The vaulted ceiling of Saddar cave seemed to ripple and undulate above me. The air was damp and I felt the squelch of a slippery substance — mud, I told myself — oozing between my bare toes.
My travel partner turned around to face me and his eyes flashed in alarm.
“Bat shit,” he hissed.
Saddar cave is a sacred Theravada Buddhist site, one of many ancient shrines set amongst the craggy limestone peaks and mountains that tower over the Kayin state landscape, deep in Myanmar’s south east.
Shoes must be left by the silvery elephants that guard the descent to the cave’s entrance — the beasts are revered in Myanmar and legend has it that the elephant king Sa-Dan once took shelter in this cave’s hollows.
Our guide, Soe, had promised us the half hour or so of tunnelling through passages and over mossy rocks and clambering down steep, slippery staircases will be rewarded with a secret world: a clear, hidden lagoon enclosed by limestone karsts, droopy tamarind trees and shrubby mountains.
Lean and sinewy, the elderly, wry Soe was full of verve and sarcasm, cackling to himself through teeth stained crimson from betel nut as we squeezed through a crevice. He assured me we were near the end but there was a sly glint in the man’s eyes.
The passage opened up to a vast chamber and the shrill squeal of bats, hundreds of the things, perched above us.
“It’s OK, they just sound like cicada,” Soe laughed, while I desperately wished I’d not dismissed that rabies shot.
The trail through the cave was breathtaking: dappled sunlight pierced through cracks and holes in the limestone; grand, eerie stalagmites dripping from the ceiling.
In the throes of the region’s wet season, we had waded through thigh-high waters just to get to Saddar’s entrance and once inside the cathedral, we skirted around cool, inky pools of rainwater.
Just as splendid was Soe’s secret world. A handful of languid fishermen tossed nets into the lake while Soe passed around long, trumpet-shaped cheroots.
The hike back through the cave proved easier this time and we took time to explore the cave’s ornate entrance, a gaping space brimming with statues, sparkling, mirrored tiles and frescoes carved into the walls, reclining buddhas studded with ruby and sapphire jewels and other relics. Deep inside the space, surrounded by relics and offerings, lay a gilded Burmese stupa. The golden, bell-shaped spire is found atop mountains and between crumbling buildings the country over and is perhaps the most symbolic structure of Myanmar.
We’d arrived in the sleepy town of Hpa-an, built on the banks of the Thanlwin River, not long after midnight the day before. After a week exploring Myanmar’s fascinating, but heaving capital Yangon, the seven hour evening journey proved something of a respite, an easy trip interspersed with saucers of sweetened tea at smoky, ramshackle coffee shops.
We were quickly ferried by pick up truck to the Golden Sky, a charming hotel with a jumble of mismatched tiles and bizarre furniture with views over the river and flanked by the town’s biggest pagoda, Shweyinhmyaw. The hotel owner – a steely looking woman with painted brows and a lick of frosty lipstick – insisted we called her ‘Madam’, but quickly won us over with steaming plates of sugary chapatti and more tea.
Hpa-an, home to about 50,000 people, is the capital of the ethnically diverse Kayin state, and is, at least in rainy season, devoid of foreign tourists (Burmese and Thai tourists make pilgrimages to the pagodas and caves all year round). Aside from being a base to explore the region’s rich, fertile scenery, it’s a fascinating city to explore.
Kayin state is home to Myanmar’s Karen ethnic minority (they make up about 7 per cent of Myanmar’s population of around 50 million), who, since the country was unshackled from Britain in 1948, have been entangled in a fight for their own independence – one of the world’s longest running internal conflicts.
Although tourists have been able to visit Hpa-an for years, swathes of the state has been inaccessible, with special permits required by the government to visit the colourful Karen villages and see traditional weaving and the ethnic group’s kaleidoscopic textiles and chunks of the state completely off-limits.
Tourism insiders expect that to soon change: tourism in the city, and its surrounding escarpments will boom as a gateway town, they say, with a border crossing at Myawady-Mae Sot poised to “open” soon. Tourists then will be able to enter from Thailand and visit the entire country, flying out of either Mandalay or Yangon. While tourists can currently enter from Thailand, travel is restricted, with passports left on the border and a requirement to exit the country from the same point.
We were woken early the next morning and greeted with a breakfast feast: bowls of Burmese fried rice with peas and shallots, eggs, crunchy, flavoursome samosas, an assortment of spongey Indian cakes along with plates of tropical fruit and coffee and tea.
Myanmar’s morning markets come alive early. We wandered through stalls of turquoise and fuchsia longyis (a sari-like skirt) while stallholders with long, silky hair and thanaka (a cosmetic paste made from ground bark) smeared over their faces grinned.
The air was thick with the musky, sandalwood scent.
After Saddar, we travelled to Hpa-an’s tallest peak, Mt. Zwegabin, which reaches almost 2,400 feet, its stupa said to be home to a hair of the Buddha (pilgrims often climb the mountain, staying overnight at a monastery to watch the sun set and rise again). At its base are hundreds of tranquil Buddha figures. Close by, we enjoyed spicy Tom Kha Gai soup and a fiery basil and chicken stir-fry at a small, outdoor Thai restaurant.
Next stop was the striking Kawgun Cave, another cathedral-esque cave dug deep into a mountain containing thousands of 7th century clay Buddhas and carvings etched into its moss-covered, chalky walls. An Indian archaeological survey first recorded the pagoda in 1893 and ancient Mon inscriptions line its walls (Thaton, about 40 kilometres from Hpa-an was, 1000 years ago, the capital of the Mon Kingdom).
We rode back through dewy fields to Kyaung Kalap, a twisting, column like rock topped with a stupa, it looks straight out of Mordor. The karst seems to sprout from the lake beneath it and is one of the regions most popular, and photographed sites. An abundance of animals – silky Burmese cats and tiny white rabbits - add to its fairy-tale allure.
Back in Hpa-An, we joined locals and a clutch of other tourists for an early dinner at San Ma Tau, a Burmese restaurant on the town’s fringes. The food was some of the best we tasted in Myanmar. We chose several rich, piquant curries along with bowls of vegetables, spices and herbs, lentil soup, rice and desert: sticky balls of sugar-coated tamarind and blobs of saccharine, hardened palm sugar - K2000 ($2) for two.
Our dining companions told us of their sunset boat trip to Hpa-an along the Thanlwin from Mawlamyine. Formerly Moulemein, it has literary roots: George Orwell called it home for several years (he was stationed in Burma as a colonial police officer from 1922 to 1927), while Rudyard Kipling’s alluring call to Burma in his oft-quoted poem Mandalay was, in fact, based on a Mawlamyine pagoda, the glittering Kyaik-than-lan. The poet visited Myanmar in 1889 and stayed in the country for only three days, one of these was spent in Mawlamyine yet he never actually reached Mandalay. The public ferry no longer runs and a private trip costs K60,000 ($60).
We meandered back through Hpa-an, winding through cream and pastel shophouses, majestic teak houses with wide verandahs, towering Hindu temples, and rickety wooden homes with shuttered windows.
The sky, smeared in watercolour hues, began to darken: the monsoonal rains were about to arrive.
Back by the river port next to Shweyinhmyaw Pagoda, a monk in pink robes smiled shyly at us before she slipped into a longtail boat and journeyed back home down the gentle Thanlwin River.
A pro-democracy monk mystery
Also close to Hpa-An is Thamanya Kyaun, a monastery founded by Buddhist monk, social worker and fervent Aung San Suu Kyi supporter., U Vinaya, who died in 2003. “For a few years his preserved body was displayed for veneration by pilgrims visiting ...one night the monastery was raided by soldiers who stole the corpse, which was never seen again. There was no official claim of responsibility, but the story I heard from locals was that the body had been taken into the forest and burned to ashes. The raid, it was whispered, was arranged by a pro-military monk from Hpa-an — it is said he feared the growing cult of reverence for a monk who had supported the country’s democracy movement,” writer and long term Myanmar resident Douglas Long said.