Morning bus to Mawlamyine, this time from a different, but equally as far, “highway” bus station. Again, getting there takes about forever. The Burmese clearly don’t see the usefulness of building the bus stations in the actual cities, it would seem. But we’re in Asia. Expecting things to make sense would be naive. The journey takes us south-east to Mawlamyine, a city on the estuary of Salwin river.
The journey takes about 9 hours (instead of scheduled 7, so it’s still considered on time by local standards), and it is an interesting insight into the life in the countryside. The country is cleaner than Cambodia, just about. Still, the road is hemmed by tons of plastic food containers and empty bottles, that no one is ever going to collect. There are sumptuous villas and there are bamboo shuts that cannot survive the monsoon season. And then there are monasteries, one about every mile. Shiny, tacky, gold-painted horrible concrete things. I am not being antireligious, they just offend my esthetic sense. On that note, I have always thought that buddhism is the most relaxed of the religions, more of a philosophy than an actual religion. I was mistaken. It is as corrupt as all the others. People live in incredible poverty around here, yet they keep giving everything they have to buy golden plates for Buddha statues. The monasteries provide for the only available education, therefore many young men opt for monastic life even after they would be supposed to leave school, not to respond to some higher calling, but because it’s, well, I guess in many ways easier. Also, if you expect the monks to be enlightened friendly characters who dispense pearls of wisdom to strangers between one meditation and the next, you’ll be better off playing any random John Lennon record. The monks around here are known to be militant sons of fallen women, who will not let you use the mosquito spray because they love all things living, but then they’ll tell you it’s absolutely fine to kill the Rohingya. And I spoke to a girl who had developed a 40 C fever while on a meditation retreat, dismissed by the nuns as bad karma (as opposed to Dengue fever).
Mawlamyine is just an overnight stopover on our way to Hpa An, so we don’t see anything from the city, except for an impressive sunset over the river (our guesthouse is on the embankment facing west) and the night market, where I abandon all hygiene precautions and fill my plate with tiny skewers of as dubious provenance as I can possibly find. Therefore I end up with grilled mutton heart, chicken intestines, liver of I’m not sure what animal, and more mainstream squid and prawns. Unexpectedly, there are no tragic consequences to my dinner.
November 10 – 13
Hpa An is situated about 45 km further north for Mawlamyine and is reachable by a comfortable bus in about an hour, but we opt for getting there on a boat, because it sounds romantic and someone told us it’s a nice experience. It’s not. It’s uncomfortable, interminable, loud and hot. And full of rude French. The boat stops on a river island with an unimpressive monastery, but at least it’s a welcome break for the roaring engine. On the other hand, the 4 hours trip is a good taster of what a 20 hours trip from Bagan to Mandalay could be, and the experience convinces us to abandon that idea.
The town (it feels like a village, but the population is over half a milion) lays amid paddy rice fields and karst rock formations, dominated by prominent Mt. Zwegabin. The main attraction is the caves in the area. We rent scooters and explore. In my opinion, the bikeride alone is much nicer than the caves. The road takes you through breathtaking landscape and compared to that the caves are disappointing. We visit Sadan cave on the first day. We pay the entrance fee and the nice man proudly hands us a packet of some suspiciously looking back-greenish stuff. I am pretty sure he just sold us a bag of bat shit. We learn from the provided information leaflet that the locals use guano to cure pretty much anything – from common cold to painful period. And given the quality of burmese healthcare – or lack thereof – bat shit may even be the safer bet.
As I mentioned, all caves in the area are temples. Which means I have to buy a longi to cover my legs, and although I try to do my best to tie it wound my hips same way the local do, I mush be doing something wrong, because locals point at me and start laughing every time I put it on. Temples also means shoes off an off we go for a nice barefoot walk in excrements (and garbage, because while it would be disrespectful to Buddha to wear shoes, it’s somehow OK to litter). I am sure this is how people get Ebola or something similar. There are concrete Buddha statues of any size basically everywhere, all lit by bright neon lights. More than a cave, this looks like buddhism-themed amusement park. There is a lake on the other side and a little boat takes us back to the front entrance, so at least I don’t have to take the same disgusting walk back.
Kawt Ka Taung cave is decided for the second day. This one you can skip with light heart. The ride is nice, but most of it the same as the ride to Sadan, and the cave itself is useless. What is not to be missed though is Linno cave across the river at sunset. About 400 000 bats leave the cave at dusk when they ho hunting and that really is an amazing experience. We spend the evening back in the guesthouse, where I get lectured by some german hipster barely out of high school about contemporary politics and the difficulty of connecting with the locals (which would somehow be fault of the americans). And then she asks me if there was still communism in the Czech Republic. Dude, we are only your neighbour… So much for understanding the locals.
On the last day Robin (along with half of the hotel) is sick. I take the bike to much nicer caves on the other side of the river. Still a lot of concrete Buddhas, but a bit less tacky. And also, whoever thought that the outdoors viewing platform where people have to walk barefoot in the sun should be made of metal, deserves to be awarded a doctorate honoris causa in applied physics. We take a night bus to Kalaw, during which Olga gets sick, but I am still OK.
Kaw Gon Cvae, Pyan Cave, and Kaw Ka Taung Cave:
And yeah, I kind of understand why they keep taking pictures of me…