fruit in the trees all around us. It tastes a bit like sour cider.
The creepiest things, though, were the snacks they eat along with it. Kyee Maung took great pleasure in showing me the fried rat and the fried cat which are considered to be the perfect complement to the juice.
Stop 11: Another pagoda
Every tour of a city in Myanmar must include several pagodas, I’ve been discovering, and so it was time for another one in Bago. This one was interesting because you could walk inside it, where there were statues of sitting Buddhas.
Stop 12: The secret pagoda
Then it was time for the ‘secret pagoda’, a nickname given to it by Kyee Maung for no reason other than it is not in any guidebooks.
There is nothing overly secretive about it otherwise. But it was a very pretty example and had stairs you could use to climb up to the top.
Stop 13: The lake temple
A quick stop, as the sun was getting lower in the sky, at a very pretty temple in the middle of a lake.
Stop 14: The old reclining Buddha
This is one of the most sacred places in Bago and is steeped in legend. The old reclining Buddha (technically called the Shwethalyaung Buddha) was apparently built more than a thousand years ago as a dedication to a queen who brought Buddhism to the heathens in the region who worshipped evil gods.
It is 55 metres long and has had a special building constructing around it to protect it from the elements.
Stop 15: The new reclining Buddha
And not far away from the old reclining Buddha is the new reclining Buddha. It’s actually the larger of the two but was built with concrete in the last ten years or so, so isn’t the most spiritual of places.
Still, as the sun began to go down on Bago and on a very busy day, it was a beautiful and peaceful place to finish a wonderful tour with Kyee Maung.