The are around Hpa An is full of limestone karst peaks, and therefore also full of caves. Many of these have Buddhist temples or shrines in them. We went on a trip to one of these, Saddar cave, with the school and had an eventful day.
Me & Zaw Zaw Aung
For this trip I was fortunate enough to ride on the back of a motorbike instead of in the 3-wheeler. Anytime I didn’t not have to ride in the 3-wheeler I was happy. My roommate/friend (the grammar teacher), Zaw Zaw Aung was driving, and away we went. But before we had even driven 10 minutes out of town we heard a loud noise behind us and turned to find that the 3-wheeler had blown a tire.
Just jack it up
There are a lot of motorbikes and 3-wheelers in Myanmar and, therefore, there are also a lot of repair shops. I mean, you can’t throw a stick without hitting a motorbike repair shop! Well, the tire blew was well out of stick throwing distance from the nearest one, so a couple of guys took off on a motorbike to find it. They came back with tools and began working to remove the tire. While waiting, the students and teachers took shelter from the sun on the porch of a nearby shop… And everyone pulled out their smartphones! Myanmar might be a developing country, but they definitely have cellular towers and smartphones! Meanwhile, I prowled around looking for interesting things to take pictures of.
Bamboo strips coiled and drying
Missed meal: caterpillar spine stuck in a lizard’s mouth
The tire was finally removed and the guys took off on the motorbike again with it. Before too long they returned, reattached the tire, drove back to the shop to return the borrowed tools, came back, and we were finally on our way. Again.
We drove for about 45 minutes, turned down the dirt road that led to Saddar cave, and Zaw Zaw Aung and I discovered a crack in the wheel of the motorbike we were on. Are you getting why there are so many motorbike repair shops? Another of the motorbikes carrying students circled back to check on us, and the decision was made for me to ride on the back of that motorbike instead. The student that took my place weighed much less than me, so they didn’t have to worry as much about the wheel. Thanks, guys!
The parking lot of Saddar cave was crowded with local tourists and people selling all sorts of snacks. We made our way around all of this, took off our shoes (standard procedure for a Buddhist temple) and entered the cave. The cave mouth was tall and wide and there were various assorted statues within.
As we went further, it quickly became much darker until we came to an area where a foot bridge was being constructed over a low point. Since the construction was actively in progress… we kept going. Did you think I was going to say we had to turn back? Not in Myanmar. We simply climbed down the narrow scaffolding supporting the emergent bridge and walked across the muddy bottom, continuing on from the other side.
We came to an area where a part of the cave wall/ceiling had collapsed and the area was bathed in rays of bright sunlight. Of course all the students stopped for pictures and selfies!
A little further on, we arrived at the end of the cave and a small set of stairs carved into the rock ending by a small lake. Narrow wooden boats were gathered around and I could see them taking passengers across the water. We walked left, around the lake, and over a concrete foot bridge that crossed a rice paddy to another cave that was home to yet another Buddhist temple.
After more photo ops, including one where Win Tan and I posed with a sign nailed to a palm tree advertising pay toilets, we headed back to the lake and arranged boats for our group. The students were thrilled for the boat ride, even more so when they saw that part of it was through a cave! On the far side of the cave passage the lake merged into a narrow canal that arrowed its way through rice paddys and back towards the parking lot.
It had been a long day and everyone was tired as they hopped back onto motorbikes and into the 3-wheeler. My luck held, I was still riding on the back of Nan Dia’s motorcycle.
We had almost reached Hpa An when the three motorbikes we were riding with pulled over to the side of the road (Michelle, a few other teachers, and the rest of the students in the 3-wheeler had long been left behind due to its slow speed).
Win Tan, on the back of another motorbike leaned over and asked, “Marc, remember talking about the palm wine?”
“Yes…” I responded, hesitantly.
“Do you want some?”, Win Tan said.
“Right now??”, I responded.
“Yes, man!”, Win Tan replied and our three motorbikes made u-turns and stopped at a thatched bamboo shack just up the road. We got out and sat on a raised wooden platform under some trees. From a large barrel, using a bamboo scoop, a pitcher was filled with a white milky fluid. Several glasses were filled from the pitcher and the next thing I knew, I was drinking warm palm wine. It tasted slightly tart, but was not nearly as bad as I had feared. So we sat, me, one other teacher, and several students laughing about silly cultural differences and talking about unimportant topics.
Then we heard a familiar sound. I turned and looked up the road and saw the 3-wheeler approaching. Everyone just sort of froze, like we were about to be caught with our hand in the cookie jar. At the last moment, as the 3-wheeler was just about to pass where we were sitting, the students started clapping and hooting to get the driver’s attention. I sat, wondering that they had seemed nervous to be seen drinking by those in the 3-wheeler, yet had the immediate response of being unable to not call them over to join. Myanmar has a very social culture. So the 3-wheeler came to a stop and people slowly unhinged themselves to climb out of the back. When Michelle climbed out all of the guys I was sitting with sucked in a loud breath and turned to me with panicked looks. One of them said, “Marc, Michelle will see you! What do we do??” I responded, “Oh good! If she’s sees me then I don’t have to go yelling at her to come over and taste the palm wine!” They all looked at me like I was crazy, but Michelle walked over and took the glass that I offered and tasted the palm wine as I had said she would. It seems that husband-wife dynamics in Myanmar are not quite the same as that which Michelle and I share! The students all piled out of the 3-wheeler behind Michelle, several of them joining in to drink some palm wine, and no one felt any longer that we had been caught doing something bad. Except for me. Maybe it’ll never feel quite normal for me to drink with my students, even if they are 20 years old and it is “just” palm wine from a barrel on the side of the road in Myanmar. We didn’t stay much longer, but when we did leave I tried to pay; the students would have none of it and refused. The people of Myanmar are known for their hospitality, even if it is just the equivalent of $.30 US for a couple pitchers of palm wine!