Bago is one of the oldest cities in Myanmar. Hamsavati (Hamthawady in Burmese) is said to have been founded under the Mon kings in the sixth century. Today's rather scruffy town doesn't suggest such a long and splendid history, but Bago retains a handful of monuments from its glorious past.
Shwemawdaw Paya is 14 metres higher than Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda, making it the tallest pagoda in Myanmar; its glittering golden spire dominates the city. Though its origins date back to the tenth century or before, it's been enlarged, destroyed, and rebuilt again. Huge persimmon trees give shade in the pagoda grounds, guarded by huge statues of chinthe lions; the crowds that throng Shwedagon are absent here, and so are the souvenir vendors and tourists.
Shwemawdaw's gilding gleams at sunrise, swims dreamily in the midday haze, glows at sunset. But it's nothing compared to the all-over gold leaf at Kanbawzathadi Palace, a reconstruction of the palace of the 16th-century kings of Bago. The roofs and walls are golden, the pillars, window frames, pinnacles, and even the royal coach are golden. It may not, of course, be in the best possible taste.
Shwethalyaung Paya shelters a 55-metre long reclining Buddha in a glorious (British made) cast-iron pavilion, as well as a more recent open-air Buddha. This statue's origins go back to the earliest days of Bago. It had been lost for more than a hundred years before it was found when railway workers cleared away the vegetation that had grown up around it.
Zedis and reclining Buddhas are quite common, but Kyaik Pun Paya's four huge Buddhas placed back to back against a massive central brick pillar are unique. The Buddhas dwarf the stupas and shrines around them, as well as the little pavilions of the nat spirits who cohabit with the four Buddhas. Pilgrims who circumambulate the pillar can observe the slight differences in facial expression of the four Buddhas; three are serene, but one definitely has a sense of humour as he watches daily life going on below.
In the greenery of the western suburbs stand two rather sweet pagodas; Shwegugale paya with a dark circular tunnel full of buddhas, and Mahazedi paya, an unusual zedi that you can climb almost all the way to the top. Unlike the completely gilded Shwemawdaw, Mahazedi paya mixes whitewashed steps with gilded pinnacles. Charmingly, it's copied in a miniature version that stands in the grounds of the temple, along with toy soldiers and their elephant.
Bago is also a good stopping-off point for Kyaiktiyo since it's on the main road and rail routes from Yangon to Mandalay.