With only a month to spend in Myanmar we quickly decide to leave the glitz of Yangon and head to the rural heart of the country. Kayin state is located in the south of Myanmar and is home to the Karen National Union (KNU) who have the dubious honour of forming the world’s longest running resistance. For many years the area was completely closed to foreigners and the few journalists who braved the war zone emerged with horror stories of massacres and mass rapes. Today parts of Kayin are finally beginning to open and although there is still a significant military presence the violence appears to have abated. With this in mind we pile into the back of a pick-up truck and leave the bright lights of Yangon behind us.
Local men wearing checkered green lungis zip past us on battered motorbikes whilst their wives and children wave enthusiastically. All of the women and children have thanakha smeared across their faces; this milky green paste is produced by grinding sandalwood and is used as sun block and moisturiser seemingly non-stop by the Burmese people. Local villagers pause from chewing their beetle-nut to flash us horrific black and red toothed smiles as we bump along potholed roads and over dilapidated bridges. The landscape slowly changes from flat farmland to soaring limestone mountains and mysterious inland lakes. Although we are stopped by bored police a few times we reach the state capital, Hpa-an, without any major incidents. We track down a rudimentary guest house run by an amiable pair of brothers and arrange a driver to take us to the foot of Mt. Zwegabin, the largest in a chain of limestone mountains dominating the landscape. Knowing tomorrow will be exhausting we retire for the night and try in vain to dry our sweat streaked clothes with the fans in our room.
The next day we awake early, get our shoes on get our shoes on and begin trekking. It is impossible to see more than a few meters in any direction. The sticky, claustrophobic jungle presses in on us from all sides as we scramble up the muddy path. A colourful fresh water crab skitters away from my foot, shocked at this unwanted intrusion. Sweating, I curse and grab a branch to heave myself up another short cut through the tangled undergrowth. When we began our ascent we had passed thousands of Buddha statues uniformly laid out in a huge grid in a series of fields. Many were cracked, broken and half consumed by jungle, others had been freshly painted. Smiling serenely they had seemed to wish us well as we began our climb but that had been two hours ago. I have run out of water and the sweltering heat is sapping my energy. After half an hour we finally reach the monastery atop the mountain, the largest in Kayin state, and are able to refill our water bottles whilst chatting with some friendly monks.
To my left two young novices stare out at the scene unfurling before us. Tantalising windows in the swirling mists below provide glimpses of forest covered ridges and stupa crowned peaks. Every major crag seems to support a monastery and even the tiniest spikes of rock are topped by golden stupas. In the distance I can make out a churning brown river ploughing through the countryside. Below us, luminous paddy fields are bordered by crystal clear lakes and small clusters of houses. It truly is a breathtaking sight. Best of all we have it all to ourselves, very few travelers make it to this corner of Myanmar and although this is likely to change I feel very lucky to be here. Once we had climbed down from the monastery, we snacked on juicy mangoes and delicious sweet bananas given to us by the monks before heading to a small village. Here we swam in a local watering hole hemmed in by mighty limestone buttresses. It was not long before we heard of a huge cave concealed in the mountains. Intrigued, we went to investigate…
The mouth of the cave is crammed with dozens of Buddha images and statues. Illuminating a huge reclining Buddha with my head torch I happen to look up. Thousands of bats chirp overhead as we penetrate deeper into the heart of the cave. It is bigger than half a dozen football stadiums and unlike the popular caves of Laos and Thailand nobody is here to collect a fee or limit my explorations. Excitedly I splash through a small stream, slip on a pile of guano and dive into a small hole in the largest stalagmite I have ever seen. It is at least twenty meters in diameter and over fifty meters tall. The inside is hollow and I feel strangely safe in the wet, warm insides of this massive pile of minerals. Just as I am about to crawl deeper down a series of small tunnels I spot the gleaming eyes of several spiders clinging to the moist rock walls. Each is the size of my hand and proudly reigns over a thick cluster of web, they appear to be some sort of tarantula and do not look particularly friendly. Warily I back off and rejoin Marie. We spend another hour exploring the gorgeous limestone rock formations and following a series of beautifully rippling streams. In places we pass solid walls of glittering crystal guarded by exquisite, trunk like, pillars.
Eventually we reach the far side of the cave, the light is blinding and the entrance is partially covered with a thick hanging carpet of tropical vegetation. Passing the final obstacle I am rewarded with an incredible sight. A stunning, tranquil lake hidden in a bowl of craggy, jungle covered, peaks. Spikes of rock occasionally break through the green carpet smothering the mountains and remind me of sleeping dinosaurs. In front of the lake, fed by the stream from the cave, grows a massive and gnarled tree with beautiful red flowers. Soft ripples on the lake spread as a bird takes flight. In the distance a lone fisherman wades determinedly through lush green paddy fields. Behind me the mouth of the cave grins jaggedly at it’s reflection in the lake. This is a truly incredible place, I have explored almost all of the great caves of Asia but this little known chasm in the face of a Burmese mountain is without a doubt the most incredible.