Friday, May 10, 2013

Myanmar Part 4 - Kyaikto to Hpa-an / temples and caves

Waking early, I awoke to a stunning view as I opened the curtain. Mist clung to the valleys with haze painting the rolling hills hundreds of shades of grey/blue. A simple breakfast followed, bathed in morning sun shining in through the large windows of the Mountain Top Hotel’s dining room. The coffee was pretty good and we took our time enjoying the view. It took almost no time to pack as we only had the bare necessities with us. After taking a nice, hot shower (it was pretty cool up on the mountain) we headed off to walk down to the truck stop to catch a ride back to Kinpun to meet our driver Kyaw.

Browsing the stalls along the way, we enjoyed the early light as we wondered out of the ‘town’ area, stopping to check out some little stupas and lookouts before the road before us took a sharp turn – downwards. From a gentle slope, the road quickly became a very steep decline towards the Yatetaung bus station. Ok, so I found it hard going, and I was going down hill! The old knees just don’t work the way they used to. In fact, I actually cope with up-hills climbs better. At least we weren’t huffing and puffing as we laboured up, just merely creaking and groaning as our joints ground down (thank goodness for that truck ride up yesterday – now that I walked it, I truly appreciated how lucky we had been!).

Acute, 180 degree corners followed short straight(ish) stretches, as the road wound round and round down the mountain. A few hundreds metres down, we heard a sort of pounding noise, rhythmic, with an accompanying kind-of clapping sound. We looked up the hill wondering what on Earth was making this unexpected racket. Then, around the corner came the first of many porters, carrying tourists down the mountain. Four men carried a make-ship sedan chair, one on each corner, connected to two large bamboo poles, upon which a passenger was seated. With the rider holding on for love of life, the whole party jolted their way down at quite a pace. Creating that thumping sound, the pole carriers marched together in sync; their thongs slapping down hard on the asphalt. Only when we neared the bottom did we see any porters carrying passengers up. Let me just say; they didn’t move at the same cracking speed as the ones we saw descending…

Dotted all the way along the steep road were stalls selling drinks, snacks, and footwear. Children ran out as we passed by. Many “Mingalarbars” and smiles were exchanged as we greeted the locals preparing for their day. The procession of pilgrims making their way to the sacred rock was only just starting for the day. At one of the many sharp bends, three small kids, maybe three or four years old had made their own fun. Using flattened old plastic bottles, they made their way up to the top of the bend, sat on their improvised toboggans, and slid down the steep slope with much yelling and laughter.

Half and hour or so later, we arrived at the truck stop, not before visiting a small temple along the way, where we paid a donation to use their ‘short cut’ and see their golden Buddha statue. Porters were relaxing under trees, either after ferrying passengers down, or possibly waiting for a paying fare back up. People were eating at one of a couple of little food stands. Children ran around while parents relaxed idly. A tin roof covered the trucks. Until there were enough passengers, the trucks did not depart – read that as they pack as many people in as possible until there isn’t a spare square inch left to sit. J and I wondered around, checked out the stalls, and discovered the truck would go at around 9am. So nothing to do but garb a cool drink, sit in the shade and watch the comings and goings. Many people made their way down (and up) the full ascent to (and from) the Kinpun base station. A friendly local told us it was only 2 hours walk – down! How long would it be up? I didn’t want to know…

Finally, we squeezed onto a truck with fifty or more others for the return roller coaster ride down the mountain. I’m not sure which way was worse, up or down, but it sure was a hell of a ride. The truck stopped before the undercover bus stop and we all disembarked on the side of the road. Our happy driver Kyaw had his car waiting and waved to us as we arrived. “How was it? Good Hotel? Nice dinner? Enough breakfast?” Responding with his chuckling laugh, we informed him of our night and how much we loved it, as we headed off toward Hpa-an.

Half way between Kyaikto and Mawlamyine is the previous capital of the Mon kingdom, Thaton. Kyaw asked if were interested in seeing a (as he put it) ‘more famous’ temple. Sure, why not! We loved experiences off the beaten path. When Kyaw pulled up at the temple entrance, and us two westerners got out of the car, a few locals looked a little shocked. I am sure they don’t get too many tourists in their town. The town itself was a mostly typical large-ish town, with a gold-roofed, white clock tower standing near the centre of town. Shops and stalls lined the surrounding roads with a few eating places in between.

Shwe Zayan Paya dates back to the 10th century where successive kings have built and extended the central stupa over millennia. Removing our shoes, we wondered through one of the less grand side gates into the temple grounds where we were instantly confronted by the incredible heat. Sure it was hot in Yangon, but woe! It was extremely hot here! Shining bright under the late morning sun, the gold stupa was huge, not quite as large as Shwe Dagon or Shwe Mawdaw, but not far off. A number of smaller stupas and temple buildings dotted the grounds. In one grand alter room, over a dozen large seated, standing and reclining Buddhas, draped in golden robes, lined the side and rear walls providing an holy entourage to a larger seated Buddha.

To the side, an interesting, white, rounded, bell-like stupa sat surrounded by hundreds of pigeons, which took flight in a great feathery, flappy, black cloud as we drew close. Further around, another newer square-based stupa housed more Buddas. Behind this new structure, some simple, ancient looking, stone or faded brick small temples stood neglected and crumbling. J and would have gone over to investigate them further. But with bare feet, and the scorching hot, stony concrete path between us and them, we were not interested in burning the soles of our feet off.

We spent a half an hour looking through the various buildings, mostly having the entire place to ourselves. Clearly the locals were more sensible than us in the almost unbearable heat, staying somewhere cooler away from the biting sun. Returning to where were dropped, Kyaw had the car waiting, with the air conditioning running, waiting for us. Thankfully, a drink vendor was also there with an esky full of cold drinks.

Driving out of the busy town, we relaxed in the rear seats after the hot excursion, and I took out my notes and LP guide to read up on the sights around Hpa-an. Kyaw had mentioned a few sights he was planning to take us to and we trusted him to figure out the best itinerary for our few days. “Now, we see some cave temple. In morning, Hpa-an market. No far now”.

The scenery as we drove through the countryside was beautiful. Golden stupas dotted the hills. Karst limestone mountain ranges rose from flat, green farmland. Roads carried an assortment of tractors and jalopies taking crops to market, or goods and passengers back home. Small towns with simple shops flashed past at regular intervals. Locals going about their busy days.

Our first stop was Bayint Nyi or Begyinni cave temple and hot springs. From the car park area, you wouldn’t know there was anything to see in what seemed to be in the middle of a field. Once you walked a few metres down the little path, flanked on both sides by thick bushes, you came upon a gorgeous temple and monastery set on little lake at the base of a sheer limestone cliff. A young monk was bent over doing some washing who stood up as we approached, staring at the outsiders. Initial guarded looks gave way to smiles and a wave once we exchanged greetings. He beckoned us to head up the path to the cave temple.

Climbing a little hill we made our way up the stony path. A few huts stood on one side near the monastery, and many small, golden stupas lined the other side below the rock wall. Between the buildings, the elevation provided a lovely view of the green countryside.

The cave was only a hundred metres along. Inside, hundreds of new-ish looking, Buddhas sat around the perimeter of the cavern. With white plaster faces, red lipstick mouths, golden robes and crowns, they were pretty much identical, sitting on golden lotus thrones on top of concrete bases.

From no-where, a group of children arrived, laughing and giggling, running around. Their guardians also followed and began their adulations, while the kids decided to interact with us. A few of the older ones must have been learning English as they said some hesitant hellos, asked us our names, where we were from, how long we had been there, how long were we staying. Each of our responses prompted a round of giggles from the group. When we said we were from Australia, there was a small discussion amongst the group, followed by cries of “Kangaroo!” with accompanying hopping gestures. We all laughed together and they followed us around the cave.  Unexpectedly, one of them produced a mobile phone – a smart phone no less – and started taking photos of us. J and I posed for a few shots, and I took my own photos of them.

When we left, they followed and ran around us on the path continuing the fun interaction, before called back by the adults. Back at the lake, a few young men were bathing in the clear water. I then noticed the line of maroon robes hung out like bedsheets and figure these guys were probably residents of the monastery. J and I walked back to the car quickly, wanting to give the monks privacy. Not only that, it was simply boiling hot and we were keen to return to Kyaw’s air-conditioned car.

By now, it was a bit after two, and we were ready for some lunch. We had lunch in a little local restaurant in a small town. Simple stir-fried noodles with veggies, along with a Myanmar beer each, cost about 6000 kyats. I wish I had noted the town and restaurant names abut didn’t. They certainly don’t receive too many western tourists judging by the way a few of the local children stared at us. But, as usual, a warm greeting quickly drew friendly smiles.

After lunch we visited Kaw-goon (or Kawgun) and Ya-The-Byan (or Yathapypyan or Yathei Pyan) temple-caves (note that the names in brackets are other known ‘western’ names, while the former are the names as written at the sites). Both caves were built by the same King dating back the 7th century. Kaw-goon had hundreds of tile-like little clay Buddhas and carvings all over the rocky wall of the grotto. A row of Buddhas with a beautifully, newly tiled pathway, lead you up a few steps to the small cave.

Inside, a large reclining Buddha lay in the deepest part of the cave, with a retinue of more golden-robed Buddhas lining the sides of the cave. The smoke from the incense offerings hung under the roof producing an ethereal effect. Much of the exterior was undergoing restoration and large wooden bamboo scaffolds partly obscured some of the carvings on the side of the cave. 

As we were leaving, a few young children approached us with much giggling and “hello”-ing. Following us back to the car, they shyly tried out the few English words they knew, running around excitedly, shouting to each other and laughing. I took their photos and they enjoyed seeing themselves on the small screen.

At Ya-The-Byan cave-temple, we came upon a small group of locals performing their prayers in front of a alter of many Buddhas at the entrance of the cave. We climbed the steps to the temple, where a line of standing Buddhas greeted us. A few more of the small clay Buddha tiles lined some of the walls. We walked past a row of serene, white-washed Buddhas, as we explored deep in the cave. A large gold stupa sat not far from the cave entrance. 

Further in, smaller stupas rested on higher rock ledges, and a series of steps lead up to the cave roof aside crystallised rock formations hanging from the walls. Many holes in the cave walls let in sunlight as we ascended. Looking out from the top, a lovely view of the surrounding mountains and farmland unfolded before us. Sweaty and hot, we returned to the cave entrance, where the locals were relaxing in the shade of the overhanging rock. Seeing us, one of the men smiled at us and said “Too hot, too hot”, making fan gestures. We departed after a few giggles and “Mingalabars” and “bye-byes”.

Late afternoon sun lit up the fields as we drove out back towards Mt Zwegabin, a great craggy mountain that was a prominent silhouette on the Hpa-an landscape. Kyaw wanted to show us another sight: the Lumbini Buddha Garden. On the approach road, you see a decorated gate marking the entrance with a seated Buddha on either side. But once through the gate, the road becomes a divided avenue lined by hundreds and thousands of identical seated Buddhas. 

The Buddhas are arranged in countless rows and columns. Some face the entrance, others face inwards. Some have red posted and golden roofed canopies, others are left exposed to the elements. All those Buddhas make an amazing site. The rows of Buddhas continued far from view into the forests towards the base of the mountain, where Kyaw told us there was a monastery. I asked him why some Buddhas had shelters and others didn’t. He told me that locals donated to the monastery with the mission to build a cover for all the Buddhas, as well as build even more Buddhas. Apparently they cost a mere US $500 (or there abouts). Kyaw went on to say that there were nearly 3000 Buddhas now, with plans to have 10,000 in the future. What a site that would make!

Last stop before sunset was the bazaar but stunning rock temple of Kyauk Kalap. From the car park, you could see the rock stack, which was on a little islet in the centre of a small lake. Many people were also visiting, including the first western tourists we’d seen all day. Stalls were set up along the road and car park, and many locals were eating and drinking, unwinding in the afternoon shade . A long bridge lead to the temple and monastery. Below, in the lake, hungry fish – some of them quite large – swarmed to the surface with huge mouths open, gulping the rice or popped corn the locals had thrown in as a offering of sorts.

The island itself was tiny with a few very basic buildings where the monks lived and studied. Shady trees covered the isle, along with a few frangipani trees and thick bushes. The main path lead up to the skinny rock pillar with some steep steps spiralling up to a small pagoda near the top. Along the way, we passed through a little shrine area as well as a tiled ledge with a small stupa. At the top, a elderly monk was seated cross-legged in a meditative state. A local couple were kneeling before him reciting mantras, The monk then blessed them and they turned to leave. We exchanged smiles as they left, the monk returning to his silent contemplation.

From the top, the view of the surrounding mountains and countryside in the golden late afternoon light was magnificent. We explored the island, walking down to the lake shore. As we wondered back to the bridge, we met some monks playing a game that is half way between soccer and volleyball; the players kick or head-but the ball over a net without touching it with their hands or letting it bounce. Later I found out it’s called chinlone. Lots of smiles and “Mingalbars” followed as we passed by, kicking the ball back when it strayed in our direction.

Though sunset was an hour away, we were exhausted and ready to chill out, cool off, and relax with a beer. Returning to the car, Kyaw asked whether we wanted to see sunset, but we let him know we had had a wonderful day, but we wanted to get to the hotel. Thankfully the Hotel Zwekabin wasn’t too far and we bade farewell to Kyaw, with plans to meet him at 8:30am the next morning to continue our journey. The setting of the hotel was simply gorgeous at the base of a limestone karst hill. After checking in and freshening up in our lovely (and large) room, J & I headed to the outdoor restaurant area where we enjoyed a cold beer as the sun set, before an ample meal. In the warm night air, we reflected on the amazing day we had enjoyed, truly unforgettable, and looked forward to more amazing sights, people and places tomorrow.

- K

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