Escaping tourist-riddled central Burma, Gareth Clark finds peace among the monkeys and mountains of the South East.
Burma (also known as Myanmar) may have officially ‘opened up’ in 2011, following 50 years of self-imposed isolation, but large parts of the country remain off-limits. And while tourist figures are rising, most go to the ‘must-see’ centre of the country, touring the pagodas of Bagan and the floating gardens of Lake Inle. Since hotel prices doubled in 2012 (upon government orders), there is a growing sense that visitors are being short-changed and facilities are at bursting point.
Mawlamyine is a six-hour bus ride from the country’s largest city, Yangon; it’s also where author George Orwell spent his formative years in what was then the capital of British-owned Burma – copies of his Burmese Days are de rigueur for propping up wonky tables in hostels. The next day we leave Mawlamyine for Kayin (or Karen) State, a region where travel is heavily restricted due to ongoing hostilities between the government and Karen militia. State capital Hpa-an is safe and easy to get to, however. We head to a monastery at the top of nearby Mount Zwegabin to stay overnight. The 40-minute rickshaw (or, in Burmese parlance, ‘trishaw’) ride there is nerve-shattering – only firm believers in reincarnation can drive like this – but the approach from the west offers an oddly serene finale. Flanking the last stretch of road, a blissed-out army of 1,150 identical Buddha statues leads to the foot of the mountain.
Local Buddhists regularly make the 725m climb to donate food to the monks. For the rest of us it’s a scenic, if exhausting, slog. Nearly three hours after starting our ascent, we collapse, limbs aching, across the final step. Life in the Zwegabin Monastery sets its own pace. Guests are, for the most part, politely ignored and we’re grateful to one kindly monk who ushers us to a room with sleeping mats. We’d heard tales of tourists packed 50 at a time into monasteries along the famous Kalaw-to-Lake Inle trek in central Burma. But our only companions are a pair of local boys undergoing their samanera, a short noviciate all young Burmese Buddhists must complete.
The clatter of monkeys scuffling on the roof acts as a morning alarm call. We rise stiffly and hurry outside to greet the sunrise. As windows on the world go, Mount Zwegabin serves up penthouse views. Beneath us, the green lungs of the valley inhale sharply and we follow suit. Nowhere in Southeast Asia is the landscape so varied; mountains, pastures, lakes and forests all jostle for our attention. It’s simply breathtaking. The sound of the 6.30am monkey feeding jogs us back to reality. We watch as robed monks hurl palmfuls of rice into the courtyard. A hairy parliament of around 50 apes descends. They hoot, they jeer, they bicker. The politics of primates isn’t that far removed from their homosapien cousins. After leaving a small donation (anything over 10USD is appropriate), we hit the gentler, two-hour eastern trail down the mountain and head back to town.
Hpa-an is bursting with caves to explore, and the best – the free-to-visit Saddar Cave, is about an hour’s trishaw ride away. Inside, it’s a giant, underground stadium filled with stalactites and thousands of bats. The monks charge Dhs10 to turn the lights on; leave them off – it’s more fun that way. The deeper we descend, the shriller the bats’ squeaking becomes (the smell isn’t exactly mild either) and every flash of our torch prompts a cacophonous Mexican wave of fluttering (and debris). We emerge from the cave to find a group of local fishermen gnawing sleepily on cheroots. They offer rides through the rice paddies and half-submerged caves. As the sun hangs heavy in the sky and the cool air bounces off the water, it proves the perfect way to end our trip: floating gently, far from Burma’s madding crowds.