We spent our last week in Myanmar in the south, and it was one of the best times we had here so far! This part of the country is just slowly opening up to foreigners and it is not yet crowded at all. We didn´t get the chance to travel to far south because it takes a lot of time, but we made it to Mawlamyine, Hpa-An and Kyaiktiyo.
Our first stop in the south was Mawlamyine. It is the third biggest city in Myanmar and was the former British capital. It is located at Thanlwin river. We decided to take the night bus from Yangon, which was a big mistake because the bus ride was only 5 hours. So we arrived at 4 o´clock in the morning to Breeze Guesthouse, who gave us a room without charge for the rest of the night. The hostel was the worst place we have been to so far and reminded us of the horror movie „Hostel“ ;-). We immediately decided to stay for one night only and leave to Hpa-An after that. After sleeping for a few hours we had breakfast at Grandfathers and Grandmothers restaurant overlooking the river. The income of this restaurant is donated to the care of elderly people. We had some of the best Shan Noodles in the country!
From there we walked to the jetty to take us to Gaungse Kyun, also known as Shampoo Island as water from there has been used to wash the king´s hair in the past. It is a really small island housing a monastery. About 50 people, mainly monks, live there. It looks a bit like a tropical paradise with its palm trees. A monk showed us around and invited us to a 45 minute meditation. Sandra was so tired from the night bus that she almost fell asleep during the meditation.
From there we walked through the city and visited Kyaikthanlan Paya with really nice views of the city and the river. We went to bed early because we were still tired from the night before. The surroundings of Mawlamyine are supposed to be really beautiful, but we somehow didn´t feel at home at this place, so we decided to move on.
We had heard so many good stories about Hpa-An that we were really curious to see what it´s like. So it wasn´t the worst decision to leave Mawlamyine early. We took the boat on Thanlwin river from Mawlamyine to Hpa-An which was a nice three our ride with beautiful scenery.
We found a place to stay easily in Hpa-An (Soe Brothers Guesthouse 2) and decided to stay for 3 nights because there is so much to do around Hpa-An. The city itself is not very interesting, it is its surrounding that are worth a visit. Our guesthouse offered a tour to the main attractions the next day, so we booked it. We went in a Tuk-Tuk with a group of six people.
The landscape around Hpa-An is really beautiful. There are many caves with temples built into the caves, mountains, rice fields and many more. We visited Ya The Byan Cave and Kawgoon Cave first, both equally impressive for its size and especially the Buddha carvings in the walls.
Next we visited Kyauk Kalap, a monastery built into this rock, surrounded by a lake:
From there we drove to Lumbini Garden, a garden with 1.150 Buddha statues. Yes, 1.150. It felt a little like a graveyard.
After that we went to a natural swimming pool to have a break for lunch and swimming. Once we got there, we found out that women were not allowed to swim in this place. The 5 women in our group hated this of course, while Jens laughed and made fun of us.
After lunch we moved on to Sadan cave, which was actually the most beautiful one. Entering the cave there were some Buddha statues as well like in all the other caves. But after that we moved deeper into the cave where it was totally dark and the ceilings were really low at some parts. We walked through the cave for about 15 minutes until we made it out on the other side. There was a beautiful lake on that side and we rented a boat to take us back to the main entrance.
We got back home around 6pm and met with a German girl and a Swiss guy we met the day before. There was a festival around the corner of our hostel for the independence of Kayin State and we wanted to check it out. This was the best part of the day! The festival was huge with food stalls, kickboxing fights, music and fun rides. We tried the swing boat first which was a lot of fun, mostly for watching all the really scared Burmese people. The real thrill about it was the question if this has been set up correctly. It looked really old 😉
After dinner at one of the food stalls we had a closer look at the big wheel. We hadn´t expected what we were about to see – the wheel didn´t have a motor! Every time it started, about 8 guys climbed to the top, got into a certain position, and then shifted their weight into one direction to start the wheel!! We had to go for a ride! This was the scariest thing I have ever seen, especially sitting inside. There was nothing to hold on to, and then you watch these guys climbing up, and you know that nothing, expect for man power, can start or stop the wheel!
You won´t believe this before you see it! Nothing like this would ever be allowed in Germany, I wonder how many accidents happen before these guys are trained for that!
This was so far the funniest event we have been to. Of course we were the main attraction again, people hadn´t seen too many foreigners there yet.
The next day we rented a motorbike (again!). We wanted to explore some more of Hpa-An´s surroundings ourselves. We started at Mount Zwegabi, an 800 meter high mountain with a monastery on top. It was about 12 o´clock when we got there and we decided to climb it. Big mistake – it was so hot in the sun, we had never been sweating so much! The climb took forever and we arrived at the top after 2 hours and totally exhausted! But the great views were a good reward.
Even the way back down was terribly hard! We didn´t have enough water and we were really hungry.
After a short break at the hostel we went to the Bat Cave for the sunset. Every night, thousands of bats fly out of this cave right after sunset, which is a fascinating scene. We have never seen anything like this before. The pictures don´t really show it but maybe you can see the black line in the sky.
These were two beautiful days and we could have easily spent some more days here, as there is much more to explore. Unfortunately we had to move on because we also wanted to visit Mount Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock
Sandra was a little sceptical about visiting this place, because hotels were expensive, and all there is to see is this golden rock on top of the mountain. But many people were really excited about it, so we went as well. We took the bus from Hpa-An early in the morning because we only wanted to spent one night here. We arrived at Kyaiktiyo and had to go to Kimpun which is the base of the mountain where our hotel was located as well. We took the local transportation, which was a big tuk-tuk. It was already full, so Jens had to sit on the roof with all the luggage. When we arrived at Kimpun it was terribly crowded and there was a lot of traffic. We found out that because it was one day before the night of the supermoon and the full moon festival, a lot more people than usual were going there.
The funniest part of the trip is the ride up and down the mountain. The trucks are made for about 40 people, but they squeeze in at least 50 people. Of course there are always some people vomiting. You just hope they don´t sit right next to you or even worse behind you. The ride is like a ride on a rollercoaster (mostly like „Wilde Maus“). The drivers hurry up the curvy roads like crazy.
Once up the mountain we couldn´t believe how many people were here. We didn´t see many tourists, but there were thousands of pilgrims that were here for the full moon festival. There are only two very expensive hotels up on the mountain and usually the last truk leaves at 6pm to go back down. But today, people just camped everywhere, and it was almost impossible to walk among the crowds and their „beds“ on the floor.
The golden rock wasn´t as impressive as all the things going on around it with all these pilgrims up there. The worst thing about the rock itself is that only men are allowed to get even close to it! Women have to stay very far away!
The legend about the rock is the following: Buddha gave one of his hair to Taik Tha, the hermit. He gave the hair to the king and wished it would be enshrined in a pagoda on top of a rock in the shape of the hermits head. The king, who had superpowers because of his fahrter Zawgyi, a proficient alchemist and his mother, a naga serpent dragon princess, found the rock on the bottom of the sea and moved it up the mountain. It is said that the rock only holds its balance due to the Buddha´s hair in the pagoda. Enjoy the pictures of the rock from every possible perspective 😉
After another thrilling ride down the mountain with even more people than on the way up we went to bed early. The next morning we took the train back to Yangon for our last two days in the country. We bought a ticket for ordinary class this time because we wanted to experience this one time. It was really a funny and entertaining ride. During the drive people come in to sell anything from food to clothes.