Published on January 5th, 2013 | by Simon

Nats, Caves, and Giant Spiders

There is some kind of serendipity that visits on occasions when I travel – and usually more often than not when I’m in company with my travel companion, Karyna. This time, none of the six internal airlines in Myanmar had any places to fly from Bagan to Inle Lake. Much research revealed the possibility of making this trip by car. Never one to avoid ‘A Bridge Too Far’, I determined that not only could we detour via Mt Popa but also fit in a trip to Pindaya Caves. This idea met with some consternation at the hotel in Bagan who had evidently never had both such detours imposed. Added to which, as it was early January, the daylight hours were limited. Google had helped me figure the distance as a little over 400km, so with stops, I thought 11 hours would be more than adequate. But I’d reckoned without Burmese roads…

Phone calls and some discussion later, we found ourselves in a 1980’s vintage Corolla at 5:30am, well before dawn, on the way to Mount Popa. This hilltop shrine is famous for hosting many nats – the local spirits who are more related to animism than Buddhism, and who, the guidebook advised, should not be annoyed by the wearing of any black or red clothing. At about 4okm from Bagan, it took over an hour to arrive and so we were greeted with this view shortly after dawn.

The shrine is home to tribes of monkeys of varying cuteness and scatalogical behaviour – the latter results being cleared up by a team of cleaners which was a good idea given you have to be barefoot in all shrines in Burma. Of course one of the great things about being up and about so early is that only the devout are similarly inclined. Everyone wants their photo taken – especially with a blonde girl. The bizarre thing is that at no point did anyone offer any way for us to send the photos on to them – Facebook (indeed the internet) hasn’t really made much of an impact in Myanmar.

A small entry fee and lots of places to make donations to nats and buddhas meant that the guardians at the top of the shrine had plenty of money to bank. But as banks are very picky about the quality of the banknotes they take, and donations show the signs of much use, they had pressed a laminating machine into service. No laminating cover, but simply limp banknotes fed in one end, produced reasonably stiff and better quality notes at the other. Ingenious.

The view both at and from the top really justified the climb.

By the time we were ready to decend, the sellers had arrived, including this lovely lady offering roses.

And so back on the road – some 30 minutes later to hear a loud bang and the unmistakable flapping sound of a flat tyre. At this point – in the middle of nowhere – one wonders if the driver has other skills. Much to our delight he did discover a good spare – I think it surprised him as much as me – but it seemed the wheel wrench supplied was for some exotic former wheel arrangement and no amount of effort could make it fit on the wheel nuts now in place. So the only option was to flag down a seriously overloaded truck going the other way and ask for assistance. Myanmar roads are still very underdeveloped and people do stop and help anyone who seems to need it. So in fairly short order we had the spare fitted and were on our way again.

We took a break for coffee in Meiktila where again we were the subject of considerable interest from everyone else in the restaurant. We finally figured that the snacks they bring are optional and you get charged for what you consume. Just ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ spoken in Burmese is (as everywhere really) much appreciated and serves to break the ice. Everyone was delightful which makes the sectarian violence that has erupted in the town in March 2013 all the more tragic.

Our driver was taking a very sedate pace which I put down to his concerns over another flat tyre. Detailed road maps of Myanmar are still a rarity and you cannot simply pull your position on Google maps as the internet is in major towns only, so we had no idea how far we still had to go to the caves. Even Google maps would not have revealed the state of the road and the upcoming climb onto a 1,500 metre high plateau attempting to pass trucks logging whole teak trees, fuel tankers, and sundry other more bizarre transport.

The only certainty was that dusk was getting ever closer. A quick check of the guidebook also revealed (quite correctly) that although the caves close at 6pm, the last entry is at 5pm. So there ensued a good deal of remonstration with our driver whose English was not extensive, and we were suddenly clocking twice our previous speed on roads that were now half as good…

We made it to the caves with 10 minutes to spare before the 5pm deadline. I’m not sure if the run up the stairs to the cave entrance (why are they always up stairs) or the caves themselves took our breath away. No, I know – it was the latter.

Initially you think the one large entrance cave stuffed absolutely to the roof with buddhas of all shapes, sizes, and colours is the main event. And it would be magnificent if it was, but there is a complex of caves going on and down – some large enough to contain whole stupas. And all lit with warm incandescent lighting or earily cold fluorescent. Karyna and I have seen a lot – but this really is unlike anything else. You have to go – even as a side trip from Inle Lake which would be a full day round trip. Just do it!

Oh, and the spider – it’s at the entrance to the cave commemorating a local legend where a giant spider was killed by a local archer in the act of saving a princess.


And then it was only a further 3 hours to Inle Lake…

Please take a look at all the images from Mt Popa & Pindaya Caves here.


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