In November last year I took a group of students and novice monks from Tat Ein village to the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi. Here’s the link for photos from that excursion:
That trip went so well, and was so much fun — for me as well as the kids — that I wanted to take them somewhere else in the area when I returned this time. I asked the teachers and U Sandi Mar (the head monk in the village) for suggestions on where the children wanted to go this time. The verdict was unanimous: the Pindaya Caves.
These sacred caves are tucked away high in the hills, overlooking a lake in the small town of Pindaya. It’s a two-hour-plus drive from Nyaungshwe. Unlike some “caves” at sites around Myanmar, these are actually real caves (as opposed to some alcove carved into a cement wall) — and huge ones — located inside craggy limestone hills, full of stalactites and stalagmites … and thousands upon thousands of Buddha images of all shapes and sizes. Last count, there were something like 9,000 of the holy images inside the caves, perched and balanced and stacked everywhere. It’s either totally awe inspiring, or sort of gaudy, depending upon your point of view. Actually, I find the caves quite impressive; Buddha images surrounding you at every level and at every twist and turn. There are no bats flying around inside the caves (at least none that I saw or heard), but the ground is damp in many parts, and the paths are rough and narrow, so you really need to watch your step.
One of the greatest things about this trip, at least for me, was watching the children’s reactions to so many of the new sights and experiences. Two things come to mind; being with them as they took their first elevator ride (there is a glass observatory elevator that takes people “up the hill” at the caves); and being in the truck as they witnessed an airplane taking off for the first time (as we passed the airport in Heho). Seeing the wonder in their eyes and the excitement in their voices … I’m telling you, I feel really lucky that I was there for those “first” moments. That was special. I also had to remember; this was the farthest that most of them had been from their village before.
This time around I took nearly 70 people on the trip. Mostly students from the primary school in Tat Ein, novice monks from the monastery, plus some older kids from the village who go to middle school or high school in Nyaungshwe (the village has only the one small primary school at this point). In addition to the kids, a senior monk, a nun, three teachers, and a couple of parents came along. Htein Linn from Golden Bowl Travel also joined us, as did two of my friends visiting from Bagan. This throng couldn’t all fit in the big truck that I rented, so we also hired a second, smaller vehicle to handle the overflow.
We stopped at a monastery outside of Pindaya and had an early lunch at about eleven in the morning. I’m not sure if this stop had been planned or was a spontaneous one, but the monks in residence definitely had enough food to feed us all. That’s just the way things always seem to work out in Myanmar. Afterwards we headed to the caves, stopping for LOTS of photos outside the entrance, where a gigantic spider is one of the highlights. But due to all the photo-taking outside, I wasn’t able to get inside the caves with the first few groups of arrivals (the elevator that takes you up to the entrance can only handle 10-12 people at once) and we spent the first ten minutes trying to round up everyone. It was a bit disorganized, but thankfully we didn’t lose anyone and I didn’t notice anyone falling on the slippery paths inside the caves.
On the way back to Nyaungshwe we stopped at another temple, one that hosts the mummified body of a respected monk, and at the railway bridge between Heho and Shwe Nyaung — where some of the monks engaged in a rock throwing contest, trying to hit a metal crossbar down the hill. Once again, lots of photo requests, plus the children bought snacks at each and every stop. Even the monks were magically pulling money out of their robes and buying all sorts of junk food to eat. Hey, what you can say; it’s a special trip for them and they’re just kids!
As was expected, some of the kids got car sick during the trip. Htein Linn and I both brought little plastic barf bags, plus we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some medicine to help calm the stomachs of the ones who were susceptible to car sickness. Another problem was all the dust on the “shortcut” route that took in the morning. Indeed, it was faster, and we bypassed more hills this way, but the dust got all over everything. I was amazed at a couple of the young monks in the group; they stood in the back of the truck during the entire journey to the caves AND back again, not once sitting down or getting sick. Now that’s stamina!