25th-28th August, 2014
The last few days we had just spent roaming around Mawlamyine had been very fast-paced, so when we reached Hpa-an – our next destination – we decided we would take a day to relax at first.
Soe Brothers Guesthouse, the place we checked into, was perfect for that. Not only did it have free wifi and a tea making station, but it also had wash-rooms and plenty of hanging lines on the balcony which meant that we could also catch up with something we had both been neglecting recently; our laundry. We did take a little walk around though to get our bearings and discovered that it was quite quaint for a Burmese town, and it had a thriving market.
The next day we went out on our first trip in the area; Saddar Cave. And another Brit we had met upon the road called Rory joined us.
We caught a bus to Eindo, but once we got there none of the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to want to drive us the rest of the way so we were forced to walk. I was glad we did in the end as we passed through some very scenic rice paddy farms which were surrounded by limestone mountains and floodplains.
And we even got to watch some local fishermen casting out their nets to catch fish, Burmese style.
We realised why the tuk-tuk drivers were reluctant to bring us when we had to remove our shoes and wade our way through the knee-deep sodden clay which had clogged up the end of the road. When we did finally reach the cave we were disappointed to find out that we would not be able to reach the “secret lake” on the other side because of flooding, but the cave itself – which was filled with beautiful Buddha statues and pagodas – was definitely worth the trip.
Rory made his way back to Yangon the next morning because he was flying to Bangladesh, so it was just me and Roy again. We decided it was time to do something a little more challenging: climb Mount Zwegabin.
Zwegabin is the highest mountain in the area, but the way it juts out from the relatively flat terrain surrounding it, it more resembles a cliff. There is a monastery perched upon its highest peak which, rumour has it, occasionally lets wanderers stay overnight.
We packed some basic provisions and left the rest of our stuff at Soe Brothers, who very kindly agreed to look after them for us, and then we hired a tuk-tuk to start of the trail. We stopped at Kyauk Kalap on the way to take some pictures of – you guessed it – another pagoda. This one was perched on the top of an interesting rock formation and surrounded by an artificial lake.
We also caught a view of what was to come.
You see that tiny collection of buildings up there? No – probably not. Let’s zoom in a bit.
That, was where we were about to climb to. I will admit, the sight of it was a bit daunting.
“Why are we doing this, again, Roy?” I asked. “Please remind me.”
We began the hike. It was gruelling, but the trail which skirted around the slopes of the mountain was quite well maintained. It tested both my stamina and my fear of heights but, somehow, I managed to make it up to the top. Mostly by clinging to the side of the mountain, taking many breaks, and lastly – but definitely not least – not looking down.
I took photos of some of the finest landscapes I have ever had the privilege of seeing, which can be found on my Flickr page. I would like to mention here as a side-note that I am definitely not a photographer, and my photos are generally just holiday snaps taken with a crude point-and-click digital. Roy is wonderful with a camera and the pictures he is taking of the places we are visiting do them much more justice, so I would recommend checking out his Flickr account.
There were only two monks in residence at the time we visited, and they seemed quite surprised that we wanted to stay. Once we had made ourselves understood they were reasonably hospitable and guided us to a dormitory room where we were given mats, blankets and pillows to sleep on and, most importantly, a pot full of hot Jasmine tea.
We were there just in time to witness the afternoon feeding of the monkeys, whom the monks seemed to have formed a tenuous but functional relationship with by giving them meals twice a day and keeping a dog called “Manni”, whose job it was to keep them in line. Whenever the monkeys got a bit cocky or boisterous they would exclaim “Manni! Manni!”, and she would rush over to chase them away.
Me and Roy were both sweaty from the climb, so we were guided towards some cubicles where we could wash, using buckets of cold rainwater. We then wandered around, taking pictures of the stunning views which were all around us.
Just as we entered dusk and the sky started to turn hazy, the mountain was suddenly enveloped by a cloud and we watched as streams of white fog floated towards us, obscuring the nearby mountains until all we could see past the balcony we were sat at, was fog. It was one of the eeriest moments of my life.
Later on in the evening one of the monks went out to the central pagoda to meditate, and then he began walking circles around it while chanting. We watched from a respectful distance and caught a few photos (without using flash).
Their dog Manni dutifully slept in our doorway all night to guard us from the monkeys, and when we packed up and left the next morning she even escorted us all the way back down the mountain. A part of me was relieved to be leaving. It truly was a beautiful and atmospheric place but my fear of heights made it almost impossible for me to feel relaxed there, as no matter where I looked I could always see a sheer drop below us somewhere.
When we reached the ground again we took a small trip to another monastery in a village called Thamanyat, where they have the embalmed bodies of two deceased monks still preserved in the lotus position. It was interesting, if a little bit creepy.