A badly reconstructed palace and a really big snake in Bago

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March 31st 2010
Published: March 31st 2010
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Heading down from Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock to Bago, we largely retraced our drive from the day before. In fact, we had driven through downtown Bago on our way from Yangon. The difference this time was that I was not reading a magazine an instead was looking at the world going by. It was quite an interesting drive, with much of it along a small river, and almost the entire drive through dry rice paddies. I haven't seen as many bullock drawn carts this side of India. Fortunately the lack of cars on an otherwise good highway meant that we were not always stuck in traffic and made good time to Bago.

Immediately upon arrival we went back two or three streets, right into a local restaurant for lunch. For anyone who is coming to Burma, this is the way to eat lunch here. The restaurants on the road, which are used to catering for the few tourists that come by, have little turnover and the food is not that good. The back streets, where the locals live, are delicious and very cheap, typically less than three dollars for a meal with drinks.

We had a planned afternoon of sightseeing around town and though I wasn't in the mood, I went along. It is not that I am templed out or anything like that, I am just really tired. After about two weeks of often being up before sunrise, and not great sleep at night, I am tired almost before I get out of bed in the morning and by mid-afternoon I have had enough. But figuring that it is unlikely that I not be back in Bago and that I can sleep when I'm dead, I went along.

The first stop was the uninteresting Kanbawzathadi palace. For a short time in the mid 18th Century Bago was the capital of Burma and so the king built himself a temple, just outside where the modern downtown stands. The government has excavated the site and basically rebuilt the palace from scratch, as all that remains of the original palace is a few teak stumps. The rebuilt palace is a big, empty building, mostly painted gold inside. The ornamentation on the pillars has been spray painted on using a stencil and is very sloppy. About the only thing of interest is the (new) throne, very similar to the Lion Throne in the National Museum in Yangon, as it shows how a throne, which looks like a door, sits in the palace.

Our next stop was the local Snake Monastery, where it is believed that a monk was reincarnated in the body of a huge Burmese python. At over 115 years old, 17 feet long and about a foot thick, it is believed to be one of the biggest Burmese python in the world. It is allowed to free range within a fairly large room that is filled with benches, Buddha statues and plenty of people praying. When we visited it was just sitting curled up in the corner and sleeping, but it was still an impressive site. Given the number of people praying, and the gold decorations, this is a very holy site for the locals.

Stop number three on our five stop tour was the Hintha Gon Paya. Legend has it that back in the day Buddha was flying around the water when he saw a male Hamsa (mythical duck like bird) sitting on a tiny island, with a female Hamsa sitting on its back. Buddha pointed and said that this would be a future holy site and one the water receded, Bago was founded. On top of the only hill in town (where it is figured the Hamsas must have stood) the Hintha Gon Paya was erected. Thus all over the temple are paintings and carvings of the Hamsa, which is definitely a different motif than elsewhere in Burma. The temple also affords a great view of the huge Shwemawdaw Paya, which was our next stop.

At 117 meters tall, this golden stupa is 17 meters higher than the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, but that is about the only way in which it is superior. In addition to our group there were just a handful of locals wandering around, as if just there for the exercise and occasional shady tree. Many of the surrounding temple are painted in bright blues and greens and in a state of disrepair. In one room there was a mechanical display of boats, which was very odd. Walking around the almost deserted temple, the best impression that I can give it that it was like visiting a New Jersey boardwalk in the middle of winter. Not that it is unimpressive or badly done, it just feels slightly sad.

Our fifth and final stop was at another huge reclining Buddha. Like the one in Yangon, this one too was in a huge tin shed, though there is another one nearby that is outdoors. This Buddha is resting it's head on a very nicely done series of encrusted boxes and pillows. Unfortunately the body of the Buddha is undergoing either renovation, cleaning or reconstruction as it is hidden by a layer of bamboo scaffolding and screens. As a side note here, effectively all temples (or at least the praying areas) close at 4pm in Burma. We happened to be here right on four, at which time a gong rang and a group of security guards emerged to take all the offering boxes inside for the night. You can still walk around the temples after 4pm but you cannot leave an offering and many times you will be looking through a locked gate at the Buddha image.

And with that I went to bed. Tomorrow we have a 14 hour train ride to Mandalay and I was so tired that I really just needed to get some sleep. Some of the others in the group headed down to the four Buddha image that was near our hotel and reported that it was quite nice. They also walked through the small village next to the hotel and got a real feel of normal Burmese life. I wish that I could have joined them but it just wasn't going to happen. Oh well, next time.

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