Tuesday, 20 August 2013


Up at 5.30am to catch the bus to Kinpun Camp at the base of Mt Kyaikhtiyo. A roughly 2500 ft mountain on top of which is balanced a giant golden boulder with a Pagoda built on top. The stone maintains its balance, according to legend, because of one of Buddha's hairs strategically placed in the stupa (pagoda). The bus is hardly luxury with open windows, unscheduled stops and Burmese television karaoke. Still it gets us their along the poorly constructed roads whilst the vegetation gets gradually wilder and the landscape more dramatic. The rain has poured down the entire journey and as we are entering the small village of Kinpun Camp we are a little concerned about the lack of booked accommodation and having to traipse around looking for it whilst getting soaked. However this is solved by an enterprising guest house owner jumping aboard the bus to introduce himself and thereby secure one nights accommodation from us. Bags deposited, quick curry lunch and two beers consumed we set off for a walk in the drizzle.

It is important to understand terminology at this point – spitting (occasional drop), drizzle (light rain that’s more a nuisance than a problem), rain (constant and harder and definitey needs a brolly to shelter from), pouring down (constant, hard, splashing, huge puddle forming and requires brolly and waterproofs to shelter from), Deluge (buckets of water constantly poured on the head and thrown from the sides, brolly and waterproofs can be discarded and swimwear put on instead).


The village road rapidly deteriorates into a rock strewn dirt track that winds its way up the side of the mountain. Houses are palm roofed shacks on stills. Bamboo poles support tarpaulin wind and rain shelters. Most have no windows and few doors. Kitchens are a circle of stones where fires heat black, bubbling cauldrons of food under a corrugated lean to’s, furniture is minimal, hard and creaky. The lucky ones have a small motorbike for transport the less wealthy have old shoes. The people are friendly, clean and approachable. This is the most picturesque and real village we have ever walked through. Children run out and we take photos, or wave to old folk in chairs, and nod to cheroot smoking men who are squatting over woodpiles or women lost in wood smoke rising from the meal fires. The going gets gradually harder with the rocks becoming more and more difficult to traverse. The rain is increasing to a downpour and the humidity is through the roof so we are sweating profusely from the inside and being soaked from the outside. The plan was to walk from the village to a small pagoda a little way up the mountain but quite honestly rain has stopped play. The beers have worked their way through our system and we ask if Rachel can use the toilet at one of the houses. Whilst gone I am invited in and hot tea served. We sit and try to converse for a short while then head up to the ridge as the rain starts using the walkway as a water channel.
On a ridge overlooking the valley we click a few pics and realise that the sky is looking increasingly foreboding so head back. The leaves of palms and bamboo and banana trees are glistening and the sound of the rain is becoming a roar until we are half way through the village and we hit ‘deluge’ status. I cannot describe the intensity of the rain but imagine standing under a waterfall and you are not far off. Children coming home from school swaddled in huge macs make a comical sight. Most have discarded brolley’s in favour of running more efficiently, some just lay down in the streams that are the high street whilst others enter into water fights with the red stained water. It was the wettest of days but also the very best of days and one we will long remember.

Last night it rained and poured and deluged whilst the electricity faded in or out sometimes for 30 minutes or more. We were wet through and didn’t want to get wetter so took to our bed early and …. Watched a movie!

After breakfast we walked through the little village to the truck stop. Yep, truck stop. 7.5 tonne lorry's with benches in the flat bed area which transport very well packed people - 42 of us up - the mountain to the Golden Rock.  Travel is as much about the journey and as the destination and this little journey certainly fitted the bill. A partly finished road set at a gradient of a least 30 degrees runs up the mountain. The road is narrow with onward visibility at a minimum due to the prolific growth of vegetation on either side. The engine screams in 1st gear up this fearsome track and the driver manoeuvres the hairpin bends with the precision and speed of a racing driver. The cloud is vey low and the thrill ride gets even more exciting with the nebulous swirling mist further reducing visibility. Eventually after 50 minutes we crunch to a halt and all disembark to walk the last 200 metres to the top. The clouds create an eerie feel to the monument which looms out of the mist. A large golden boulder of about 25ft high and 15ft across perched on the very edge of a sloping cliff face -  Its impressive and had we been able to see any of the surrounding landscape for more than a fleeting second then it would have been  more so. However, it was certainly worth the effort to get there and of course we were then treated to the even scarier descent which can only be likened to a ride at Alton Towers. Great fun to travel like this and even ride standing up with hands on the cab roof – something I haven’t done since I was a kid with my cousin Kenny.

Job done we left Kinpun Camp and jumped aboard a pick up truck that took us to a small town where we caught the coach to Hpa-An. This road was singularly the most stunning road we have travelled down in the whole of Asia. Lush green paddy fields screaming out in neon green. Thick jungle growth spilling out into fields and into the sporadic villages. The houses (huts) are mainly palm roofed here but in a scruffy fashion with the ends of the palm leaves hanging loose on the edges so they all like they need to get a trim. We pass rolling countryside covered with jungle, huge limestone crags rising in vertical columns  from the flat plain, distant hills and mountains disappearing in ever lightening shades of grey. Through villages with some amazing old colonial building and antique fire engines. Horse drawn carts next to lumbering juggernauts and all around the constant smiling and waving. Our guest house here is basic but clean and we can’t wait until tomorrows next bit of the adventure begins.

Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! And more Wow! Today has been a day that will be hard to beat! Today is the day we have decided that Burma is snapping at the heels of India in our top places in the world competition. Today is the day that we say to all our friends that they must stop booking holidays to places you think might be cool and listen to the advice from those who has travelled a lot and seen a lot of cool stuff. Come to Burma now! This place is going to change, it is going to commercialise, the people and culture will alter, the prices will go up and it will become crowded, but now. Just before that happens, it is absolutely bloody marvellous.

Today was an 8.30 start in the back of a tuk tuk. Just Rachel and I and Latorr our driver. Its not raining for about the first 5 minutes after we leave the hotel but that all quickly changes and really heavy rain quickly sets in. We bump along ordinary potholed roads and then down smaller potholed roads and then lurch down dirt tracks with huge puddles and huge holes in them to our first location Yathay Pyan Cave. A shallow cave about 200 ft up the side of a limestone crag that rises out up
out of the lush vegetation and paddy fields. There is no one about and stepping up on the final steps one is confronted with a golden stupa and several Buddhas of various sizes also some lovely golden statues in ceremonial dress. The main event is not necessarily the cave, although this is pretty cool,  but the view looking out past the statues to the amazing countryside below. 
 The rain is lashing down and dripping from parts of the cave so everything is slippery and splashing noises can be heard as water trickles from fissures in the roof. Outside that scenery is topped by thunder clouds and mists that roll amongst the dozens of crags that litter the landscape. The rainy season has dropped a lot of rain and for miles one can sea fields of water interspersed with trees and small islands of higher ground. It is truly an amazing sight. Next stop is Kawgun Cave with 400,000 Buddhas inside.
Admittedly the are small and although often just bas relief wall art they still help create an interesting place to visit. Bump, bump, bump and we go to the base of Mt Zwegabin where, had it not been raining cats and dogs and numerous other animals we would have climbed to a pagoda on the top. The approach to this was through a large overgrown  field with hundreds of 6ft seated Buddhas placed every 20ft and then past a light blue limestone lake. Before we have time to draw breath we are whizzed off to the truly amazing Kyauk Kalap. Standing in the middle of a lake is a small island with finger of limestone rock rising to the sky. The rock is the basis of a working temple and has a stupa and shrine at the top. There are steps running up to the alter and we climbed these to be greeted by the most amazing vista so far. Our breaths are positively knocked from us as all around are flooded plains dotted with little islands and trees and ringed by more limestone cliffs towering with swirling clouds topping them and stormy skies threatening further rain the whole time. Pictures cannot truly capture the feeling of standing here and seeing what we are seeing. There is a 6th sense awakened that is distinct to sight, sound, smell, touch and taste and is felt by a tightening in the throat and swelling of the heart. It is akin to love and makes you feel like a better person for having seen it…getting soppy, sorry.

Further places of note for the day were the a beautiful lake with another cave shrine. Inside we noticed a small tunnel and squeezed along the damp walls lit only by flickering candles to a tiny shrine. Although small, claustrophobic and wet – its simplicity was quite enchanting. Emerging we take a walk that led to some floating restaurants and bars – all small and palm topped and appropriate to the setting and a place where on, on hotter days, families come to bathe. The walk there goes past a temple from whose entrance a long line of stone monks emerge (probably two or three hundred) following the lead statue of Buddha. Our final stop was supposed to be a village that can only be reached by a thin footbridge that runs across a lake. But the wind and rain reached such biblical proportions we were forced to shelter in a hut until such a time as we had to dash the 100 metres back to our tuk tuk to go home.
A fab day which had it not been the rainy season would have had even more wonders for us to sample but, being pragmatic, we will leave those for our next visit. Next 24 hours is travel to Inle lake…

General points of note.

95% of men wear a longi, 80% of women paint thanik (a sort of ground root paste) on their faces – supposedly to give sun protection and moisturise their skin. However this is worn, day, night and whilst raining so is more an affectation or commonly accepted form of decoration than anything else.

The dogs, unlike in Thailand, are all timid and even in packs are quite genteel.

Everyone is seemingly connected so if we mention we are going to a restaurant or to book a bus ticket. By the time we arrive the place is expecting us. This does not feel like police state spying, more a care of duty to tourists. As we walked through the village to leave this morning 5 people pointed our way to the bus stop, several said goodbye and many more waved.

Everyone carries an umbrella. Whether you are walking, riding a bike, sitting on a trishaw or on a motorbike it is the done thing to keep dry.

Funny large wooden hats are worn by the older citizens and by people carrying produce on their heads than need protection.

Bettel nut chewing is endemic and most people have a lump in their cheek, red rimmed teeth, brightly stained lips and are almost constantly seen ejecting a stream of spit (clint eastwood style) – Our coach driver today even has his own spittoon.




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