Bago Region’s vast stretches of alluvial plain and jungle were the setting for one of Southeast Asia’s most splendid cities, the port of Bago (Pegu), before successive invasions and the shifting of the Sittaung River sent the settlement into decline. Although little more than a scruffy market town today, Bago boasts a spectacular crop of monuments spanning more than 1,400 years of history. They include several remnants from its medieval heyday, among them the magnificent Shwemawdaw Pagoda, a stupa even larger than Yangon’s Shwedagon.
Legend has it that the city was founded in AD 573 by a pair of Mon princes after they spotted a female hamsa bird resting on the back of its mate on an islet . The capital they built on the spot, Hanthawaddy, later rose to become the hub of a far-reaching Mon empire whose riches proved too strong a temptation for the Burmese kingdom in Taungoo, farther north. In 1539, the Taungoo king Tabinshweti invaded the city, by then known to European traders as Pegu, and his successor, Bayinnaung, made it the capital of the Second Burmese Empire.
The Mon briefly reoccupied Bago in 1740, but the city was again brutally sacked 17 years later, this time by the redoubtable King Alaungpaya, who massacred the entire population. The ensuing decline only accelerated once the Sittaung shifted course in the 1790s, leaving Bago a day’s journey inland from the sea and cut off from the maritime trade that had always been its lifeblood. Today Bago makes a rewarding day trip from Yangon, or a stopover on longer journeys up the Sittaung Valley.
Taungoo holds a few impressive remnants of Tabinshweti’s reign, but given its loca- tion at the foot of the Bago-Yoma Hills, the town serves primarily as a springboard for forays into what remains of the once vast teak forest that cloaked the region’s hills. Purpose-built and working timber camps provide accommodations in the thick of the jungle, where elephants can be seen at work. Access is via a poorly maintained road that winds west across the hills to Pyay, on the Ayeyarwady River, where the enigmatic ruins of ancient Sri Ksetra, strewn across expanses of mustard fields and scrubland, are the principal attraction.