Clinging on the rock wall with bare hands, crawling in narrow passageways with cool flowing waters and marvelling stalactites and stalagmites – these are the spelunking images that crossed my mind when I read the tourism brochure of Hpa-an featuring caving as the main attraction. I tried caving last March 27, part of my celebration of the Union Day of Myanmar.
I was excited and prepared a tight fit nylon shorts and rubber shoes for the event imagining the acrobatics that will happen inside the caves. It was hot in Hpa-an and I have to wait at the office for the service motorcycle who will bring me around the four caves. The caves are not far from each other as they were all around the Zwegabin mountain. The mountain being the main tourist attraction of the town is also a holy place for the Buddhists. A Buddhist group would like to build a cable car from the pagoda at the top of the mountain to the valley below which would also show the beauty of the land of the Kayin people. They have a fundraising activity along the main highway which require all buses leaving Hpa-an to stop as the volunteers go up the bus to collect donations. Giving as one attribute of Buddhism, the money collected was substantial.
At exactly 800am the service motorcycle arrived. Off we went to the first cave the Kaw Ka Thaung. We passed the road going to the border town of Myawaddy and went to a side road. Several hundred meters from the main road, we saw a colourful pagoda. The street on the side of the pagoda was lined with statues of monks holding alms bowl. We passed the pagoda until we ended up in a cluster of houses. It turned out my driver does not know the location of the cave. The lady we asked pointed to the direction of the pagoda we just passed. We went back and went inside the pagoda. We saw the entrance to the cave full of Buddha statues. The cave was small and it does not go beyond 10 meters inside. As we went out, the driver bought betel nut from a small store outside the pagoda. The old lady sells only lollipops aside from the betel nut concoction she was preparing.
Along the way to the next cave, we passed by the waterfalls village. The village was known as Yay Tagon. It has a spring with cool clean water and you see the fishes swimming. The stream from the spring was damned and made into two sections, one for women and another for men. The rocks jutting out from the spring also features statues of nats. I can just imagine with the hot weather, the place would have been teeming with people escaping the searing heat in town.
From there we moved to the Kyaw Ka Latt, an island with a vertical rock protruding out like a tower. A stupa was erected at the top and it became a pilgrimage site. Three big plastic tanks of water were set near the bridge going to the island. There was a funny notice stuck in each of the tanks saying you are not allowed to wash. Cool.
Kaw Gon cave was the next, the most popular among the caves. The main road leading to the town center of Hpa-an have a big billboard that declares Kaw Gon cave as one of the earliest and historical cave in the area. As early as the 13th century it has already been a Buddhist place of worship. A colony of monkeys live in the ground leading to the cave. They wait for the visitors to feed them. Entrance fee to the cave is 300 Kyats. The walls of the cave were full of small Buddha images – votive tablets. Inside the wide mouth of the cave were several big reclining Buddhas. Access to the inner part of the cave was blocked by the statues. We did not stayed long and proceeded to the next destination.
The last cave was the Ya The Pyan, near Kaw Gon but in separate hill. I consider it the best among the three caves have visited because it has bigger and wider interior. There were also passageway leading to the interior of the cave, and you can see crystal pillars, meaning the dripping water has already connected the stalactite and the stalagmite. Another good thing about the cave is the view from the upper deck. It faced a wide green valley with the misty silhouette of the Zwegabin mountain in the background. We ended at high noon and the sun was draining whatever liquid we have in our bodies. We decided to rest. I have not experienced spelunking but I was not frustrated because I enjoyed the view.
Another thing I got were traces of betel spits from the driver (who was so apologetic when he saw the red strips on my right knee).