Sacred sites around Hpa-an, the capital of the Kayin State.  About losing things and about who is winning:  Nature or Myanmar’s Buddhist Disney World.

It’s all about opportunities.  I arrived in Mawlamyine a few days ago and have not seen a single street in town except for the ocean boulevard on which I live.  I look out at Thanlwin River which somewhere downstream connects to the ocean.  I hear the ocean steamers honk and see little fishing boats tucker by.  Behind me unfolds the city.  But each day an opportunity arose to join a group of travelers on an excursion to explore the vicinity around town and it is a lot more affordable and more fun when you have some people with you.  So, the town has to wait.

For three days in a row the weather has been kind.  Humidity must be close to 100% and you can’t leave home without your rain gear.  But, rain showers come swiftly, are heavy, and are finite.  Temperatures do not rise much above 32 degrees Celsius, and travel as well as sightseeing is possible.  I will take this any day!  Thanks Tlaloc!  (That is the only rain god I know and so if he behaves, I shall thank him occasionally even if he comes from the distant pantheon of the ancient Aztecs.)

Today I joined Ruben and Marie, a couple from Spain, and Georgie from the UK.

Hpa-an was supposed to be my next stop, but when I heard it could be done in a day trip I was in.  I like Mawlamyine well enough to happily extend my stay here.

By the end of the day we had seen four caves and a lot of breathtaking rocks and scenery.  The flatlands are filled with rice and soy bean fields. Cows, water buffalo, and horses are grazing everywhere, and villages line the road.  The flat area is punctured by ragged cliffs.  They seem to pop out of nowhere, are relatively narrow, and some of them contain quite substantial cavities.

I don’t know if I am jumping to conclusions here, but after seeing four caves (and one yesterday with Masa), I have to believe that there isn’t a cave in Myanmar which has not completely been ruined by the human obsession to “honor” nature.  If you are lucky, as in the case of Kaw Goon Cave, you can enjoy some rock carvings and decorations which date back as far as the 7th Century!  But that is rare.

The more typical picture is this:  the cave is framed by a huge gate with flanking guardian figures indicating a holy precinct.  Since you are now walking on holy ground you have to take your shoes off and walk barefoot — rain, mud, or marble. The caves are lit inside by the inevitable neon tubes.  Filling just about every niche and all available spaces along the edge of the cave, dozens of brightly painted, big-eyed plaster Buddha figures are sitting and standing.  The smell of incense fills the air and if possible, the main Buddha’s halos are equipped with flashing, multi-colored neon-light strips reminding you of the most tacky Xmas display you have ever seen your neighbor put on.  Kitsch does not even cover this any more.  This is beyond tasteless but it’s everywhere.  There is no natural beauty left in these places!

It is one thing to dot the landscapes with golden pagodas.  That actually harmonizes with nature and creates a certain magic effect.  But to take over caves like this suffocates them.

Bickering aside, the art at Kaw Goon Cave was stunning.  Thousands of small votive images had been carved as reliefs into the ceiling of the cave, and been highlighted with a deep ochre-red, a color which seems to come from a natural pigment, as it is the color of the monks’ robes as well.  My art-historical sensibilities would love to have seen just that, the 7th Century carvings.  But they invariably came with the 20th century additions of neon glitz.  So be it.

We had almost reached our next destination: a rock formation in the middle of a lake topped with a most adorable little rock pagoda — when I realized that I no longer had any shoes…

As it goes, you need to leave shoes at the entrance of any cave or holy site.  Our driver wanted to be particularly kind to us and had pulled the car as close to the entrance as possible.  From walking around on marble floors and pounded ground, I did not even realize that I was missing my shoes when I got into the car.  The driver was not happy…

My Keens!  He kept calling them “slippers” as if they were just any $5 item which I should let go.  I have to be more careful.  I definitely cannot afford to lose my walking, hiking, water-mountain all purpose everyday travel shoes.   Get with it, ET!

Throughout the day we had passed various fields and sites where once again hundreds of figures were lining the walk to a sacred site, or in some cases just sitting around in fields of hundreds at a time for no apparent reason.  Who commissions these figures?  Are they believed to bring good karma, increase one’s merit?   And I continue to ask the question I raised yesterday: is more better?  Where does this concept come from?

We had a full and long day and upon returning to the guesthouse it turned out that among all the French people one meets around here, three Germans had arrived.  Andre and Kim are a couple, and Nils is a lone traveler.  It was great fun to have a German-speaking, beer drinking evening at the porch of the guesthouse for a warm and breezy summer night.  Too bad the guesthouse has a curfew!  At one point the call for the night came and we all had to turn in.  And once inside, there are no longer any common areas that are suitable for socializing.  But it was time to call it quits anyhow and so I will.

Good night.