Nestled amid the teak and bamboo forests along the foothills of the Shan Plateau, Taungoo is the largest town in the lower Sittaung Valley. However, since the founding of Naypyitaw farther north, it has rather lost its importance as a stopover on the long haul between Yangon and Mandalay. The few visitors who pause here do so to admire the scant remains of a powerful post- Bagan dynasty whose capital this was 500 years ago.
Founded in 1280, Taungoo had its heyday during the reign of Tabinshweti (1516–50), the ruler who masterminded the unification of Burma’s kingdoms and principalities, beginning with the sea port of Bago (Pegu), which he made his capital in 1539. Few remnants of medieval Taungoo survive intact, but it is possible to gain a sense of the town’s former prominence from the extent of the square moat and fragments of wall running around it, and the ornamental Kandawgyi Lake on the southwest edge of its old quarter.
Far and away the most impressive monument, how- ever, is the late-16th-century Shwesandaw Pagoda, in the center. Believed to hold sacred hair relics of the Buddha, it is richly gilded and rises from a precinct at the end of whose covered northern entrance stand statues of the region’s seven dynastic rulers. Side halls house various large Buddhas, including a 12-ft- (3.5-m-) high seated statue cast in bronze and silver in 1912.
A couple of blocks southeast of the Shwesandaw stands the 19th-century Myasigon Pagoda, with a gilded stupa atop a brick pahto (temple) that features glass mosaic arches and a seated Buddha circled by bo bo gyi. Statues displayed in subsidiary shrines include Chinese god desses gifted by a visiting German Buddhist in 1901. Taking pride of place in the pagoda’s small museum are a bronze image of Erawan, the three-headed elephant who is the mount of Indra, and a standing Buddha plundered by Bayinnaung during his attack on the Siamese capital, Ayutthaya.
Taungoo today serves as a springboard for trips into the wooded hills to its north west, to government-owned forest camps and Karen villages where it is possible to watch domes- ticated working elephants and their oozies (mahouts) extracting teak in time-honored tradition. Despite decades of sanctions, Myanmar’s timber indus try continues to thrive, not least thanks to the contribution of the tuskers, who are able to work in terrain inaccessible to machines .
Visitors may travel out to the camps for the day or stay over- night. Among the purpose-built camps is the 20-acre (8-ha) Pho Kyar Forest Resort. Guests can take elephant rides into the bush, watch the animals at work, and help bathe the calves. Visits to working timber camps deeper in the forest, which move around following the logging, are also available.