Driving through the countryside south of Yangon we saw golden pagodas in every direction. Pagodas could be seen on the top of hills and mountains, glowing in the sun. In addition to seeing a lot of pagodas in southern Myanmar we often heard recordings of monks chanting mantras. This didn’t just occur at temples, but also in public parks, in the streets and on buses. This is something that we didn’t experience in other Buddhist countries.
This small city, set on the mouth of the Thanlwin River, was the capital of Burma when the British governed in the mid-1800s. At that time, it was a major shipping port. Today this former capital is quite run-down. There are some colonial houses here, remnants of the British, but they are mostly in disrepair.
The most famous site in Mawylamyine is Kyaikthanlan Pagoda. It was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’. The story is that he fell in love with a young Burmese woman on the steps of this pagoda. The golden pagoda is set on a ridge above the city and can be seen from below. Surrounding the pagoda is a white courtyard filled with smaller pagodas and altars.
A covered walkway connects it to Mahamuni Paya, a very glittery temple. The temple walls, pillars and ceilings are covered in coloured glass making it feel quite ornate. It was quite a contrast to the dull buildings in town.
When visiting temples you have to remove your shoes. One of the problems with this practice in Myanmar is that a lot of people chew betel nuts. They are actually areca nuts, tobacco and lime rolled in a Betel leaf. People chew it for the buzz it gives them, but the result is tooth decay, oral cancer and really unpleasant red saliva. The roads, sidewalks, and even temple floors are covered in disgusting red spit.
To reach Hpa An, we took a 4 hour long-boat ride north from Mawlamyine on the Thanlwin Rier. It was a slow boat with hard wooden bench seats, but it was a relaxing way to travel. We passed by farms growing rice, corn and bananas. On the river we saw many local fishermen in their dug-outs and long-boats. There were many gold and white pagodas on the surrounding hills. To break up the long ride on wooden benches, we stopped to visit a small, beautiful monastery. It had a few golden pagodas and a pretty tiered roof temple.
As we approached Hpa An the landscape changed from flat farms to tall, narrow karst mountains. It’s a very picturesque landsape.
There are a lot of caves in the karst mountains around Hpa An. We joined a tour from our guesthouse to visit some of them. The most interesting cave was Kawt Goon. Its walls and ceilings are covered in 7th century clay Buddha figurines and carvings. It’s impressive today and must have been remarkable in the 7th century.
Yathae Pyan Cave’s main pagoda is set under a hole in the cave’s roof. The sun’s rays hit the pagoda at the perfect angle to make it look otherworldly.
The countryside around these caves is very pretty with green rice paddies up aginst the steep karst mountains.
Saddan Cave was also interesting. After walking through the first half of the cave, a wooden long-boat took us through a low-ceilinged chamber to reach the other side of the cave. We exited to a quiet pond filled with ducks. The boat ride continued through narrow canals between rice fields.
Another impressive sight around Hpa An is Kyauk Kalap where a tall, top-heavy pinnacle rock with a pagoda on top sits on the edge of an artificial lake. The picturesque setting is perfected by having Mt. Zwegabin in the background. Monks from the monastery regularly walk around the lake.
Mt. Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock
A precariously balanced golden boulder near the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo is a very important site for Buddhists. We joined hundreds of pilgims to see this fascinating site. Getting up and down the 1,100 m hill is a part of the experience. Open trucks with no seatbelts or safety restraints, carry 40 people up to the top of the mountain.
The mountain road is steep and winding with a sheer drop-off. We thought it was scary on the way up, but the drive back down was worse. It was like a roller-coaster. The trucks go quite fast around hairpin turns that have a grade of approximately 20 %. We had never heard brakes make such loud, squealing noises before. On the way down each truck stops midway for about 20 minutes to cool down the brakes. That’s not very comforting though when you start going downhill in the truck again. It takes about 45 minutes each way, which is a really long roller-coaster ride.
At the top, the truck let passengers off in front of a long walkway that passes many shops and restaurants. Since it is a holy place you are required to remove your shoes. The walk takes about 10 – 15 minutes and is a fascinating part of the journey. Early in the morning is the best time to go because of the incredible atmosphere. We saw hundreds of Burmese on their holy pilgrimages to the Golden Rock. Most were very excited as this would be their one and only visit to this important site. There were also dozens of monks collecting alms and novice monks carrying wood to be used in the monastery.
We even saw a few of the reclusive Yati hermit monks. It was really special to see them as they are very different from Buddhist monks we’d seen before. They have goatees, wear dark robes, tall hats and carry a long pole with collection baskets on their shoulders. They don’t make eye contact as they slowly walk up the path ringing their golden bell.
Pilgrims who are unable to walk can hire porters to carry them on bamboo stretchers. It takes four porters to carry one person.
Once we arrived at the main square we saw groups of pilgrims sitting together on straw mats. Some had spent the night and were having breakfast together. Other people were lighting insence, meditating or chanting mantras in the small temples near the square. Their strong devotion is evident.
The Golden Rock sits precariously on the edge of the mountain and does seem to be defying gravity. The legend says that one of Buddha’s hairs is in the stupa on top of the rock and it is that hair that prevents the boulder from falling off. The hair was given to a king in the 1100s by a hermit monk. The monk told the king to find a rock in the shape of the hermit’s head and enclose the hair in a stupa on top of the rock. Because of this hair relic, Golden Rock is a very important site for Buddhists.
Many Buddhists make pilgrimages here to see the rock and to pray. Men place gold leaves on the rock, in fact that is how the rock is golden. Women are not allowed to touch the rock as touching the rock is the same as touching Buddha. Each gold leaf is $1.80 USD and Richard put two on the rock; one for Maggie and one for himself.
Beyond the Golden Rock a trail follows the mountain ridge leading to more temples, pagodas and shops. In one section we found hundreds of white buddha statues spread across the mountain side. This beautiful area was a great end to our fascinating time in the south.
Note: Women are held to a “modesty” dress code. Knees and shoulders must be covered
Getting to Mawlamyine, Hpa An and Kinpun – Each town can be access separately by bus from Yangon: to Mawylamyine – 4-5 hours: to Hpa An – 6 hours: to Kinpun – 5 hours. We were glad we spent a week in this area so we could visit all three. Many tour companies in Yangon offer day trips to Golden Rock but it’s a long way for a day trip. Most of the buses are very comfortable. They are old tour buses from Hawaii with ‘ALOHA’ and a hibiscus flower painted on the sides. These buses definitely stick out in contrast to the poor country.
Where to stay and eat
Mawlamyine – There is a wide variety of hotels in Mawlamyine from hostels and budget guest houses to higher end hotels. We stayed in a guesthouse and really liked to get information on the area from a local’s perspective. There are several good, local restaurants along the waterfront.
Golden Rock – Kinpun is very small. There aren’t many tourist budget accommodations but there are a few decent choices for a moderate price. There are also hotels on the top of the mountain, but we didn’t see them and have no idea of their quality of expense. Public trucks leave often from the centre of Kinpun to the rock. THere are a few basic restaurants in town.
Hpa An – There is a large selection of budget hostels and guesthouses in Hpa An. Most also offer day tours which is the easiest way to see the sites. There are quite a few good, local restaurants in the downtown area.
Coming Next – Thailand – Mysterious Rock Formations and the Red Lotus Sea
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