The Mon people who had migrated into southern Thailand from western China in the 6th century controled the Bago area in the 8th but their capital Thaton was overrun by the Burman Bagan Kingdom and their King Manuha was taken to Bagan as a prisoner in the 11th.
After the fall of Bagan to the Mongols in the 13th century, the Mon Kingdom was reinstated with Bago as capital and it survived Burman attacks for over two centuries before being crushed by the Burman Toungoo Dynasty in 1539.
The Shwemawdaw Pagoda whose spire can be seen behind this impressive entrance portal, was originally built by the Mon to a height to 23 meters in the 8th century and was rebuilt higher several times until it finally reached its present 114 meter stature in 1954.
This this composite picture of Shwemandaw Pagoda is not perfect but it's not bad for the small pocket camera I travel with. Below, two of the pagoda's side pavilions.
The Mon were culturally much more advanced than the Burmans when they were overrun by them in the 11th century. Anawratha brought back to Bagan not only an enormously rich booty but also 30 000 skilled artisans and learned monks that made the rapid development of Bagan possible. That is how the Burmans were converted to Therevada Buddhism.
Below left, a smiling novice and right, a poor food stall for ordinary people in the street next to the golden pagoda.
All this temple glitter is not something left from a glorious past, nor was it provided by international aid, it represents sacrifices made by today's people in the hope of improving their future lives.
Below left, here is how the people cross the river to go to yet another golden monument (Ananda Temple), on the right.
And a little further west is this sumptuous entrance to the Shwethalyaung Paya that shelters the largest reclining Buddha in South East Asia (55 meters, 9 meters more than the Wat Pho Buddha in Bangkok).
Originally built by the Mon in 994 this big Buddha was restored several times but was overgrown by the jungle after the total destruction of Bago by the Burmans in 1757. It was rediscovered 1880 and restored again several times to bring it to this condition.
In the same area stands the Mahazedi Paya which I did not visit for it was too late by the time I got there.
Originally built in 1560, it was destroyed in 1757 during the sack of Bago, rebuilt in 1860 and destroyed again by an earthquake in 1930. This current reconstruction dates only from 1982.
I stayed overnight in Bago and the next morning, went to visit the huge Kha Khat Wain monastery before going back to Yangon.
This is one of the largest monasteries in the country. Its population varies from several hundred to some thousands depending on the season as monks and novices come here from all over Myanmar for religious training. Here you see a group of them studying in a stretched out position facing the instructor in front of them.
It is interesting to see how eloquent body language can be. Just compare the easy, relaxed stance of the three younger monks with the crossed arms gesture and closed countenance of the older one.
I roamed all over the place and I must say, was met with more smiles that frowns. Maybe they felt intuitively that I consider Therevada Buddhism less obnoxious than other religions because everyone seeks his own salvation without bothering to convince anyone of their particular beliefs. Mahayana Buddhism on the other hand is heavily involved with the salvation of all mankind and is therefore much more social and political, becoming theocratic in its extreme Lamaist expression.
Below on the left, that's how they get that clean and pure look. On the right, we could not understand each other's words but we exchanged smiles and the vibrations were good.
A big gong is rung and the monks line up for the midday meal which is the only one they will have until the following midday.
Food was simple, a large helping of rice with some boiled greens washed down with tea.
All males spend periods of their lives in a monastery that can vary from weeks to years. All those here appeared to be quite content. When you consider the hardship of life outside, they had reason to be for here they were fed, clothed, washed, sheltered and made feel secure in their beliefs.
The Abbot's meal was more elaborate and he was waited on by a personal servant but he had to eat alone to maintain the distance of authority.
Meanwhile, life outside continues to be a struggle with poverty, infantile mortality, inadequate medical services and a life expectancy at birth of only 58 years.
As I see it, the "sacred" dimension of their lives must help them overcome the hardships of everyday reality, otherwise, they would not expend such an important part of their limited resources to maintain the religious fiction...