Caves, temples and lush landscapes in Southeast Myanmar

With our Myanmar expedition drawing quickly to a close, we only had time for a couple of quick stops in the lush countryside southeast of Yangon. Still, we managed to fit a fair whack into four days.

‘Scruffy’ Hpa-An

Our first stop was six hours away, Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin state. In reality a pretty small, scruffy town, its nonetheless pretty riverside location was not the reason for our visit. We were there for the surrounding countryside, full of villages, caves and karst hills.

With only a day to spend, we quickly signed up for what turned into a very long day of sightseeing. We were away by 8.30am the next morning and not back until after 7pm, puttering around in a very slow open-air share taxi, pulled along by a motorcycle (we were seven people; us, couples from France and Denmark, and the driver). It was, at least, a good way to see the countryside: slowly. Well slow enough to say hello to villagers as we puttered on by.

It was also a day of many sights; some were magnificently epic, and some were more historically/sacredly important.

Saddan, football stadium-sized, apparently, although I don’t know who’s doing the measuring, was an example of the epic. Replete with Buddha images at its entrance, before disappearing into winding blackness, festoon lighting, squealing bats and ‘cathedral-high’ stalactites, it had a bit of something for everyone! At the other end you emerge into serene countryside, from where ‘fisherman’ will gladly glide you through a second watery cave, and you then walk back around.

Yathaypyan cave, at the other end of the day, provided a similar experience in terms of scale, with expansive countryside views the payoff for persevering through darkness and rocky terrain barefoot (these are temples, remember).

Kyauk Kalap and Kawgun cave are significant in different ways. Kyauk Kalap is a pagoda that sits atop a skinny finger of sheer rock that protrudes straight up out of a(n albeit artificially constructed) lake. A monastery and temple sit nearby and the whole setting is so serene and peace-inducing you can’t help but not calm the hell down. A photo display inside the temple, showing rituals and festivals, indicate its importance as a sacred place.

Kawgun cave provided the day’s historic ‘wow’ moment. Dating from the seventh century, the path leading up to and inside the cave is lined with thousands of Buddha images. Regrettably, a few years ago, a cement company blasting through rock caused some to crack and fall off; fortunately, it is still a stunning sight.

The day ended with a surreal ‘wow’ moment, as we watched literally thousands of bats stream out of a cave. We arrived as dusk was falling, poking our heads in the cave to see how workers spend their days collecting bat shit to sell as fertiliser; the smell was unimaginably overwhelming. We lasted mere seconds before backing out and climbing to a viewing platform beside it, to settle in and wait.

Luckily the bats took their sweet time, so long in fact that the light was fading and the now group of backpackers seated at the top began to fall away, worried about it being too dark to find our way back down.

We arrived at the bottom just in time to see them swarming out overhead. Where I’d imagined lots of screeching and squealing, a real circus orchestra, it was instead like a silent rushing river of featherweight flapping; on and on and on and on. It was a surreal moment; we collectively gasped and expressed awe at a completely new experience; it was a fitting way to end our short time in this beautiful part of the country.

Unfortunately my camera battery died, so this is not my pic

The next day we jumped a further two hours south, to Mawlaymine (Moulmein), which was the first colonial capital established by the British. You can immediately see its appeal, sitting as it does at a strategic bend in a wide river system. It’s lush, it’s green, and a row of pagoda-topped hills overlook the small city. It’s a romantic setting that, currently, isn’t doing a great job of telling its story.

Supposedly the city has colonial era charm, buildings, churches and mosques, and old communities. It’s somewhat true. It certainly has the feel of an old tropics town, full of intriguing stories and histories of those drawn here in days gone by. But the historic jewels are presently camouflaged. It’s like all the pieces of the product are there, but someone just needs to put them together in a way that visitors can access. At the moment you have to essentially root around mapless.

Nonetheless, wandering along the hills, taking in the pagodas and views below, and then strolling down for a scootch around was an easily enjoyable way to pass an afternoon. The pagodas alone are stunning, and we’re kind of experts in mapless meandering at this point!

Otherwise it was again the countryside that was a key reason for our visit, this time to see the world’s largest reclining Buddha, and to climb a wee hill. We set off on scooters the next day, accompanied by Audrey from France, who tagged along for the ride.

Buddha sits ‘draped across green hillsides’ and is surrounded by a ‘forest of other pagodas and shrines’. In reality, the setting is nowhere near as serene and beautiful as those descriptions might have you believe. It is, or is well on the way to, becoming a kind of Disneyfied tourist theme park, Burmese-style. Nonetheless, it was still a surreal experience.

Where I’d anticipated a 570 foot-long hollow structure, with a moment of ‘wow’ as you entered, instead Buddha is actually filled with rooms, so many rooms, with each recounting scenes from (presumably) Buddhist texts that get progressively more violent. Further, the more you ventured away from the entrance, the less complete they were, until you reached where Buddha’s reclining arm will be, and effectively were in a roofless building site. It was all rather strange.

We moved on to a more straightforward experience: climbing Kyauktalon Taung, a pretty steep, craggy hill rising from the flat agricultural fields around it. A plenty sweaty scramble, the summit as always afforded stellar views, and an unexpected cave at the bottom an added free gift with purchase.

For our final stop we visited the Pa-Auk-Taw-Ya monastery. One of the largest in the country, it covers 513 hectares of lush woodland setting, and is peppered with all things monasterial. It was lovely to ride through and to get an idea of what all those sparse and abstract ruins we’ve visited this year would have actually been like in their heydays. Further, Audrey wanted to visit the meditation centre, and I’m so glad we did; it was another completely new experience.

Ascending the steps to the centre, which is effectively a large two-level wooden structure consisting of two halls, signs warn you to respect the sanctity of the place by maintaining silence. So you do. The upper meditation hall, stunning as it is with glossy wood panelling, was a standard temple affair, all lit up with a Buddha image at one end. A few monks were sitting in quiet contemplation.

The lower level though was in darkness and, peering through the open windows, all you could see were ghostly orbs of monks and meditators, sitting completely motionless under mosquito nets with the outside light passing through them. It was totally silent and totally calm, and was quite eerie, although not in a menacing way. It was one of those moments where you have no prior experiences to call on to make sense of the scene, so you just drink it in as it is. All you can be is grateful for the privilege of having such unique experiences. And so you are.

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