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 colorful 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 shortcut 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. Tantalizing 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.
We snack on juicy mangoes and delicious sweet bananas given to us by the monks before climbing down and heading to a small village. Here we swim 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. Whilst 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 bat crap 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 my group.
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 we are 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.
The next day we set off with a local guide, Momo, who spoke passable English and doubled as the town’s Christian pastor. Within minutes we had left the sanctuary of the town and were deep in the hills. Small tea plantations stretched out in all directions. Amongst them strode women with swirling thanakah patterns upon their cheeks and heavy wicker baskets atop their heads. Many sported beautiful long braids tied with red or blue ribbons and they giggled happily as we greeted them with our poor Burmese.
At times we would see no sign of people for hours and then an isolated hut or even a small cluster of buildings would rise out of the mist draped across the curving hills. An aged tribal warrior walked with me for a while and gesticulated excitedly towards his numerous faded tattoos. Mythical beasts interwoven with tribal symbols and flowing text covered his arms, his chest and even parts of his face. Beaming at me the man proudly explained that the tattoos prolonged his life and meant blades and bullets could not pierce his flesh.
The villagers living in the hills spoke no English but were always happy to see us. Throughout the day we would stop every couple of hours to drink delicious green tea and devour bowl after bowl of steaming noodles. Later that day we came across a young boy chewing betel-nut and picking handfuls of mushrooms, excitedly we bought a whole basket of the delicacy before heading to a cluster of huts where we were to spend the night. We stayed with a local family and although they spoke no English and had no beds to offer us, they heartily cooked us a feast of fried rice, green vegetables, spinach with herbs, garlic mushrooms and young bamboo shoots.
Following dinner I smoked a cheroot with the men of the household. A cheroot is a weak mixture of tobacco and herbs rolled in a dried banana leaf and resembles a cigar. Throughout Myanmar cheroots are smoked by everyone from wizened grannies to crazed motorbike taxi drivers. As we continued to head further into the hills a ragtag group of children followed us shouting “bye bye!” again and again. It seemed to be the only English they knew and they were determined to use it!
On our final night trekking we stayed in a local monastery perched atop a finger of rock. Upon our arrival the head monk was busily shaving novice’s heads with a razor and bid us to wash ourselves and peel off our filthy clothing before showing us to a small room with a set of reed mats for pilgrims to sleep upon. Later that evening the dutiful monks brought us tea as well as biscuits and honey which we wolfed down quickly before heading off to search for more delicious noodles. Throughout the night the monks sporadically chanted and rang gongs via a massive loudspeaker and so after a somewhat restless night’s sleep we began our descent back towards the main town.
The trek back to civilization took us nine hours and passed through some truly untouched territory. Besides a small huddle of women in conical hats busily collecting firewood we didn’t see another soul. As we rounded a corner, a crumbling pagoda with peeling white paint burst unexpectedly through the undergrowth. I can’t help but wonder who on earth builds and maintains these structures. An insect orchestra enveloped us as we followed a rough dirt track and penetrated further into the jungle. On my left side the path disappeared altogether and the thick jungle mist half obscured a steep drop concealing unexplored valleys, waterfalls and tiny collections of huts.
The simple beauty of the region and the warmness of the people continue to take my breath away. In the words of Rudyard Kipling “This is Burma, it is unlike any place you know”.