Delights of a guided tour

The Kambawzathardi Golden Palace had comprised 76 apartments and halls, but was burned down in 1599.

When I decided to explore the city of Bago in Myanmar, I used the services of local agency (One Two Travel & Tours), which assigned us a fluent English speaking guide, Khun.

A veteran guide with 19 years of experience, Khun had worked in Singapore, and we bonded with him instantly.

As we headed out of Yangon, Khun was delighted when he realised that we hadn't seen white elephants before, as he was planning to show us these auspicious animals at the Royal White Elephant Garden at Insein Township. We arrived during the morning feeding time and they were feasting on freshly harvested sugarcane.

There are three elephants chained in a big sheltered pavilion. They were discovered in the wild and were brought to this park to be protected. The male elephant is Yaza Gaha Thiri Pissaya Gaza Yaza (19 years old) while the female elephants are Theingi Marlar (35 years old) and Rati Marlar (14 years old). Khun told us that the elephants are free to roam around when the garden closes at 5pm.

The unique characteristics of the white elephant include pearl eyes, white hoofs, and larger ears than their counterparts.According to folklore, it is said that the white elephant brings peace and stability to the nation.

From the elephant sanctuary, we headed to Htauk Kyant (35km north of Yangon). Khun explained that the war cemetery was a memorial to the Allied soldiers from the British Commonwealth who sacrificed their lives during World War II. We learnt that this was the final resting place for over 27,000 Allied soldiers. We walked towards the middle section with a circular ring. Above us were the inscribed words of They Died For All Free Men in English, Hindi, Urdu, Gurmukhi and Burmese.

Sensing our solemn mood, Khun decided to lighten our spirits by taking us to a colourful local market at Htauk Kyant.

It is a bustling wet market where the villages bring their fresh produce to trade. There were several stalls selling steamed corn cobs, quail eggs and glutinous rice dumplings. In addition to fresh vegetables, freshly cut chrysanthemum and roses grown in the neighbouring villages are sold here. The locals use the flowers as offerings to the Buddha at the pagodas.

We were intrigued by the faces of the store owners. Almost every seller had applied a layer of yellowish powder over their faces. Khun explained that it is Thanaka ("Limo-nia acidissima") and emits a scent similar to sandalwood. The chopped wooden bark is ground on stone slabs to form a paste. The locals believe that it provides protection against skin ageing and sunburn. This practice, dating back to 2,000 years, is still well regarded all over Myanmar among all age groups.

As it had started to drizzle, our guide suggested that we have a leisurely lunch at Hanthawaddy Restaurant before visiting Bago's pagodas. We headed for the prime seats on the balcony on the upper level, which overlooked the famous Shwemawdaw Pagoda. The rainwater had washed the stately stupa clean wash and it glittered. As we savoured the fragrant coconut rice with fish curries, we could see the restaurant walls made of teakwood, on which hung paintings of local Mon tribes and intricate handmade puppets.

After the rain had stopped, we went on to explore Bago's attractions. Located 80km north-west of Yangon, Bago was Mon Kingdom's ancient capital in the 6th century. Khun explained that Bago's mascots are two hamsas (hintha-mythical bird), where the female bird was perched on the back of the male hamsa. The local legend said that Bago was a tiny island and there was space only for one hamsa.

Shwemawdaw Pagoda was built in Mon style and remains one of the most venerated in Myanmar. The 114m tall pagoda surpasses Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. This pagoda dominates the skyline of Bago and the stupa is visible even 10km away from the town. It is said to be over 1,000 years old and was originally built by the Mon King to enshrine the two hairs of Buddha.

The pagoda was destroyed during an earthquake in 1930. However, some wooden and bronze Buddha figures were salvaged and are now housed in a small museum.

Shwethalyaung Pagoda is another gem of Bago. The reclining Buddha, measuring 55m in length, is 16m high and portrays Gautama on the eve of his entering nirvana.

This stately statue is 9m longer than the reclining Buddha of Bangkok's Wat Pho. It was originally built of brick and stucco by the Mon King Migadepa II in 994 but deteriorated over time and hidden in the jungle.

In 1881, it was rediscovered by an Indian contractor when the Myanmar railway was being constructed. Subsequently, it was damaged during several earthquakes but was finally restored in 1954.

As we had some time before heading back to Yangon, Khun showed us the Kambawzathardi Golden Palace. It was built by King Bayinnaung, who founded the second Myanmar empire. According to old drawings, the original palace comprised 76 apartments and halls, but was burned down in 1599. As we walked around the restored palace with the interior illuminated by golden hues, we could visualise the opulence and grandeur of its historic past.

GUIDELINES

- There are direct flights from Singapore to Yangon via Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, Jetstar Asia, Tiger, Myanmar Airways International and Golden Myanmar Airlines. From Yangon, you can join a day trip to Bago (formerly known as Pegu).

- The local currency in Myanmar Kyats(MMK). The indicative rate is US$1 = 988MMK or S$1 = 773MMK. You can bring SGD as it is readily convertible at some moneychangers in Yangon.

- In Bago, Hanthawaddy Restaurant (192 Hintha St) serves authentic Myanmarese cuisine. From the restaurant's balcony, you can admire the glittering Shwemawdaw Pagoda.

- I engaged the services of One Two Travel & Tours (www. onetwo.com). You can e-mail them at info@onetwotour.com or onetwotour@gmail.com to customise your trip to continue to Golden Rock (Kyaikhtiyo) from Bago if you have extra days.


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