Always be prepared for the unexpected in Myanmar, whether it is a local festival or celebration that you encounter or a historical site not yet listed in the international travel guides that you stumble across. So we are not too surprised when our guide veers off the main road and into the tiny village of Zaik Thok. The village plays host to the remains of an 11th century fortress, consisting nowadays of a stone wall roughly 200m long engraved with intricate carvings of horses, elephants, demons and other nameless creatures. Now weather-beaten and overgrown, the stonework has integrated itself seamlessly into the village’s surroundings. While we marvel at this little archeological treasure, we in turn become the attraction of the day for the local children.
In the late afternoon and just before the onset of darkness, we are lucky enough to experience yet another highlight: the Bayin Nyi Gui Cave near Thaton. It is the end of the rainy season and a temporary lake separates us from the mountain in which the cave lies. Luckily Htet Htet – our guide extraordinaire – finds a monk who is about to cross the lake with his small boat, since his monastery lies at the foot of the cave. He gives us a lift and upon arrival we immediately get the strong impression that we have entered another world. A precipitous staircase winds its way through the monastery perched precariously on the hillside and up to the cave’s entrance, where children play with and feed the numerous monkeys who graciously share the mountain with the monks.
There are many Buddha statues inside the cave, although they have only been there since the last century. Water drips through the ceiling of the cave and is collected in the buckets lying underneath, which are almost as abundant as the statues themselves. All in all, nothing that remarkable for those who have already seen plenty of Buddha statues and caves, whether individually or combined. And yet there is sometimes an ambiance, a spirit about the place which is rendered prosaic when put into words, but which nonetheless possesses a certain magical touch and ineffable beauty, guaranteeing a lasting impression upon those who feel its presence. Is it the effects of the serene Buddhist ethos which surrounds sites like these? Is it the view? Is it the particularly picturesque sunset? Is it down to the people you meet that make a specific location so special? Like everywhere else in Myanmar, we are spoilt by the friendliness and curiosity of the people whose smile, in spite of any hardships they may have suffered, is ever-present.
A hotel in Hpa An looking onto the mostly overcast Mt Zwekabin (over 1000m tall) is our resting place later that evening and also the point of departure for the next day’s trip to the Kaw Goon Cave. The cave itself is simply breathtaking; as an indication of how impressive and important a role it has played over the centuries, already in the late Bagan period of the 13th century, references were being made to the sanctuary housed within this sandstone cavern.
The walls and overhangs of the cave are brimming with figures chiseled out of stone, mostly Buddha effigies and votive tablets of terracotta. Were you to include the many statues resting on the ground which have accrued here over time – each one unique in its design and execution – interspersed with a handful of animistic Nat figures, the benevolent and ubiquitous spirits who act as guardians of the shrine, not forgetting the inscriptions and carvings of the Buddha’s life etched onto the sandstone canvas, only then might you perhaps hope to gain a mental picture of the scene in front of us. The reality of it, however, easily trumps such an image many times over. The cave is, as it was centuries ago, a living sanctuary, which means that it is constantly being supplemented with new additions and moreover that it is kept in pristine condition.
Another visual tour-de-force that is not to be missed is the Kyauk Kalat Pagoda nestled within the eponymous monastery close to Hpa An. The golden stupa juts out above a sheer sandstone rock which rises dramatically out of the lake beneath, almost crowning the monolith, whose tapering base swells at the top so that it resembles a slender wine-glass. The monastery is being expanded, with the monks themselves responsible for this ambitious new construction. The lake’s calm waters reflect the lazy sunsets – surrounded by green fields and framed by gently undulating mountain ranges in the distance, it really is an idyllic spot.
The market in Hpa An serves as an accurate profile of both the different regional specialties and of the diverse local population. The inhabitants are a motley group composed mainly of Bamar (also known as Burmans), who are the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar, as well as a considerable contingent of Kayin, Mon and those of Indian extraction who arrived with the British and duly settled there. Equally varied are the delicacies on offer: aside from the staples of fermented tea-leaves and the home-made fish paste Napi, the little balls and sausage-like strings made of riotously-coloured sago jelly in particular are proving to be a real favourite. They are said to go especially well with white bread and tofu – questions of taste, after all, should not be argued!
Hpa An, the capital of the Kayin State, lies on the Thanlwin River, which is better known under its Thai name Salween. It is the longest river in the country: starting in Tibet, the river crosses from the Chinese province of Yunnan into Myanmar through the Shan mountains, reaching the Gulf of Martaban 2500 km later at the port city of Mawlamyine, Myanmar’s third-largest city and the main trading centre and seaport of the country’s South-East.