Thursday, June 26, 2014

Getting Into Caves in Hpa An

Some people don't like caves. Their position is defensible. Caves can be dim and dank and are often inhabited by creatures you wouldn't like to pet. They frequently reek of bat shit. You can get lost in caves quite easily and there's always a chance the roof could collapse or a tunnel could flood and leave you trapped in a subterranean tomb. And also, this:

On the other hand caves can be incredibly neat places, too. Besides skin-eating fungi and calamitous rockslides, you can find lakes, rivers, and even forests. Or, in the case of Hpa An, temples.


If there's one thing Myanmar has plenty of (besides methamphetamine and squirt guns) it is temples. You'd be hard pressed to spit a wad of betel nut anywhere in the country without hitting a temple, which is actually a terrible idea and would probably end badly for you. The Burmese are among the most devoutly Buddhist people in the world and have been enthusiastically, or otherwise, building temples all over the place for the past millennium or so. When I tell people about traveling in Myanmar, I feel like Bubba in Forrest Gump: 'Well, there's sandstone temples, gilded temples, ancient temples, temples on mountains, floating temples, temples full of cats...' After a while it can all start to seem same-same but different.

Shwedagon Paya is Myanmar's most famous (and most photographed) temple,.

Many of the backpackers I met in Myanmar were hesitant to concede this; the truth came out sheepishly,  like they were admitting Citizen Kane was boring. But the temple fatigue in their eyes was obvious. I actually like visiting pagodas, but I could understand how they felt. Contemporary travel is basically an expensive hunt for the perfect Facebook profile picture, and temples rank just behind beaches, sunsets, and beach sunsets as Southeast Asia's most thoroughly-beaten dead horses, photographically speaking. Your friends are unlikely to enjoy clicking through a hundred photos of crumbly old Buddha heads.

It would be nice to pretend I was too enlightened to hold such dismissive views, but in reality I rolled my eyes as lethargically as the guy in his Vang Vieng tanktop the first time I heard about Hpa An. The only reason I ended up going there was a short email from an American couple I'd met weeks before. They described it as a sleep little country town where you could kill a few days spelunking before catching a riverboat to Mawlamyine, where Orwell once shot an elephant and Kipling wrote some very misleading poetry.

'Cool,' I thought. 'Caves are awesome. As are riverboats.' The caves were indeed awesome, but I never caught that riverboat.


Main street of Hpa An by day.

My first glimpse of Hpa An was a blurry one, as it came at 3:30 am one foggy morning. I'd arrived on an overnight bus from Yangon with a talkative Chinese girl whom I seriously considered smothering at least a dozen times during the ride. We climbed off the bus and collected our bags, standing beneath a gaudily illuminated clock tower in the town's central roundabout. Wide empty streets snaked in every direction past rows of shuttered windows and unlit storefronts. I held a business card for a place called Soe Brothers, one of the few guesthouses in town licensed to allow foreigners and not notorious for bedbugs.

We found the place with little trouble. Unfortunately the night clerk informed us that they were full, were likely to be full tomorrow, and also that it was really goddamn early and wouldn't we please fuck off. He had a point, though the Chinese girl continued to pester him with questions until he wearily slammed the door in her face. 'Serves her right,' I thought smugly until I realized that meant I was screwed too.

So we wandered off down the dark lifeless street, tottering under the weight of our heavy packs. There were no signs of human activity - the townspeople were heavy sleepers apparently. I was beginning to suspect we were walking through a ghost town when an ancient motorbike cart rumbled to life and we were suddenly blinded by its ferocious headlights. A high, thin voice called out, ' Hello my friend, where you go?' I felt my stomach sink as the cart pulled up alongside us and the driver grinned at me with snaggly betel-stained teeth. Touts are rarely pleasant people even under ideal circumstances, and our circumstances were far from ideal. For once the Chinese girl fell silent and I was forced to do the talking.

'We go guesthouse...Soe Brothers,' I lied, hoping he'd bugger off once it was clear he'd make no commission off us. Instead he laughed and spat a stream of bright red betel juice onto the pavement, wiping his mouth with a dirty shirtsleeve. 'Soe Brothers no room! I know good house very cheap for you, close! Close! Very cheap! Aircon!'  The Chinese girl looked at me skeptically and I fidgeted with my pack, fully aware we were probably about to be scammed but unable to think of any better ideas. 'How much?', I asked him, trying to convey an aura of savviness and intimidation that he cheerfully ignored. The red-toothed man just smiled again and spat, then leaned toward me, his large dark eyes positively beaming. 'Cheap, my friend - cheap.'

Then he pointed to a large purple building down the street and drove away.


The next morning I rolled out of a ridiculously comfortable high-legged bed and shivered appreciatively under the icy AC unit. The place was even nicer than the tout had said. I walked out into a bright purple hallway and headed for the shared bathrooms, where I had to wait for a minute as they were being cleaned by an ancient Burmese woman with skin like tree bark and a broad, toothless grin. Despite the early hour she was clearly drunk. The old gnome chattered at me in rapid-fire Burmese and made a grand display of placing a roll of tissue on the back of the toilet. Then she hugged me fiercely and gave me a peck on the cheek before swaying off down the hall, mumbling drunkenly to herself as she dragged a broom behind her.

The desk clerk downstairs was less intoxicated but equally friendly. I handed him 7,000 kyat (about $7 USD) for the room and asked if he had a motorbike for rent. His round, nut-brown face lit up with excitement as he searched the cavernous folds of his longyi, finally producing a battered cell phone. 'Just a moment please,' he apologized politely before launching into a torrent of Burmese. Minutes later another fat, cheerful man pulled up at the door with a shiny white Honda Wave. I exchanged my passport for a key and a map, smeared a blob of sunscreen across my face, and hopped on the bike. Even the sudden appearance of the Chinese girl in her hooded sun-mask couldn't ruin my mood. When she finally managed to clamber on the back (on the fourth attempt), we were off.


Hpa An sits in a beautiful corner of southern Myanmar. The mighty Ayeyarwady River flows through the town, bordered by neat rice paddies that turn from green to gold around the harvest. The terrain is mostly flat with dense thickets of subtropical forest, except for the limestone mountains that rise from the landscape like a sleeping giant's toes. Nestled inside these mountains are Hpa An's semi-famous caves, some of which are home to temples more than a thousand years old. The caves are not Hpa An's only attraction, however.

The desk clerk had told me about a waterfall-fed swimming pool only a few kilometers from town. His description conjured images of a secluded mountain grotto where naked forest nymphs frolicked in the water while applying impressive amounts of Pantene Xtra-Silky conditioner to their scalps. I decided we'd make a stop there, followed by the Field of One Thousand Buddhas (a self-explanatory site) and perhaps a few of the larger caves before heading back at sundown. It was an ambitious plan, but we had an early start and I drive fast.

However, I had not factored in the Chinese girl's stunning incompetence as a navigator. Despite the map and her iPhone's GPS it took us nearly an hour to reach anything remotely resembling a mountain, an impressive accomplishment considering how easy it usually is to find a thousand-meter-tall pile of rocks. Nevertheless, after nearly a dozen stops to ask for directions we finally arrived at...the Field of One Thousand Buddhas. It wasn't the swimming pool, but it would do for starters.

Field of One Thousand Buddhas.

The path leading to the field was lined by souvenir stalls, carnival games, and even a decrepit Ferris wheel. Apparently a festival had concluded the night before and everyone was still too hungover to clean up just yet. Piles of garbage were scattered everywhere and stray dogs picked through the debris, searching for an abandoned corn dog or half-eaten box of popcorn perhaps.

When we reached the field we found that it did contain a lot of Buddha statues, but these were far outnumbered by plastic bags. The peaceful, weatherbeaten Buddha faces seemed unperturbed by the sea of garbage around them, but the Chinese girl was decidedly less Zen - all the trash made it difficult to take decent photos. I pretended that the refuse didn't bother me and made some airily patronizing remarks about environmentalism being a conceit of the rich. But secretly I was disappointed that the Buddha field moonlighted as a landfill. Somewhat grumpily, we departed for the waterfall.


A quick digression about the climate of Myanmar - I visited during the beginning of dry season, when temperatures soar above 100°F/38°C and the mugginess becomes so oppressive that the entire country shuts down for two weeks for a national water fight. So we shouldn't have been surprised to learn that A) the 'waterfall' was actually a feeble trickle feeding into a small rock pool and B) the pool was crammed with Burmese. There were old ladies splashing around fully clothed and younger women hand washing colorful longyis. A pack of rowdy teenage boys performed backflips off rocks while listening to a Burmese cover of 'Living on a Prayer'. They were watched closely by a group of girls who braided each others' hair and snapped endless selfies with their mobiles. A handful of heavily tattooed monks stood in the shade and chain-smoked; they were young men in their teens or early twenties and most of them looked like they'd rather be in swim trunks than robes.

The 'waterfall'.

Tatt'd up punk monks.

The air was filled with happily chattering voices and the smell of grilled corn. It was really an idyllic scene until a man started screaming.


From across the pool, I saw a small thin figure being carried toward the water like a trussed pig, yelling piteously at the men who held his arms and legs. He had a small neat beard and an unmistakeable look of panic in his eyes. His cries grew more urgent and pathetic as they neared the pool and I gritted my teeth, not wishing to intervene but horrified by the bullying before my eyes. The man was clearly mentally and physically disabled. He began to sob as he was dropped into the water, his legs sinking limply as he splashed his arms furious in a vain attempt to keep his head above the surface. The two other men grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him down into the muddy pool, deaf to his anguished protests.

I clenched my fists and looked around to see if anyone was going to help the man before he was drowned in broad daylight. Nobody seemed to care. And it was soon obvious why.


When the man's head reemerged from the water, he was transformed. His eyes shone with joy rather than fear. He waved his arms happily back and forth as he lay face down on the surface and his two 'tormentors' pushed him in lazy figure eights. Some teenagers offered him their inner tubes, and soon the thin bearded man was surrounded by a group of Burmese old and young, all of whom were laughing and playfully splashing water. Eventually one of the men hoisted him onto his back, like a father carries his child, and staggered out of the pool. They sat together at the water's edge as he ruffled the thin bearded man's hair and dried his damp face, avoiding the thin man's mirthful swipes with patient good humor.

In a Western country, the thin bearded man would probably be placed in a hospital or group home. But there are no social services for poor rural Burmese, no bureaucratic safety net for those unable to harvest rice or build houses or repair machinery. Life is difficult enough for the sharp-minded and able-bodied. One might expect the handicapped to be doomed to a Hobbesian existence at best - nasty, brutish, and short. In a country that had suffered for decades under a brutally repressive military junta, who has tears left to spare?

Yet I couldn't help but notice the neatness of the man's beard, or the rows of straight white teeth when he smiled. Somebody was taking care of him. I sat and watched while his two protectors rubbed his stick-like limbs with soap and combed his hair with unmistakeable tenderness. They dressed him in clean dry clothes and held a bottle of water to his lips, looking like two burly mothers tending to an enormous newborn. The thin bearded man turned his head back and forth between them, flashing his brilliant smile and eyes full of gratitude and I felt like crying like you sometimes do when the world gets too beautiful.


The next morning I parted ways with the Chinese girl, leaving me free to explore the countryside on my own. I spent the following three days zipping around on the White Wave, mostly getting terrifically lost and not minding it at all. It was an excellent way to meet local people in an unobtrusive and mercifully brief way, hollering 'mingalabar!' while cruising past tidy bamboo houses and occasionally stopping to take pictures with groups of schoolchildren or bemused old ladies carrying enormous baskets of vegetables on their heads. One elderly man who introduced himself as Mr. Diamond Flower insisted on personally guiding me to Kawgoon Cave (nearly 10 kilometers away), apparently skeptical of my ability to make a few right turns without getting lost. At one roadside shop I shared a Coke with some hip young dudes on their way to jobs in Thailand. They told me that they liked Obama and thought Miley Cyrus was very sexy. 'She twerk is good,' one of them winked suggestively.

Mr. Diamond Flower

I did eventually make it to the caves, which were just as spectacular as advertised. Some had giant reclining Buddas and intricate wall carvings covered by shimmery golden paint and bat guano. At one cave I stood with some middle-aged monks and tossed bananas to quick handed monkeys who fought each other viciously for the airborne fruit. At another I sat in silent meditation deep within a rocky alcove until a group of candle-bearing teenagers crawled inside and screamed so loudly I feared a cave-in. In other caves I found places of perfect stillness and tried to imagine solitary monks sitting in the darkness hundreds of years ago. Mostly I succeeded in ignoring the Snickers wrappers and plastic bottles that littered the larger passageways. But nothing impressed me as much as the thin bearded man in the arms of his friends.


A few weeks later, as I was preparing to catch my flight back to Saigon, a backpacker asked me what I thought of Hpa An. We were sitting at a little restaurant on 19th Street in Yangon, a place famous for its cheap mojitos. He wanted to know if the cave temples were really worth seeing. I picked a mint leaf out of my teeth and said, 'Yeah, they're great. But make sure to check out the waterfall too. It's incredible.' 

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