About 80 kilometres northeast of Yangon is the city of Bago, where the ancient royal capital of Hanthawaddy once stood as an important centre of commerce and Theravada Buddhism from 14th to 16th centuries. It was a city from where King Bayinnaung (1550-1581), probably the greatest king in the history of Myanmar, extended his reign to the many kingdoms of much of Southeast Asia at that time: Hanthawaddy, Ava, Shan States, and South Arakan (Rakhine) of modern Myanmar; Manipur of India, Chinese Shan States, Lan Na and Siam of present-day Thailand, as well as the kingdom of LanXang of present-day Laos.
Compared with other destinations in Myanmar, Bago is little visited by foreign visitors although an increasing number of Thai and Lao people have been visiting the city these days to trace back the footsteps of their ancestors – many Thai and Lao people served King Bayinnaung as courtiers, queens, musicians, artisans and artists his royal palace called the “Kanbawzathadi”. Even though the original palace has been lost forever through ages, a reconstructed replica of the palace along with excavated remnants of the old palace attracts both local and foreign visitors.
Although Hanthawaddy is remembered as one of the warring states among competing city states at that time, there were peace times in the city and kingdom’s history as well. It was the only city that boasts having hosted the only crowned queen in the history of Myanmar: daughter of fierce warrior Mon King Razadirit, Shin Sawbu (1454-1471), under whose rule peace and prosperity flourished in her kingdom.
One of the legacies of Hanthawaddy, being the throne of many Mon and Bamar Buddhist kings, is the abundance of religious architectures and holy sites. The most famous of them is the Shwemawdaw Pagoda built on a 50-feet-high hillock by ancient Mon Buddhists. Legends say it is one millennium old and has suffered earthquake as many as 34 times, and was reconstructed by respective Mon and Bamar kings every time it was affected. One of the old upper structures of the pagoda that fell to the ground following an earthquake can be seen on the platform. Shwemawdaw is not only the most massive and most beautiful but also the highest stupa in Myanmar.
Another attraction in Bago is the reclining Buddha statue of “Shwethalyaung”, which is the largest of its kind crafted in perfect symmetry to become the most proportionate structure. Mahazedi Stupa is also a peaceful and quiet place. The 16th-century structure is said to enshrine a tooth relic of the Buddha. Another notable site is the 15th century Kyaik Pun Pagoda, also known as “Lay MyatHna” Pagoda, named after the four 30-metre-high Buddha statues sitting back to back against a central post and facing the four cardinal points.
Many visitors are also interested in paying homage to thousands of Buddhist monks who reside and study at the KyakhatWaing monastery, seeing them particularly at the lunch time when they show discipline while having lunch in a big dining hall.