If you haven’t taken the train in Myanmar, you haven’t actually been there.
Despite the myriad complaints for being slow, incompetent, late, poor in service quality and unpredictable bumpy rides, it’s the trains that speak of a uniquely diverse nation, unwraps a country blessed by Mother Nature while enabling one to feel its pulse.
Introduced by the British in 1877 the now Myanmar railway is a living relic of the country’s colonial past. No, one won’t get to travel in vintage locomotives but instead will have to run along the hundreds of kilometres rail track built by the colonial rulers.
Compared to bus trips on the same routes, taking the train means extra travel time, but it’s worth it. Local cuisines to brewery; mountains, rivers to jungles; culturally diverse people to backpackers from across the globe; sleepy tiny train stations to junctions – they all have a story to tell. Their stories are to be seen and observed. You can’t hear them.
In brief, the socio-cultural, natural and economical reality of Myanmar is reflected in its oft-maligned train service. The couple of hours train journey from Yangon’s central station dropped me at the doorsteps of Bago – an unimpressive provincial town divided by a river. It’s not for the town but for its surroundings why I have landed here – to explore its archaeological zone.
Archaeological zones in this country almost come in the shape of a package consisting pagodas, monasteries, shrines, palaces and massive Buddha statues. More fascinating are the background tales of these zones, born out of myths, legends and dreams. Likewise, Bago has its own story, too.
Bago was once covered by sea water. The only piece of land above sea level around Bago was the hill of the Hintha Gon Paya located at some 500 meters east of the town’s landmark Shwemawdaw Pagoda. It’s this hill where the Buddha is believed to have made a stopover and made a prediction. Buddha prophesied the spot would one day become the capital of a prosperous kingdom.
Steadily, the water began to recede and some 1500 years later two Mon princes decided to setup a town here and after centuries of bloodied-conflicts the Mon kingdom shifted its capital to Bago in 1369.
The foretelling became a reality.
Today Hintha Gon Paya has a tiered shrine built by a hermit monk in the early 20’s. Climb to the top with this writer to view a pagoda-stippled surrounding. The view is different from that of Bagan and Mrauk U
In Bago it’s not numbers but the size that matters. Its landmark Shwemawdaw Pagoda’s extended spire is 114 meters long – taller than even the Shwedagon in Yangon. It has four staircases from four sides leading to the top. Both Shwemawdaw and Hintha Gon Paya are major sites for festivals and Nat ceremonies. However, it’s the Kanbawzathadi Palace, a few hundred meters south of Shwemawdaw which has recorded Bago’s history in its own way.
Little of the 400 plus years old palace remains. The dilapidated throne halls are photogenic and a perfect location for shooting historic/horror films. In less than 50 years of its existence the palace was looted and razed by Rakhaine troops. Moreover, nearly for four centuries it remained in that condition until some light renovation work was undertaken in the 1990’s. Inside a small museum contains the jagged remains of the palace’s original teakwood columns.
What separates Bago from other heritage places is the massive reclining Buddha at Shwethalyaung paya. Located some 2 kilometre west of the town, the 55 metre long statue shows a dreamy-eyed Buddha resting his head on an ornate pillow on the eve of his enlightenment.
Like others i took off my shoes, climbed the 20-some steps and stood in front of it. Devotees kept prostrating and praying. A wrinkle-faced old woman wept in silence; a toddler with the red NLD flag ran about the open ground. A soldier stepped in barefoot to offer his prayers. And then a sudden eerie but a revered feeling for the Buddha overwhelmed me.
In Myanmar, it’s not the forgotten glory of past kingdoms, nor the unsurpassed popularity of Aung San suu kyi , or even its fearsome military junta that repeatedly stands in your way , but what stands is the ubiquitous existence of the Buddha.
The ‘invisible force’ that rules over the country is his, and none other. Kingdoms and dictators have come and gone; the country’s rulers have instilled fear in the public mind and had branded the nation as a pariah state until very recently. But that one imperishable sacred authority seems to have tolerated the burden of decades of injustice and misrule with the mighty force of hope.
Myanmar’s nascent tourist industry, too, cannot be separated from the blessings of Buddha himself. Its history, archaeology to culture; its dreams, desires to sorrows all somehow begins and ends with the Buddha being around them.
Now frankly speaking, the pagoda boredom has overtaken this traveller. He needs a renewal and he seeks at a place called Hpa-An – the capital of Karen state.
Leave out the sliding Thanlyin River, a couple of bustling markets and the Shweyinhmyaw paya and the town Hpa-An has little to offer. The town’s location makes it a perfect place for setting up your base camp for exploring a series of fascinating mountains and caves.
The bus dropped me at the station in the wee hours of a Thursday. It was located some five kilometres from the city centre. A bike carried me through Hpa-An’s empty roads and stopped right in front of the doorsteps of the Soe Brothers Guest house - the backpackers’ number one choice of stay.
Check-in any time during the tourist season and the Europeans have invaded it. British, German, French, Italians to Spanish besides the unidentified have turned the 3 storey guesthouse into a mini European melting pot. Every inch of the $4 sleeping-mat dorm was occupied but, however, the sudden departure of an Australian appeared a blessing in disguise. The $12 room felt like paradise. I looked out of the balcony’s window. A wrinkled-chain of Limestone Mountains surrounded the town and its river. A couple of straight aligned small domes on the north towards the direction of the market showed a mosque.
A few locals were beginning their day lazily and exactly then, a long column of young monks clad in maroon robes and empty bowls in their hands marched in and stopped at the market entrance. The column got divided in three and disappeared in three directions. Coming from the nearby monastery they were to collect alms, food and money. They are usually respected by all and there is never a dearth of provisions for Buddha’s soldiers.
What add an extra value to Myanmar’s diverse culture are its mosques. For foreign travellers, it’s only the easy-access-to-mosque that’s missing.
Like Bago this town, too, is also home to a Muslim minority. Nevertheless, the paints used in mosques spread out across Myanmar are visibly influenced by the local culture. Like pagoda-tops and stupas, the mosque-domes too, are painted in gold. The floors of almost all mosques are covered with bright coloured carpets. The ornate ceilings and walls are cleaned almost daily. Signs of dirt and poverty have been diligently wiped-out.
Saying from experience, praying is free of annoyance in Myanmar. A stranger barely draws any attention. Place your shoes anywhere, wash yourself, say your prayers in peace and then leave. The fellows Muslims have little time to bother about the length of your trousers, beard or cap. Moreover, they won’t annoy you by giving unsolicited tips on how to pray. Surprisingly, you can store your shoes anywhere inside or outside the mosques. We are still a far cry from ensuring the safety of shoes in our mosques.
Let’s move from mosques to mountains.
The place that occupied the top of my exploring list was Mount Zwegabin. The guesthouse arranges join-in trips where one needs to enlist name in advance for the next day. After completing that formality i headed for the Thanlyin River. However, the Shweyinhmyaw pagoda was an unavoidable spot, because the boats leaving for surrounding areas depart right from the bottom of it. Apart from sunrise and sunset views the pagoda is also noteworthy for a statue of a giant green frog. Besides python and buffalo now there was a frog. The frog is also directly linked with the name Hpa-An. The name literally means “Frog Vomit”. According to a local legend, a snake once tried to swallow a frog and the frog that was inside the mouth had a gem in its mouth. The gem is believed to have stopped the process of the frog from being eaten. So the snake vomited the frog onto the banks of the Thanlyin River where the town stands today.
Due to long distance train and bus journeys it’s sometimes impossible to skip a good sleep and except the town’s bustling markets not much was explored. Besides climbing the Zwegabin meant one needed to be fit and the trip was scheduled to begin around 5:30 next day, before the sun was up.
The taxi was shared with a German lady, some 10 years younger to this writer. Not only was she an expert climber but also charming, had a figure that of a swimmer. Our shared taxi sped through the cool morning breeze. The early we could climb it the better. The mountain was located some 15 kilometres south from the city centre. Though it’s some 730 metres tall but looks very steep from its foothills. In short, it’s a giant limestone erupting out of the earth covered in lush green plants, thistles and ferns. It’s also home of spirits and saintly souls. You’ll not see them in the summit.
As mentioned earlier, you’ll be reminded of that omnipresent existence of Buddha. At the summit, a gold painted stupa carefully guards a monastery. The monastery here now offers a basic dorm facility for spending the night which was of course, at the time of my climbing, was occupied by a group of French travellers.
The trail started from a place in the foothills called the Lumbini Garden – an expanse carefully guarded by 1100 Buddha statues – as if an army of sentries deployed to guard a nation’s most sensitive border.
The demanding two hour hike began with a cemented staircase. After one point the stairs are cut out of the crags. A thick layer of mist and cloud had enveloped it. After a couple of stopovers the first rays of the sun pierced through the layer of misty fog. Distant sites were getting clear. The most rewarding of climbing the Zwegabin, is perhaps the views it offers of the south-eastern landscapes of Myanmar. Far off the beaten track, the views of a setting criss-crossed with endless paddy fields, ponds and canals; hills and greenery. Monkeys were missed but it’s also a haven for small to big size lizards.
The immediate hill beside the peak is disturbing. Heaps of mobile frequency towers stood in sheer defiance. Not monks, but clad in shorts and a dirty t-shirt, a half sleepy, unshaven foreigner welcomed me at the peak.
After an hour of rest and incessant camera clicking i climbed down as it was time for the even faraway caves. The Saddan cave is more like a hidden location with a complete Buddha statue sitting inside. The depth and darkness seen here is unmatched. The dripping stalactites from the ceiling, the cold moist rough ground and the thick smell of ancient times are enough to make one scared. Like almost all names, the Saddan has a history too. The name emerges from one of Buddha’s many incarnations in the form of the Elephant king Saddan and that’s why elephant statues flank the entrance.
Unlike its archaeological zones, the caves southeast are scattered far off. One needs at least a couple of days to explore them. Each of its caves comes with its distinct feature - The kawgun cave for its rippling mosaics of terracotta votive tablets and stucco reliefs; the Kawka Thaung for its confined meditation space and photogenic rows of Buddha statues and the list goes on.......but the trip to the southeast is incomplete without being in Mawlamyine. In fact, the southeast is incomplete without being in many of them.
But the suspense to explore is gone if you have seen everything. Unlike the guide books of other countries, Myanmar’s on gets old quick. Many should know that the country still hasn’t opened to the full. For instance in the far north, many places up above the Rakhaine state is still inaccessible, not all can climb the tallest peak of Hkakabo Razi and the Myeik archipelago , full of uninhabited islands fringed with white sand beaches are off limits to foreigners .
So that’s why this writer suggests exploring Myanmar one region at a time.
However you choose to explore, it’s time to be all set for an unforgettable journey. A wooden canoe-like boat with a diesel engine has been booked. This writer is about to undertake a boat journey, which the innumerable travel books have labelled as one of the most ‘memorable journeys in southern Myanmar’....till then hold your breath.
The writer is a journalist and keen traveller