29th August, 2014
After over a week spent exploring Burma’s rustic south, it was time for us to head north. We rose early in the morning and, Roy and I did not know this yet, but we were about to encounter an entirely new kind of Asian experience.
The Burmese Discobus.
Anyone who has been on a long bus journey in Thailand has probably been tortured with those terrible music videos that they like to torment people with over there. If you are one of those people you are probably thinking right now that you understand what Roy and I went through that morning in Burma. Trust me; you do not understand. This was not your typical Asiapop – it was in an entire league of its own. It sounded like the theme tune to an unwilling bride being dragged down the aisle in a very awkward wedding. It was truly bad, but we could live with bad. It was more the sheer ear-ringing volume which was the problem.
“Why!” we exclaimed. “Why?”
It was so loud, even some of the locals were a bit disgruntled by it, but the bus conductor was peculiarly adamant and seemed to think that there was nothing wrong with turning the speakers up so high it made the windows shake at 8 am in the morning. I began to wonder if we had been magically teleported into the heart of North Korea.
The bus was eventually stopped by the military – like it usually does when there are foreigners on board.
“Yeah… I will do anything. Whatever you like. As long as you get them to turn-it-down.” Roy shouted. Even with Roy shouting, the uniformed soldier had to lean down to hear what he was saying. The soldier then turned and made an angry expression at the conductor, who hastily brought an end to our torment. It didn’t last very long though; as soon as we drove away again the volume was flicked back up to max.
Luckily we only had to be on that bus for five hours. We got off at Bago, and the Discobus drove away, still loudly thumping its discordant beats.
We had six hours to wait for our sleeper bus to Kalaw. Bago is a temple town, so there were plenty of things to see while we waited.
Many places in Burma have admission fees which are enforced by the government, and the Bago temple area is one of them. If we had any faith that the money being collected was going to good causes we wouldn’t have a problem with paying up, but if you know anything about the military junta which has been in control of Burma for the last fifty years you’ll probably understand why Roy and I are very reluctant to pay government fees. When we want to make donations we usually give them directly to the monasteries.
The good news is that the Burmese dictatorship is almost as incompetent as it is corrupt, and it is generally quite difficult for them to enforce an entry fee when the “site” is actually a multitude of attractions which are scattered across a town. There are several online guides about how to avoid paying, but they all seem to be a bit out of date. If you are a traveller searching for more up-to-date information, like we were, then please scroll to the bottom of this page and I will tell you how we managed it*.
Bago does have some interesting sites to see, but endless pagodas and Buddhas can get a little bit boring to read about so I won’t clog up my blog with them. What I did find very interesting about Bago was its history and lore. It is home to this humungous creature for a start.
A 17ft long Burmese python. He is over 120 years old and believed to be the reincarnation of monk who was once the head of a monastery in northern Burma. It is said that the snake instructed his carer to set off on a pilgrimage to Bago to complete a stupa which he had never managed to finish in his previous life. The snake-monk’s master did just that, and now people come from miles around come to pay homage.
I also found this interesting:
This Buddha was, quite literally, unearthed by British colonialists in 1880. It had been previously reclaimed by the jungle after Bago was pillaged in the 18th century. It took them several years to clear away all of the foliage which had grown over it but they fixed it up pretty well. Extra mosaics and other bits of bling were added in the 1930’s.
In the tunnel leading up towards it, a series of paintings tells the story of King Migadepa, who ruled over this region back in the days when most people in this region were still practicing tribal animism. Local legends say that that when his son fell in love with a girl and ran off with her, the King was enraged because she was a believer in Buddhism. The King had them both hunted down and killed, but then, later on, he himself converted to Buddhism and had this monument constructed as penance.
*How to get into Bago without paying Government fee
There are a lot of blogs out there which will tell you about the various side entrances you can use to avoid the ticket-booths, and this can be effective way to avoid paying, but the problem is that the government seems to be closing up the holes in the net and new ticket booths keep appearing. Roy and I visited one which we had heard was safe only to find ourselves approached by a weaselly woman who jumped off her seat, very eagerly, to ask us if we had bought a ticket yet. We both pulled our best innocently-confused-foreigner expressions and walked away.
We later got talking to some of the (many) motorcycle and tuk-tuk drivers who offer tours around the temples and discovered that the majority of them will give you a “no fee tour” if you pay them a little extra. It isn’t much and, as the official fee is a whopping $10, you are still saving money this way. Not only that, but your money is going to a much better place for when you’re in Burma; the pockets of locals rather than their oppressors.
Some of the temples of Bago are quite far away from each other so most people end up taking a tour anyway, so I would thoroughly recommend doing this. The locals are always going to be more up to date with any changes than a blog you read online.