A dip into Bago

We could have left Kalaw on a 8:30pm bus which with a 10-12 hour journey time would have us arriving at a reasonable time but we had chosen the 5:30pm bus for a couple of reasons: it gave us enough daylight to get down the bulk of the mountain road and with the constant wet weather we figured that it would be safer travelling in daylight, and secondly we like to see the scenery, doing endless bends in the dark is boring and we have done it many times in South America. It was a good call. There was just us and the locals (we figured most tourists must be on the 8:30pm bus) we got to watch a rather nice sunset, enjoy some stunning scenery and get a glimpse of people’s lives on the mountains.

IMG_3955We did the usual stop for dinner, the restaurant was better than most and they did a very good fried rice. At just gone midnight we stopped on the expressway for a roadside toilet stop. 2am we stopped for a driver fag break and a chance for the bus guys to check on 2 baby fluffy bunnies they were transporting. We know all this as we barely slept because the air con worked at sub zero temperatures basically freezing us out and making sleep impossible. At 4am we got the nod. We were at the Bago junction. It was dark and raining gently but there were plenty of people around- mainly taxis (both car and motorbike) so we were fine to be dropped. Of course we were soon approached by both when we got off. For a car they wanted K20,000 and for a motorbike they wanted K8000 each. We thought the price was way too high (guessing it was high because of the time of night), locals we spoke to later didn’t think the price was too bad but they were definitely tourist prices.

There were plenty of night buses from all over the country, coming through the junction on their way to Yangon so we decided to wait a while and see if any other tourists got off and were doing the same as us. Marie stayed at the top end of the row of vehicles watching to see who was getting off all the buses stopped there and Emma wandered down the row to check out a bus dropping people lower down.

IMG_3777Instead of tourists Emma found a student that could speak passable English. He studied agriculture in Bago and was waiting with his friend for his parents to arrive on a night bus. He said the price for a taxi was too high and that if we waited until 5am there would be a bus we could get for K1,500 each. There was no doubt that we were waiting! As we stood talking to the student we noticed a pick up arrive on the other side of the road. We established that yes it was going to Bago.

Our new friend took us over and helped us to get it. Emma got squashed into the back and Marie got squashed into the cab with the driver and his missus. A spot in the cab sounds good but in reality the only benefits were a comfy seat and being warm and dry. There was no room to put your feet as the footwell was full, the missus didn’t seem that friendly though when she woke up properly when we stopped she and her friend tried talking to Marie in Burmese and just seemed to find the whole thing amusing. Then they stared at her for a while (which was fine as by now we are used to it, they’re just curious and in particular they are not used to seeing blue eyes). The worst bit was that the cab stank of fish and Marie has developed a real aversion to the smell of fish from the markets and now refuses to go through the fish sections at all (and chicken too for that matter) and she could see exactly what the driver could see. Not much. The lights worked and the wipers did a bit though the rain wasn’t too bad and the road not too badly lit. Luckily it was wide and there was little traffic on it. The approach seemed to be drive rather fast down the middle of 2 lanes following the white line and when you can’t see where the road goes beep your horn constantly to tell anyone else on the road you are coming and hope to be able to see again before the next bend.

IMG_3840We got to watch the day break and we got dropped off in the perfect spot right where the hotels are. It was 5:45am but there was plenty of life on the street and as luck would have it we were dropped directly outside an open tea shop. We figured that it was a bit early to be going to check places out so got coffee and waited until a more reasonable time of 6:20. It wasn’t too early for a trishaw driver to tout us. We knew the sights that we wanted to see were too spread out for us to walk everywhere in 1 day on foot so just said we’d think about it as it’s really not our favourite form of transport.

We found a hotel and checked in. We landed a choice room at the back of the hotel away from the very busy road and with lots of windows. However, it was also a good reminder that we are back to paying city prices. After freshening up and deciding that we would attempt to see as much as we could we went out to see what our transport options were. We only stepped out of the door when a guy who could speak good English touted us for a motorbike. They all know what tourists want to see and we established the price, where he would take us and that no we were not both going on the one bike so did he have a mate with another bike – of course he did. Technically you have to pay a US$10 fee to the government to see the sights in Bago (as is common in most of the tourist areas – Bagan costs US$10, Inle Lake costs US$5, Mandalay there is a US$10 combo ticket for some of the major sights and in Yangon foreigners have to pay a couple of dollars entry fee for each of the main sights ). In Bago the fee is only collected in 2 or 3 places so our guy said this was his city and he knew how to get us in without paying anything (funnily enough no one likes the government very much).

IMG_3782We got helmets but these guys weren’t like our country boys. We had places to go and slow and steady they weren’t. Its fair enough though as we had agreed where they would take us and the sooner we’d been there the sooner they could pick up their next job. We just trusted that they do this all day everyday and they don’t want to hurt themselves or damage their bikes since they are their livelihood. Emma clung on for dear life but managed not to look too scared.

We visited too many temples to remember; there were the 4 back to back Buddhas, a big reclining one that we could only stay 20 minutes at (more than enough for us anyway) as this is one of the sights that they collect the fee at so we had to be out of there before the office opened at 9am. We saw a smaller reclining buddha, another temple with a buddha garden at the back, another one with an old man gesturing to us to walk around some elephant thing and bang a gong 3 times then give a donation (we did as we’re not that tight). Then we went to the other side of the city and they snuck us into the back of a big sight the Shwemaudaw Paya, as the fee is also payable there.

At 376ft high it is bigger than the’big one’ in Yangon. Like most of the big stupas in Burma this one has collapsed (usually as a result of earthquakes) and been rebuilt many times over the last 600 years. At this one they have left a big section of the stupa that was toppled by a quake in 1917 and built it into the main one. Being at the back we had a good view of it. Marie passed on the option of visiting the snake monastery. There they have a former head of a monastery in Hipsaw who has been reincarnated into the form of an enormous 118 year old Burmese Python. Burmese Pythons are considered one of the biggest in the world and according to the guidebook this one is at least 17ft long and a foot wide which they reckon probably makes it the biggest in the world. Marie didn’t need to see if the guidebook was right or not.

IMG_3852Instead we visited a temple on a hill that gave us a nice view of the city and surrounding landscape. We finished at the Kha Khat Wain Kyaund, one of the three largest monasteries in the country. Prior to the Saffron Revolution in 2007 there were over 1500 monks living here, afterwards only 400 remained (the government “dispersed” many) today there are 700 in residence. As with some other monasteries if you are there at the right time you can catch lunchtime. We had chosen not to join the watching monks eat at other monasteries thing because usually they don’t really like being gawped at and it seems weird to us to go and watch people eat. But this time was different. At this monastery the monks think its really rather funny that people want to see them line up and eat their lunch.

The head monk has given permission for visitors to have free rein in the monastery so that they can get a better understanding of the life of a monk and understand the religion. They are also happy for us to take photos wherever. We were being guided by one of our motorbike guys. Both were very good at looking after us and explaining about each sight and made sure we didn’t miss any hidden things and then would leave us to wander on our own accord. Emma’s old man was a bit bonkers, he constantly had a cigar in his mouth with a strange grin, riding with one hand and waving to people he knew. But even he was very good in telling us to be careful not to slip on wet tiles and he snuck us into the big stupa and explained a few things to us. Both guys clearly knew a lot of people in town.

IMG_3878Marie’s younger guy took us into the monastery. Turns out he was a monk here which explains why he knew so much about the place and the monks daily routine. First he took us into the empty dining hall which was being prepared for the meal. Then he took us into the kitchen, the pans were so big the stirring spoons were the size of paddles. He didn’t just point things out to us he was in there lifting the covers off the rice steamers to show us and poking around with the fire. Next we went to one of the monks’ dorms, they didn’t seem bothered at all to have us mooching about. After he took us to wait in the best position to watch the monks proceed to the dining hall. 700 people filing past is a lot.

When we lost interest in watching the never ending line of hungry people he took us to slip into the back of the dining hall. Novice monks sit to the right and senior monks (20yrs+) sit on the left. We listened to the hall echo with chanting and the start of lunchtime before heading back, weaving through the market. From the bikes we’d seen the impact of the wet season for the first time. It had only just finished raining solidly for a week they said. We passed dozens of side streets off the main road. In some, people were using wooden canoes to get around.

IMG_3939We asked the motorbike guys for a recommendation for lunch – cheap but nice and they pointed out a restaurant overlooking the swollen river. After being dropped off we headed there and explored the edge of the market on foot. We didn’t really like the vibe of the place, it is a bit shabby with a slightly rough edge about it and we found the people to be quite different to elsewhere, they were a bit standoffish and not very welcoming. It had something like a border town feeling. It’s our least favourite place we have visited in Burma. Later that afternoon we were going to head out and photograph some of the flooded streets but a big monsoon storm came over so we hung out in the hotel only venturing around the corner for dinner.

Observations:

  • Bago is not the place to come for a taste of Burma -it is very different here to the rest of the country
  • Once a thriving throughfare with a seaport and the main north south road running through it Bago was a happening place. There is still a horrendous amount of traffic streaming through despite the new expressway so rear hotel rooms are best.

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