In Yangon, I paired up with another solo traveler and we decided to head southeast. A couple of other people I had talked to had said this was one of their favorite parts of the country. It’s the Mon State and it’s known for beautiful caves, many which have been turned into places of worship, dramatic rocks and mountains and interesting areas of ocean and rivers.
We took the five and half hour day bus to Mawlamyine (pron. molo-mee-an). The rickety little seaside town is crowned with the impressive Maharani Paya pagoda on top of a hill overlooking the town and waterfront. We checked into the inaccurately named Breeze Guesthouse and hit the streets to get familiar with the place. As the sun sets, a night barbecue market takes shape on the promenade. This must be the place to go and we ended up eating there three out of the three nights we were there.
But people don’t tend to come to the southeast for Mawlamyine, it’s the landscape and cave adventuring that are the main attractions. So, for the next day with a German girl we rented a car and driver and headed out to explore. I have been very blessed with picture perfect weather since my arrival in Myanmar and driving through the tree-lined roads, green farmland and in between steep mountainous slopes lit by clear sunny daylight only made this place look more like Eden.
On entering Saddan Cave, rows of monk statues and guided Buddhas welcome you, all a little weathered from their cave environment. Birds perched on the statues’ shoulders while spiders spun their webs between the folds of their robes. As we entered deeper, it got darker and we had to use our flashlights to navigate up and down the slick pathway. The air got warmer, more humid and smellier. Thousands of bats make this cave their home and visitors must pass through to reach the other side. Honestly, I was relieved to reach the end as the stench of bat poo was triggering gag reflexes I never knew I had.
Once we got to the other side, we saw that the opening leads to a beautiful natural lake surrounded by craggy hills. There was a massive-to-me snake crawling along the rock wall just inside the cave, feet from where we were standing. Snakes, both poisonous and not, are common in Myanmar. This was my first sighting and since I’ve written this post I have seen two more. It was mesmerizing and beautiful to watch and we stood there for about ten minutes observing how it gracefully slithered slowly across the wall.
A small boat awaited us at the lake and we took a pleasant ride back to where our taxi was parked. Our driver took us to Kyauk Kalap, a famous stupa impressively perched on top of a large finger-like rock. In Myanmar, the hills are dotted like sequins with gold stupas of varying sizes. I often wonder how workers even got up there to build them. This one is especially puzzling. There was loud music and lots of people when we arrived. They were celebrating an annual event in which people give gifts of money, blankets and food to the monks. There were processions of people with their offerings and monks receiving the gifts in a large assembly hall.
We then made our way to the last two caves. Kawgun Cave is covered with thousands of tiny Buddhas. At one time, blasting was being done on the other side of the mountain to mine for limestone and many of the Buddhas had fallen off the cave walls. Still, many remain and they make for a unique backdrop for the larger figures that sit in front.
Lastly, we went to the Ya The Byan Cave. Cheeky monkeys inhabit the grounds and hang out in the trees lining the stairs up to the cave. Not surprising, there are dozens of Buddhas. Some are sitting in quiet meditation, some are reclining, some are standing or perched on lotus flowers.
By this time I had seen enough Buddhas to last a lifetime. We piled back in the car and steered our way home through the dusty orange roads. Barbecue awaits.