Leaving the pollution of Yangon in our tracks and traveling to Bago. The fresh air of the countryside provided a much-needed change of scenery. Farmers were working the lands the way it has been done for centuries with cows and water buffalo dragging ploughs through the vibrant green, waterlogged rice paddies that scatter the lands like a patchwork quilt. It was a rare occurrence to see a farmer using any kind of machinery. Bago is located 80 kilometers North East of Yangon and was once one of the many formal capitals of Myanmar. With various temples and other religious sites scattered throughout Bago and the surrounding area there is certainly more than enough going on to keep you occupied.
We gathered outside the train station to get our bearings and decide where to spend the night. A small crowd of locals had swarmed round us in the same way moths are drawn to a light bulb. It was a little intimidating as they were just standing there watching us talk amongst ourselves but they were curious and eager to help us. We were going to walk to the hotel but they assured us it was too far. They helped organize an old, rickety tri-shaw to take us to the hotel. Just as well for our sake as our accommodation was at the other side of town. The Amara hotel provided us with a clean spacious room to ourselves with air-con and to top it off a private bathroom. This sold it for me. Let’s just say Myanmar cuisine hadn’t been agreeing with me thus far.
After a long day travelling and needing to refuel, we were on the hunt for food and beer. With many restaurants and beer stations in the area it didn’t take long until we found somewhere. We were greeted by the family of the restaurant as we entered. So far everyone has been very helpful and welcoming in Bago. I cannot remember the name of the restaurant but it was on the main road leading back into town and also doubled as a wedding chapel if that helps anyone. Don’t worry, no-one got married but we did stuff ourselves with food and had a couple of Myanmar’s finest. For 3 meals and 3 big bottles of beer it only cost us 5400 Kyat. We think they possibly made a mistake with the bill so we said our thank you’s and goodbyes then promptly left.
The next morning between 4 of us we hired a driver to take us round Bago for the day. There was a “tour guide” who was joining us for the day and within moments he was already giving us a sales pitch about other excursions in the area. What little confidence we had in him to begin with was rapidly deteriorating. In Bago you are required to pay an “archaeological fee” if you want to go to all the main attractions in the area. Our guide mentioned to us that he would be able to get us this ticket for half price. He wanted the money up front, it sounded like a con. After we told him that we weren’t paying him we didn’t see him again and this confirmed our suspicions. Maybe he would have saved us money or maybe he would have just taken our money and we would have had to pay even more. Don’t be forced into doing something you’re not comfortable with or that you have a bad feeling about, it’s always better to trust your instincts. We still had the taxi driver for the day and we all felt a lot better without this “tour guide” with us. There were thoughts about trying to get away without paying this archaeological fee. We had read about people not paying so we thought we would also try to avoid it, but after a visit to one of the sites we were asked by guards for our tickets and swiftly had to leave. Shortly after leaving our driver got a phone call and he looked a little distressed. He never said anything to us most likely because he didn’t speak very much English but we believe that he got a call from an official saying that we have to pay this archaeological fee. Since we didn’t want to get him in trouble we ended up buying this ticket at one of the bigger pagodas in the area.
One of the most impressive sights in Bago for me was visiting the snake monastery. Those who know me will know I have a slight fear of snakes and spiders or anything else with the potential to kill me in one excruciating way or another. I suppose I faced one of my fears coming within a few feet of potentially of one the biggest pythons in the world. The snake was appropriately named Monty. There are a few stories and myths behind this giant python at the monastery. One is that a monk had a vivid dream that the snake was the reincarnation of a nat and other stories say the snake is the reincarnation of the monk himself. Either way this snake is freakin huge. Monty is believed to be over 125 years old, is over 17ft long and is a foot wide. I for sure wouldn’t like this wrapped around my body squeezing the life out of me but being the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk it should be a friendly snake right?
As the sun rose the next day we were heading south towards the Golden Rock. The easiest way to get to the Golden Rock is to take the bus to Kinpun. From here there are two ways to reach the top. You can either walk which will take about 5 hours or you jump in the back of a truck. Not feeling up for the trek and being a little pressed for time I chose the latter. If you think it’s going to be a pleasant ride to the top where you can take lots of nice photographs along the way, think again. They cram as many people as physically possible in the back of these trucks and then try to add a few more people for good measure. I think there were at least 40 people in the back. This ride is not for the faint hearted. It is a 45 minute bone crunching, white knuckle ride up a steep, narrow, winding road. You can’t take photos as you will need both hands to hold on. Unless you want to throw your hands in the air as if you are on a roller-coaster. I’m sure the locals would find this rather amusing.
The views from the top were astounding. The surrounding mountains were partly hidden in a mist and are densely covered in a rug of green trees with only a couple villages to be seen and the odd golden pagoda popping up out from the tree tops. The main attraction perched at the top of the mountain is the Golden Rock. How this rock has managed to balance with so little surface area and survived earthquakes over thousands of years is beyond me. How this rock got here in the first place is another question I have been pondering? Legend has it a strand of Buddhas hair allows the rock to balance. It seems like Buddha distributed a lot of his hair before he gained enlightenment. This was and still is a place of pilgrimage for monks who would walk to the rock and place a gold leaf on the rock. It is almost completely covered. There is a small section underneath missing gold if you dare enough to attempt to stick a gold leaf on it?
Coming back down the mountain was a completely different situation altogether. The rain I had spoken of in my previous post had followed me. Everyone was frantically trying to put on ponchos and open up their umbrellas which in the end done little to no good. As soon as we arrived at the foot of the mountain it was as if someone turned the tap off. Typical. The journey up and down the narrow serpentine road up was the most exhilarating part of the day.
Coming to Myanmar I knew I was going to have lots of entrance fees etc that I would be required to pay, but I cannot help but think about how exploited all the religious sites have been. From “archaeological fees” to multiple donation stops, everywhere you go it seems like every penny is being squeezed out of not only tourists but also the locals who don’t have a lot of money to give. I’m just happy it’s not Monty trying to squeeze every penny out of me.
Getting to Bago
Bus – There are multiple buses every day from Yangon. The journey takes around two hours and tickets will cost around 2000 Kyat. They can be purchased opposite the train station in Yangon from bus vendors or from the bus station itself. The problem with taking the bus is that the bus station is 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic from the city. You will have to take a taxi here which will cost 10000 Kyat. It is best to book buses a day in advance.
Train – Trains depart at various times throughout the day. Ask your hotel or hostel for information about times as the schedule seems to be ever-changing. For an upper class ticket it cost 1200 Kyat. There is reclining seats more leg room than on a business class flight. When you are booking in advance you will need to bring your passport for identification.
Taxi – Hire a driver for the day. He will take you to all points of interest in Bago. For the entire day between 4 people it cost 20000 Kyat. Talk to people in your hotel or hostel and see if they would be interested in joining you. This will cut the cost down.
Where to stay?
The Amara hotel offered clean air-con rooms with a private bathroom, free buffet breakfast and at only $20 it was one of the cheaper rooms in Bago. Great value for money.
There are temples and other religious sites in the area that are free but if you want to visit the bigger more impressive sites in the area there is a 10000 Kyat archaeological fee.
The golden Rock
Take a bus to Kinpun. Make sure to book a day in advance as it is quite a popular route, especially in high season. A day trip from Bago will be 7000 Kyat each way and the 1st bus will be at 6.30am. It takes 3 hours. There are quite a few vendors at the bus station so shop around to get the best deal.
The truck from Kinpun to the top of the mountain is a 45 minute ride and is 2500 Kyat each way. There are numerous trucks that leave all day. They wont leave until they are full to the brim.
- Travelling with other people cuts down costs on transport.
- If you do get a tour guide, agree on a price and pay only at the end.
- Trust your instincts.
- Always bring a rain jacket.