On the way from Yangon to Mawlamyaing, we passed Thaton and Martaban, two small sleepy, run-down towns with a more illustrious past.
Thaton was once the capital of the ancient empire of Suvarnabhumi (which means "Golden Land"), which was supposed to stretch across all southern Myanmar all the way to central Thailand and even the Mekong Delta. The Thais believe that Suvarnabhumi was based in the Chao Phraya River Valley of central Thailand and have named the new Bangkok international airport after this ancient empire.
To the Mons, Suvarnabhumi was their first great empire and was where Buddhism was first adopted in Myanmar. In 1057 A.D., King Anawrahta of Bagan, the first great Bamar empire, demanded that the King of Bagan despatched volumes of the three sacred Buddhist scriptures to Bagan, so that the people of Bagan could study Buddhism. When the Mon King refused, the Bamar army marched to Thaton, destroyed the empire of Suvarnabhumi, and brought not only the scriptures to Bagan, but with it the royal family, their artists, merchants and monks.
The Myanmar government celebrated this as the unification of Myanmar and the conversion of the Bamars to Buddhism. A monument with sculptures of the three Buddhist sacred books sit at the traffic island in central Thaton, opposite golden pagodas and pavilions. I am not sure if the Mons of today are glad about a monument that commemorates the destruction of their civilisation.
I asked my Bamar guide how you could conquer another state and conducted ethnic cleansing in the name of grabbing scriptures of a religion that denounced violence and the taking of lives. He looked at me with a puzzled face.
Not too far away is the town of Martaban (known as Mottama today), practically the northern suburb of Moulmein across the Salween River. This used to be a major trading port and the enormous body of water across southern Myanmar is known as the Gulf of Martaban. It is today but a very small dirty road and rail terminus, and where one gets onto Myanmar's longest bridge to Moulmein.