Bago (Pegu)/ Myanmar: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
Today a pilgrimage site to Burmese Buddhists, and not only the Buddhists, and capital of the Bago Division in the Irrawaddy Region, this is a city of very rich and turbulent history, teeming with wars, battles, and sacred religious events and artifacts. It is located on the eastern bank of Bago River in lower Myanmar. Even prior to becoming a capital of the Second Myanmar Empire, it was a very important trade and religious center. It even used to be one of the most important sea ports in Myanmar, but, unbelievably, it is not even on the sea shore anymore! It still remains tremendously important city, as a trafficking point, located some 80 kilometers northeast of Yangon, on the biggest highway in this part of Southeast Asia, the Yangon- Mandalay Expressway, as well as religious center. Let’s start from the beginning.
History of Bago (Pegu)
Pegu is an Anglicism, a name by which the city was known during the British colonial rule. Throughout its history, the city was also called Hanthawaddy and Ussa. It is hard, and so far it has been impossible, to determine exactly when the city or settlement of Bago was founded. Bago city is said to have been founded in 573 by Mon emigrants from Thaton to the southeast, but the most likely date of its foundation as the capital of a Mon kingdom is 825, the twin brothers Samala and Vimala established it as Mon capital.
In the 11th century, Bago was dominated by the Upper Myanmar capital at Bagan, but in the 14th century it ended up being ruled by a succession of eleven Mon kings from nearby Martaban (Muttama). Among these was Dhammaceti (1470–1492), whose reign, free from invasion from the Upper Myanmar capital at Ava (Inwa) brought expanded trade. Gifts sent by on a religious mission to Sri Lanka in 1476 included cloth from China, betel boxes from Haripunchai and carpets from Inwa – all indicative of a trade network stretching from the Gulf of Martaban (Muttama) to Yunnan. Bago reached its peak in the 16th century under a line of rulers from the Upper Myanmar capital of Toungoo, with its geographical position giving it maritime access to goods from South Asia and the river valleys on its landward side that linked it to inland trade. When in 1539 the Mon kingdom fell to the Burman Toungoo dynasty, Bago was made the capital of a united kingdom until 1599 and again from 1613 to 1634. It was at this time that a vast new moat and wall were built by King Bayin Naung (1552–1581) lying just southeast of the original site. In the 17th century, the ruling dynasty moved the capital back to Upper Myanmar and the land base of Bago disappeared, while deposits of alluvium narrowed the Bago River and destroyed its access to the sea.
When in 1757 the Burman king Alaungpaya invaded the Mon land, he destroyed Bago, but left the religious buildings intact. In 1852, the British took control of Lower Myanmar., including Bago, or, as they named it, Pegu. They moved the capital of the newly established province of British Burma from Pegu to Rangoon, now known as Yangon.
City of great history, Bago, is also a city of enormous religious significance to the Burmese people. In fact, it is consider, along with Bagan and some other ex-capitals, which Burma, or Myanmar, have really had a handful of, a city of history and religion. Many monuments still stand here, proudly remaining the locals and familiarizing tourists of just how important this city was, and still is, for the history of this country. Whether as a capital of one of many Burmese kingdoms, or as a pilgrimage site and a center of Budhism in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, the city of Bago (Pegu) represents the country’s many historic eras and its religious origins and magnitude. Some of the historic sites and temples were destroyed by the never-ending wars and internal battles, some by the 7.3 magnitude earthquake which struck Bago in 1930, but many of them have now been restored, rebuilt, or even rediscovered.
Sites in the city of Bago
Kambazathadi Golden Palace- the famous palace of King Bayin Naung is being extensively excavated and some buildings are being rebuilt. King Bayin Naung was the founder of the Second Myanmar Empire, and in 1566 AD he built a new capital city called Hanthawadi on what is now Bago. Built during Bayinnaung's second year on the throne in 1553, the palace had had 76 individual apartments and a large hall. The complex did not survive long after Bayinnaung's death, burning down in 1599. The Palace has not yet been completely excavated, but the Settaw Saung, one of the main rooms of the palace, has been reconstructed.
Shwe Tha Lyaung Reclining Buddha- one of the two reclining Buddhas in Bago. Shwe Tha Lyaung is 55 meters long and 16 meters high. Tourists can read these measures from the table standing in front of the statue and stating all measures of this monument. It is believed to have been built in 994, during the rule of the Mon, but literally lost in 1757, after the city was destroyed by the Burmese. It was rediscovered during the British colonial rule, hidden in the jungle vegetation, in 1880. Its first restoration began the next year, and has since been restored many times. Its miraculous rediscovery had only strengthened the beliefs of the Burmese Buddhists about this being a very sacred statue.
Shwemawdaw Pagoda- also known as 'Great Golden God Pagoda' of Bago, it has been growing for more than 1000 years. The Shwemawdaw Pagoda, whose spire can be seen behind this impressive entrance portal, was originally built by the Mon to a height of 23 meters in the 8th century and had been rebuilt several times until it finally reached its present 114 meter stature in 1954. Legends say that enshrined beneath the towering pagoda are the hairs and teeth of the Buddha.
Mahazedi Paya (Pagoda) - also called “The Great Stupa”, was originally constructed in 1560 by King Bayin Naung, and destroyed during the 1757 attack on Bago. It was restored a few times and acquired its present looks in 1982. It is known that the pagoda had enshrined a tooth-relic brought from Sri Lanka, considered the most sacred relic of the Buddha.
Mya Tha Lyaung Reclining Buddha- the other of the two reclining Buddhas in Bago. It is located next to its famous look-alike, the Shwe Tha Yaung Reclining Buddha. It is located in the outdoors, which is rare for reclining Buddha statues. It is around 70 meters long and 30 meters high. There are some inscriptions on the soles of its feet, giving it another interesting feature.
Kyaik Pun Pagoda- Kyaik Pun Pagoda is in the form of four gigantic Buddha images all in sitting posture facing the four cardinal points of the compass. They are seated back to back against a massive brick pillar. It was built by King Dhamma Zedi in 1476 A.D.
Maha Kalyani Sima- The essential building for Buddhist Order is no doubt that of Sima or Ordination. Also known as ‘Sacred Hall of Ordination’, it was originally constructed in 1476 by Dhammazedi, the famous alchemist king and son of Queen Shinsawpu. Right next to the Hall are ten large tablets which describe the history of Buddhism and the Buddhist Order in Myanmar. It was erected in the form of Kalyarni Sima in Sri-Lanka.
Kha Khat Wain Kyaung- a monastery known for its monks; every morning, they go out and scatter around the city asking for alms. It is, or was, one of the largest monasteries in Myanmar. It is estimated that it houses around 500 monks at the moment. Tourists also like to take pictures of monks having their lunch, around 10:30 am.
There are other sites, such as the Bago Central Market, or Hintha Gon Pagoda, also worth visiting in Bago.
Sites around Bago
Some of must-see sites are located in the vicinity of Bago, rather than in the city itself. They are equally as important and magnificent as those in Bago, and most definitely ought not to be missed when visiting Bago. These sites include:
Taukkyan War Cemetery- this cemetery is located some 70 kilometers south-east of the city. The cemetery itself was built in 1951, to commemorate the soldiers who died in both World Wars. It now contains 6,374 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.
Pyay- Pyay was formerly known as Prome, during the British colonial rule. The city sits on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) River, and is one of Myanmar’s many ex-capitals. There is an ancient capital of Pyu ,called Thaye-khittra (Sri Ksetra), located some 8 kilometers east of Pyay. The Sri Ksetra site covers 47 square kilometers, along which visitors can see the remains of the Royal Palace; a huge, cylindrical, brick-built Baw Baw Gyi Pagoda, which is considered the oldest Buddhist monument in Myanmar; the Rahanta Cave Pagoda; the Lay Myet Hna Monument; and the Royal Cemetery. It was enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (Golden Rock )- one of the most famous and visited sites in Myanmar. It is located around 140 kilometers southeast of Bago, in a small town of Kyaikhto. Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda stands on a gilded boulder precariously perched on the edge of the hill 1202 meters above the sea-level. The Pagoda is considered one of the new wonders of the world, not surprisingly.
Akauktaung Mountain- also known as the Tax Hill, its attractions include many Buddha images carved into the stone surrounding the Bago River, whose banks are also cliffs of the Akauktaung Mountain.
Bago (Pegu) today
Bago is now a rapidly growing city, which also successfully keeps its historical and religious significance for the Burmese people. Its location close to the country’s dominant city Yangon and on the country’s newest Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, enables its growth and modernization. It is this intersection of history, religion, and urbanization that makes Bago, or Pegu, one of the cities not to be missed when visiting Myanmar.