Hpa-An & the Golden Rock

From Myawlamyine, Nick and I took a 5 hour boat ride along the Thanlyin River to Hpa-An. We passed by fishing boats and thatched homes as village kids ran along the shore waving hello. Golden pagodas sprinkled the landscape and we stopped at U Nar Auk Monastery. This monastery was built in 1888 and the buddhas pictured below were each made from 1 whole piece of wood. As we continued up river toward  Hpa-An we were greeted with mountains.



Behind the scenes at U Nar Auk Monastery


One of our favorite activities in Hpa-An was visiting Linno Cave. As we walked to the cave we spent some time playing with local children and the toothbrushes we handed out were an absolute hit. We sat and waited for sunset in anticipation to see the bats. Linno cave is home to millions of bats from over 10 different species. These bats eat huge numbers of agricultural pests and provide guano that is harvested by local villagers (30 kg per week). Each evening the bats leave the cave to feed and we watched a steady stream of bats fly out of the cave for at least 15 minutes.




Millions of bats leaving their cave at sunset

Nick and I’s favorite restaurant in Hpa-An was called San Ma Tau, where we each ordered a small curry and rice. With most traditional burmese dishes, tea, cabbage soup, fresh vegetables and sides come with every meal. These sides included: boiled fish paste, fried fish paste, pound fish paste, fried chopped fish paste, fried onion with shrimp, soya beans, fried chill + garlic + peanut, fried sesame with garlic, pickled tea leaves, and mango chutney.

Traditional Burmese Cuisine

On our second and last day in Hpa-An, Nick and I drove a motorbike 32 km (20 miles) to Bayin Nyi Pagoda where we sport climbed. Although the routes were relatively short and dirty it was a unique experience climbing to the sounds of morning prayer. Our approach included walking through buddha caves and past monk’s bathing springs.

Nick climbing Monet’s Rising Sun
Climbing at Bayin Nyi Pagoda

We left Hpa-An and spent the night in Kyaikto. We woke up early and caught a ride to Kinmun. Here we began the 11km (7 mile) hike to the golden rock. We hiked along an empty trail and were asked for many religious donations along the way. We passed by bamboo stalls that sold warm sodas, noodles and doubled as family’s homes. Every stall we passed reaked of human feces, which was a smell that would continue to follow us throughout Myanmar. As we continued up the trail we began to get a beautiful overlook of the valley. We assumed that because we only passed 4 foreigners and 30 locals on the trail that there would only be about 100 tourists at the top.

When we arrived, we were bombarded with thousands of local tourists that arrived by bus. Food vendors, souvenir stalls, napping pilgrims, picnicking tourists and monks all added to the chaos. Although the golden rock was extremely impressive we were more entertained by the scene around us. As many things in Myanmar, the pagoda was divided by gender. Men were aloud to place gold pieces of foil on the rock while woman prayed in a separate area. We have found that metal detectors, hot springs and various other activities are all separated by gender. Nick and I decided to take the bus down  to the bottom of the mountain rather than hike and was it an experience worthwhile! 10 buses of 45 people all left at the same time. We were packed into the back of a large truck and down we went. It felt like we were on a roller coaster, as we speed through bumps our stomachs dropped and as we rounded corners we were whiplashed into one another. We sped past every other bus heading down and were happy we made it in 1 piece.

11 km hike to Golden Rock
Golden Rock / Kyaiktiyo Pagoda

Transitioning Countries & Genders

Nick and I entered Myanmar through Mai Sot, which has only been open to foreigners for a year. We found this border crossing to be the least regulated and least developed we’ve experience. As we left Thailand, I was surprised that no one checked the first page of my passport to make sure that it was mine. As we walked across the bridge over no man’s land, we observed a homeless family and watched boats illegally (and obviously) take people across the river. As we entered Myanmar immigration there were no ques, no other foreigners, unexperienced workers and my passport was stamped upside down. Although, the process seemed unorderly for foot traffic, the truck loads of produce, motorbikes, toys and other goods seemed to be more regulated.

Illegal border crossings

After crossing the border, Nick and I arranged a ride to Mawlamyine in a car full of bananas. During the 3 hour ride we must have stopped 10 times to grease some hands at military checkpoints. We drove past water buffalo, pagodas, and thatched homes (these homes used large dried leaves to construct the roof). My first observation was the drastic difference between Thailand and Myanmar. It’s was night and day. It’s unfathomable how one day someone decided to draw a line on a map, call it a border, and now it changes the way people live. The amount of opportunity and development in Myanmar lacks without hesitation in comparison to Thailand. Myanmar is dirty, poor, the roads are outdated and there is civil conflict. However, what this country lacks in development makes up for in generosity and curiosity among the people.

We arrived to the small town of Mawlamyine (Myanmar’s 3rd largest city) just in time to observe the sunset over the river. We didn’t know what to expect, some people said traveling in Myanmar was off the beaten path, while others said it felt like the rest of the Southeast Asia tourist loop.

Here were some of our first impressions:

–  Woman and children wear white paint on their face which is made from ground bark (Thanaka). It is believed to be fragrant, cosmetic, contain natural spf, is an anti- fungal and helps to promote smooth and blemish free skin. Some wear it as makeup and it’s painted on in designs (large circles on their checks and forehead, lines under their eyes, or swirls) while others simply paint their entire face.

– Men and woman (most commonly the older generation but also seen among young adults) have stained black teeth. This is from chewing betel nut which is a dark red nut mixed with other spices wrapped in a banana leaf and provides a similar buzz to chewing tobacco.

– We’ve seen traditional skirts worn by women throughout Southeast Asia, however not only does the majority of the population  in Myanmar wear them, the majority of men wear them. They are called Longhis and are quite stylish. Locals more freely express their individuality through their dress and hairstyles in comparison to any other Asian country we’ve visited.

– There is an enormous Indian influence as the British brought people from Indian to Myanmar to work during colonialism.

– The older generation (mostly males) can speak English, due to American’s presence during WWII.

– The locals are interested in discussing politics (when they feel it’s safe) and will pull over on their motorbike to ask you about Trump, Putin, etc.

– Woman carry goods on their head, and as in the rest of Asia, seem to do all of the work.

– Pagodas cover hill tops and every poor town will have a large gold pagoda peaking out above the trees.

– Nick and I question our choice to travel in Myanmar. By traveling here we are financially supporting the government. Should we have skipped the country entirely? The local newspapers are a constant reminder of the darker issues at hand.

– Everything is done by hand in Myanmar. We’ve watched woman and children create, asphalt and pave roads and sidewalks.

Manual Labor

Th next morning we walked around the market while locals smiled, waved or simply stared. Although there are a handful of tourists in this city, their presence is extremely low. We walked around town and watched horse and buggies transport goods or people. We observed a mosque located directly across the street from a Buddhist temple and children monks collecting their daily offerings. Later, we loaded onto a large canoe with 20 locals and headed to Ogre Island. Here we experienced how locals made rubber bands, coconut rope, coconut mats, bamboo hats, and wooden pipes. We returned to Mawlamyine to enjoy some delicious dollar Indian food.

Mawlamyine Market
Handmade Pipe

The local ethnic minority group, Karen’s, celebrated their New Years a week earlier and Nick and I were unsure how we’d celebrate our New Years, if at all. We saw a slip of paper at our guesthouse that was printed in English, “You are cordially invited to our New Years celebration!” and listed some details. We didn’t know what to expect. Maybe there was a small expat community or maybe it would be a small local party? We arrived at an extremely wealthy gated home that doubled as a fitness gym, salon, custom dress design and modeling agency. What was this place? We were greeted with excitement by some local women in extravagant dresses and told to eat, drink, dance and enjoy. There ended up being 5 other foreigners and after about a half an hour, it clicked. We were among Mawlamyine’s transgendered community watching a talent show in the yard of a home that catered toward women in the industry. We were baffled as we did not think the people of Myanmar or government would be accepting, however because we were so close to the Thai border maybe they were more open to it. We rang in the new year with the largest fireworks in town, ate freshly made dosais and danced on stage with 15 ladies. It was a fun, funny, and an unique experience that I will never forget. Here is to a 2017, a new year, hopefully full of world peace, compassion and environmental improvement.

New Year’s Party!