As you may remember, when last seen in Myanmar the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and Lucky Dave were wandering the streets of Hpa-An while choking on the smoke filled air that was blanketing all of southeast Asia.
It had become apparent to us that the military junta that runs modern Myanmar (Burma damnit!) had made it impossible for independent travelers such as ourselves to go anywhere alone, much less to visit areas not fully controlled by the dictatorship. As in China, Disneyworld, and other such totalitarian regimes, we had no choice but to take a tour.
Taking a tour was easy thanks to the help of our resident keeper, the beautiful but sinister Pu Pu who runs the Soe Brothers Guest House in Hpa-An where we were staying.
This woman is seriously scary. She is brilliant, speaks numerous languages fluently, knows everyone’s names, and never fails to notice everything that happens. While others babble she listens. If you need anything just ask her and it is done. A more devious and useful apparatchik has never been born.
I was so impressed that I said to her, “You could be the next Aung San Suu Kyi.” Her icy smile and polite reply told me that I was a marked man, and that I had better keep my mouth shut in the future!
Our day long tour of the area cost a big $4.50, and we were promised golden temples galore. Little did I expect the exhaustive and exhausting trip that was to follow. At 8:45 AM the next day our tuk tuk arrived.
We were crammed into the tiny tricycle along with another dozen or two other foreign devils including an Aussie couple, two French Canadians, and the usual Brits and Krauts. Here is Giles who was impeccably dressed for the occasion. He was protected from insects by his yellow two hands clapping flyswatter.
Needless to say we were a bit crowded. All of us were sick with a miserable traveler spread Coronavirus which we donated to every innocent villager we met. The authorities didn’t care about our spreading disease as long as it didn’t include the ideological inoculation of western concepts.
Our first stop was the Yathaypyan Cave.
Massive staircases led up to the entrance. At every turn there was another golden stupa or statue of the Buddha.
(A note to the incredulous: Myanmar is a desperately poor country, and many representations of the Buddha, especially modern ones, are tawdry fakes covered in yellow paint; nevertheless, many of the ancient sculptures really are covered in real gold! Century after century otherwise destitute peasants have scraped together the means to purchase tiny bits of gold that are beaten into gold leaf then applied to sacred images. Of what importance is food for the family when given an opportunity to gild the image of one’s imaginary god?)
The inside of the cave featured numerous Buddhas of every description, and a beautiful view to the west from another high entrance. My little point and shoot camera couldn’t cope with the dim light, so you will have to be satisfied with this.
Nearby, but in a separate mountain, was the ancient Kawgoon cave. Many of the relics within are said to be over 1500 years old and have been meticulously preserved ever since.
The reddish linear features that you see on the ceiling are miniature representations of the Buddha. This cave is said to contain over ten thousand sculptures of the Buddha!
Just outside the entrance a very steep staircase led to the top of a karst pinnacle from which one had a sweeping view of the valley of the mighty Salween river. (Note: The Salween is now officially referred to as the Thanlwin River by the Burmese authorities.)
Custom demands that all visitors to sacred sites go barefooted, so after visiting the first two caves my feet hurt. I was sniffling, hot, hungry, and already exhausted. Little did I know that the tour had just begun! We crammed into our tuk tuks (by this time there was a herd of them), and continued on to our next destination.
The otherworldly Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda is proof that you are not in Kansas anymore.
This extraordinary monument is located on an island in an artificial lake. The lake was boiling with fish and turtles, and the grounds were overrun with tourists, chickens, guinea pigs, and ice cream vendors. Here is a closer view. No, you can’t climb to the top!
Here is the adjacent teaching facility for monks.
In the distance you see mount Zwegebin. We piled into the ever increasing herd of tuk tuks and headed there.
Lumbini gardens, so named after the putative Nepalese birthplace of the Buddha, was where I suffered a golden Buddha meltdown. As far as the eye could see there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Buddhas seated in the broiling sun.
To an atheist such as myself it is difficult to comprehend salvation through repetition, but it is a well established practice in Buddhism. How many Hail Marys would it take to get a heretic like me into heaven? Regardless of the outcome I was burned out and ready for lunch.
Just around the corner was the so called waterfall, actually the spring resurgence of a cave in mount Zwegebin.
Only men were allowed to swim in the cool waters or Ann would surely have taken a dip. From this you can conclude that even enlightened Buddhists are sexist pigs.
The restaurant served enormous meals for less than a dollar, so all of the tourists swilled beer and pigged out until we were comatose. As sweat poured down our brows visions of golden Buddhas danced in our heads like deranged sugarplums. Is this the meaning of eternity, a gilded Groundhog day? Many of the enfeebled Farang mumbled about bailing out, but there was no escape from the tour!
Thus refreshed we continued south through rice fields on ever smaller roads, our teeth rattling with every pothole, until the road widened and we reached the magnificent Saddan cave.
The cave entrance was well guarded by a pair of white elephants.
The massive chambers within are gaudily decorated and guarded by frogs.
In fact there were frogs everywhere. Here’s a really big one on the wall made of pure gold!
Many Western philosophers are aware that the cosmos rests upon the back of an enormous turtle, and from there it is turtles all the way down. Turtles are stronger than frogs; so, as you can see in the image above, the turtle on the right can carry five golden pagodas, whereas the frog can carry only one. The same is true of the elephant on the left. I would have supposed that an elephant was stronger than either a frog or a turtle, but then what do I know?
The enormous chamber continued through the mountain. The passage was lavishly decorated with commensurately large speleothems. Here is a bad photo of the Weazel standing in front of one of the world’s largest stalagmites.
The passage continued to another entrance on the other side of the mountain which overlooked a hidden valley containing a beautiful lake.
At the far end of the hidden valley I discovered a smaller cave, the interior of which was littered with Buddhas that didn’t make the cut and were stranded in purgatory.
Meanwhile scruffy looking fellows lounged around waiting for tourists willing to pay for a boat trip back through the water passage.
Notice that the reclining fellow is wearing a Karen army tee shirt. That seemed a brazen thing to do in a government controlled area. Were we in a government controlled area? Hard to say. Most likely the government and the insurgents had agreed to share the bounty of rich tourists. At $4.50 for an eight hour tour, plus $1.13 to enter the cave there was money enough for all!
But it cost an other $1.13 to go back by boat. What a ripoff!
Once on the other side we had to change boats, presumably so the bounty could be shared even further.
The best thing about the tour was that there were no guides. All the crazy Farang simply wandered at will. That created chaos back at the tuk tuk queue as the drivers tried to herd the pleasure seekers back into the correct vehicles.
At last all were accounted for except Giles. Remember him? The fellow with the neon purple disco suit, nerd glasses, and big yellow two hands clapping flyswatter? He was nowhere to be found even after repeated searches. Alas, we couldn’t wait because the tour had to continue!
They say that even to this day when the astrological signs are inauspicious, and the frogs suddenly cease to croak, that the spectral figure of the purple clown can be seen deep within the recesses of Saddan cave clapping his flyswatter. Some say they have seen balloons. In their local language they refer to him as It.
Everyone was exhausted and wanted to go back to Hpa-An, but instead we continued even further south to a weaver’s village where we toured a sweatshop.
We were graciously offered refreshment in the owner’s home.
This scene is typical of middle class life throughout southeast Asia, a concrete building with an open living room used for commerce, no furniture, lots of kids, and with sleeping quarters upstairs. If you live in a wooden building on stilts you are still a peasant.
To our dismay we visited yet another cave named Kawkathaung. I remember almost nothing about the place other than an endless row of blue haired white faced Caucasian concrete monks lining up for alms.
At long last we headed back to Hpa-An. Along the way we were followed by a fellow who seemed tickled pink to be carrying a pig on a motor scooter.
It was time to flop down in our flophouse for a much needed rest, but such was not our fate. As soon as the sun set the noise began, some sort of annual religious celebration. The first assault came from pickup trucks driving repeatedly around our guesthouse with huge speakers blasting angry sounding Buddhist chants over and over and over again. It was ear splitting.
Then the nearby temple tried to drown out the trucks with amplified chants of their own creating total cacophony. Lucky Dave was especially unlucky because his room directly faced the prison, and every hour on the hour the warden rang the klaxon to make sure the prisoners were being tortured properly. If the guards had to stay awake why shouldn’t the prisoners?
The Weazel hates noise above all things, so I lay there sleepless plotting violent revenge upon the monks. It is a good thing that I only plotted, because shortly thereafter a Dutch tourist was arrested in Yangon and sentenced to three months of hard labor for unplugging a loudspeaker at a temple that was blasting the same repetitive crap. They were going to give him an extra three months for not removing his shoes when unplugging the loudspeaker and overstaying his visa while in jail, but he paid a fine instead.
There is some controversy regarding the validity of IQ tests due to varying cultural norms, but I have a simpler test that works every time. Whosoever likes noise, whether it be loud music, mindless background sound like a tv, an unmuffled Harley, a barking dog, or endlessly reiterated religious propaganda, is a complete and total idiot!
I am not alone in this opinion. In “The World as Will and Representation” the great misanthropic philosopher Schopenhauer opined:
“Actually, I have for a long time been of the opinion that the quantity of noise anyone can comfortably endure is in inverse proportion to their mental powers, and can therefore be regarded as a rough measure of them. When I therefore hear dogs barking hour upon hour unrestrained in the courtyard of a house, I know what to think of the mental powers of the inhabitants. Whoever habitually slams doors rather than closing them by hand, or allows this happen in their house, is not merely ill-mannered, but a crude and obtuse person.”
I feel so strongly about this that I once flew out of my tent at 3am to strangle a drunken idiot who was blasting techno music. We were pulled apart and the music was turned down, but thereafter until dawn I could hear the damned fool wandering around camp lamenting that, “There I was minding my own business when a naked hairy man tried to strangle me!” Too bad I failed.
Having thus narrowly avoided spending time in a Burmese jail I decided to leave Hpa-An, but to where?
Stay tuned for the next installment in which we sail down the Salween to visit a famously evil prison, and there commune with the ghost of George Orwell!