PART VII: HPA-AN, LAND OF LIMESTONE AND ANCIENT CAVE TEMPLES
Big tour day:
Seven stops. 10 hours. Two tuk tuks. Sore butt, lots of bouncing on dirt roads. Way fun!
I have said it before and I will say it again, I do not go in for packaged tours as a rule. Both Ryan and Snowy hold strong similar opinions having done their share of independent travel. However, as we discuss our options we have decided that this is the best way to see everything we want in one day. So we are in and the German couple and Chinese woman join us.
1. We load up at hotel and go to Ya-The Byan Cave. Much of the road is extremely rough and our tuk tuk bounces without mercy. Happy to get out with our bottoms still attached to our tops, we climb many Buddha-lined stairs to the main cave’s entrance. There are many more Buddhas and some large pagodas inside the cave. Ancient relief work on walls and some statues date back to the 13th century. A side cave contains a shrine. Then we traverse a dimly lit long cave slowly negotiating the uneven floor pitch.
2. Leaving, we bump along the road for awhile. There is major dust in places and I tie my bandana over my face to minimize choking on all the dust. Blessedly, we arrive at Kaw Goon Cave, another large limestone cave reached by climbing many steps. This one charges 3,000 kyat (government entrance fee) and another 500k camera fee, the latter of which the monk did not collect. They are doing some restoration work in here.
After a bit I spot some ancient rock carvings behind locked mesh that are awaiting preservation I guess. From my research the night before I surmise that these are Mon carving which predate Buddha. You would not know this otherwise.
Other than this surprise and unmarked find, the first cave was more impressive and larger. I am not sure why they charge for this one and not the other. This seems typical as Burma tries to develop some sort of organized tourism. Tourism is still mostly non-existent but there are families at every attraction selling food, drink, ciggies and what not. I am happy to support local entrepreneurs.
3. Next we bounce awhile down rutting dirt paths and come to Kwat-Ka-Lat a beautiful shrine across a lake. There is a tall steep narrow mountain with a pagoda and shrine at the top. How did they get stuff up there to build it? We cross a bridge by foot across the lake. The best photos are taken from the bridge. Once across, there is a small building where very young novice monks are chanting. One is not allowed to climb the rock. As there is not much else to see, we retrace and move on.
4. We arrive at Lovebird Garden where hundreds of large Buddhas sit in an immense filed. They are against a backdrop of the highest limestone peak in the area with a monastery perched precariously on top. We are told it is a two hour walk straight up to the monastery. Ryan, Snowy and I make tentative plans to return in the morning and hike it.
Then we drive a short distance to where we buy a late lunch. Mine runs 200 kyat (US$0.25) for a chicken curry and a coke which goes down nicely in the 100° heat. We watch some local children play in the river while we eat and soon enough we are off again.
5. (and apparently #6 as well) The next stop after very much bouncing is Water Lake Shrine. Two large elephant statues guard the front. Again we climb many stairs. This time we are told to carry our shoes (usually they are left at the entrance). First we go through a cave containing the shrine area and then we enter an enormous series of caverns. We can put our shoes back on now we are told and traverse several caves with intermittent florescent lamps. There are some very nice stalagmites and stalactites. We go on for a very long time, often over rocky, rough and poorly lit terrain, finally coming to another opening where we look down into a beautiful valley. A pagoda, lovely rice fields and panoramic views greet our eyes. Down some steep stairs we go, emerging from the caverns. We drink it all in (think mini-Shangri-La).
We have a choice to return the way we came or be rowed in a dugout back for 10k. Of course we choose option B. We row across a lake and then into a narrow slit opening in the cave. We pass through a section of the cave with little headroom above, being paddled by an old woman. (In the rainy season the water level is too high for this option.) Big wow on this one. We emerge from the cave and continue to paddle down a long channel with very green plants densely growing on each side. Eventually we are motioned to get out and we follow a level footpath back to where our tuk tuk is waiting. We seriously liked this one!
7. Our last stop is the Kwatha Thaung Cave complex. It’s getting later. We actually bypass the cave entrance and take a long meandering walk flanked by a long line of standing monk statues holding alms bowls. We arrive at a large pond/pool/lake. The water is very clean looking. There are a couple of restaurants there. Along the way we pass two local soap opera stars doing a photo shoot in Tarzan like get up. We get coconut juices which are very refreshing. I decide to swim this time and it feels great, laughing with the local kids until it is time to go. Our tuk tuk is waiting and gives us a ride back and into town to Soi Brothers Guesthouse.
It’s around 8:00 pm. Of course most restaurants are closed or closing by now. We buy bus tickets for 1:00 pm tomorrow to Bago and Ryan calls and reserves a room. We find a place and grab a bite. It’s not that great, but was probably better a couple of hours earlier. Back to the hotel and across the alley, some Australian cowboy type is playing a guitar in a cafe and teaching the locals to sing Country Road and other moldy oldies. Too funny! We go upstairs and it’s early to bed.Tweet