Late for Nowhere

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Pilgrimage by pedal

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Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

This is a story I wrote for the May/June issue of Hong Kong-based Action Asia magazine, which does not post its print content online. Most of the images are the same as those that appeared in the magazine, most of which were taken by Myanmar photographer Aung Htay Hlaing, with me serving as the “model” (to use the term loosely).

Pilgrimage by pedal

A meander through Myanmar’s Kayin and Mon states offers a quiet path to discovery

Hemmed in by thick jungle and shrouded in soupy fog, the rocky trail rose steeply ahead of me. I could see no more than five meters in any direction, and the only sound was moisture dripping from the trees.

And there was an odd feeling that I was being watched. Maybe it was only a curious animal hiding in the trees, or maybe it was something … different. I was walking, after all, on the sacred slopes of Mount Kyaikhtiyo, one of the most revered Buddhist sites in all of Myanmar. The mountain is topped by Golden Rock Pagoda, a large gold-leaf-covered boulder that sits on the edge of a cliff 1,100 meters above sea level, balanced as if held in place by magic. Rumors abound in Myanmar of hermits who meditate deep in the woods for hundreds of years, and of invisible spirits who dwell in shady groves, guarding ancient temples against unwelcome intruders.

My trek to the top of Mount Kyaikhtiyo was the culmination of a four-day cycling tour of Mon State in southeastern Myanmar, starting in the city of Mawlamyine and ending at Kinpun, the jumping-off point for the trail to Golden Rock Pagoda.

Southeastern Myanmar has yet to be discovered by the majority of tourists, despite a massive increase in visitors to the country resulting from recent progress toward democracy after six decades of harsh military rule. In April 2012, long-persecuted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, fuelling a huge surge in interest in the country. By the end of that year, annual tourist arrivals reached one million for the first time, an increase of 54 percent over 2011.

Most of these visitors to Myanmar focus on popular destinations such as Yangon, Mandalay and the ancient city of Bagan, but oft-neglected Mawlamyine is easily accessible by highway bus. That’s how I travelled to the city from Yangon, along with my bike, and I spent the night there before riding northward out of town and into an early morning landscape of misty rice fields interspersed with shady rubber tree plantations.


Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

I had opted for a mountain bike with wide road treads. Although most of the cycling was to be on paved roads, I knew there would be occasional excursions onto dirt to visit some of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites that dot the region. The terrain along the route was mostly flat or gently rolling hills, but as I put distance between myself and Mawlamyine, the towering karst formations for which southeastern Myanmar is famous started coming into view. Many of these high crags are home to caves that have been appropriated over the centuries for use as Buddhist temples, and one of these, Saddar Cave, was my first stop. 

The cave is reached from the main road along a long dirt lane that passes through a magical countryside of farming villages, golden paddy fields and strange rock formations. Leaving my bicycle under the watchful eye of a snack vendor near the cave entrance, I removed my shoes (required at Buddhist shrines) and walked up the stairs toward the dark opening in the side of the hill. The two white elephant statues flanking the stairs are a nod to legends about an elephant king said to have once sheltered in the cave.

The first chamber is wide and high-ceilinged, accommodating a small pagoda and numerous religious statues. At the back, where the sunlight starts to grow dim, was a shrine with a reclining Buddha image. Beyond lay a tunnel that plunged into absolute darkness. This was where the fun began, for the passageway, I knew, bored all the way through the small mountain and out the other side.

I turned on my torch and forged ahead, apparently the only person present in the cave. It was an eerie feeling, turning that first corner away from daylight and descending alone into a realm of primordial darkness. I could feel the earth closing in from above, below and all around, throwing the amplified sound of my own breathing back into my ears. The atmosphere was thick with the stench of bat guano, but I soon passed along a narrow section where fresh air blew with the intensity of a wind tunnel, then into a cavern where daylight cascaded from a crack in the ceiling. Darkness returned as I entered another long, claustrophobia-inducing tunnel, where huge stalactites glittered in my torch beam and countless bats shrieked in the gloom above.

I walked for about 20 minutes and eventually saw daylight ahead. The tunnel opened into a chamber decorated with more shrines, and narrow stairs led down and out the other side of the mountain. Here was a small valley basking under blue, bat-free skies, and a lake where ducks swam and fishermen rowed traditional boats. I hired a boatman to take me across the lake, through a low cave and across another lake. He dropped me off at a muddy bank at the edge of an emerald-green rice field, and indicated the direction I needed to take for the 15-minute barefoot walk to my starting point at the front of the cave.


The boatman near Saddar Cave. Photo: Douglas Long

Back on my bike and cycling under the mid-morning sun, I rode into the crossroad town of Eindu, veering right toward the town of Myawaddi on the Thai border rather than left toward Hpa-an. After 20 minutes of riding I reached the hilltop monastery of Thamanya Kyaung, the last kilometer or so consisting of a steep climb with a few sharp, challenging switchbacks.

The monastery was founded by U Vinaya, a Buddhist monk known for his social work and an avid supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi. The opposition leader wrote a detailed account of her visit to Thamanya Kyaung in the mid-1990s, published as a series of four essays in her book Letters from Burma.

U Vinaya died in 2003, and for a few years his preserved body was displayed for veneration by pilgrims visiting Thamanya Kyaung. But one night the monastery was raided by soldiers who stole the corpse, which was never seen again. There was no official claim of responsibility, but the story I heard from locals was that the body had been taken into the forest and burned to ashes. The raid, it was whispered, was arranged by a pro-military monk from Hpa-an. It is said he feared the growing cult of reverence for a monk who had supported the country’s democracy movement.

Such was the insanity of Myanmar during the era of junta rule, but Thamanya Kyaung is calmer now and I was greeted upon arrival by a monk who invited me to stay for the daily vegetarian lunch, served for free starting at 10:30am. I ate my fill of the delicious fare, gave a donation to the monastery, and made the fast descent back to Eindu, where I turned toward Hpa-an.


Buying snacks from an ethnic Karen (Kayin) vendor. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

But my plan was not to head into town just yet. After few kilometers I took a turnoff heading south, following a road that snaked through a narrow canyon hemmed in by high cliffs and dense jungle. The road then curved sharply west, passing through a series of villages with traditional wooden houses built on stilts. Children shouted hello from the front patios, and teenagers on motorcycles waved as they passed. In one village two local football teams — the players in matching jerseys but barefoot — were assembling on a dusty pitch for a Saturday afternoon match.

After 130 kilometers of cycling I reached my destination: a 720-meter-high rock formation known as Mt Zwegabin. Although I was done cycling for the day, I wasn’t quite finished exercising, as I planned to spend the night at the monastery on the peak. This involved more than an hour of walking up a steep path that alternated between stone stairs and jungle trail.

I locked my bike outside a rest hall for Buddhist devotees, then started the long walk, occasionally passing groups of pilgrims slowly making their way to the top. As if the trek itself were not tough enough, some of them carried cloth bags filled with sand for added weight and extra religious merit. Without exception these pilgrims expressed cheerful surprise at seeing a foreigner on the trail, and more often than not, amid much giggling and smiling, they asked me to pose with them for photographs.


Cycling at the base of Mt Zwegabin. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

I reached the top weary and drenched with sweat. Before enjoying the fruits of my labor, I sought out the head monk at the monastery and arranged to spend the night. Technically this is a free service, but it’s always a good idea to give a reasonable donation for their trouble. A young monk showed me to my room, bare of furnishings except for a small shrine at one end. I was provided with candles and a pillow, but no blanket. I washed and changed clothes, then went out to look around the pagoda compound. As expected, the top of Mt Zwegabin provided amazing views of the countryside in all directions, with eagles circling the adjacent peaks as the sun set over the distant Salween River.

A number of local pilgrims were also spending the night, and a public school teacher who had climbed the mountain with 30 students invited me to eat curry and rice with her group. We sat on the ground, in the open air, as a half-moon rose above the horizon and stars pierced the darkening sky. After dinner the atmosphere became more like a playground than a monastery, with over-nighting kids running around, ringing the pagoda bells, singing songs and playing games, but thankfully all became quiet after 9pm. Retreating to my room, I fell asleep by the light of candles flickering at the shrine and fireflies blinking in the rafters.

The respite seemed all too short as the amplified sermonizing common at monasteries in Myanmar started at 4am, and soon the monks and overnight pilgrims were up and about, talking and ringing temple bells around the compound. I roused myself, watched the sunrise over the misty flatlands, had fried rice and coffee at the commissary, and started walking down the mountain. The forest was alive with frolicking monkeys, and I shared the stairs with wiry porters walking to the top with 25-kilogram bags of supplies loaded onto their backs.


Buddhist nuns descend from the peak of Mt Zwegabin. Photo: Douglas Long

After the descent, which was immeasurably harder on the knees than the climb, I treated myself to an easy day, pedaling a mere 25 kilometers to Hpa-an with a side trip to Kyauk Kalat Monastery. Located on an island in the middle of a round lake, the monastic compound is dominated by a striking rocky spire with a pagoda affixed to the top. Once in Hpa-an, cold beer and rest were the orders of the afternoon.

The next day was another long one, with an early start in morning haze and even a bit of light, unseasonal rain. I rode south from Hpa-an along the Salween River, then turned west and crossed the river on a long bridge. The roads on the other side were flat and fast, with very little traffic. There were more karst formations with caves, and I stopped at several along the way.


The view from Yathaypyan Cave. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

Kawgoon Cave featured thousands of small Buddha images carved into the rock walls and ceiling, the oldest said to date back to the 7th century. Nearby Yathaypyan Cave was fronted by a small pond where wild monkeys swam and cavorted, and the stairs leading up the entrance were lined with flowers. A dark tunnel passed through the middle of the hill — shorter than the one at Saddar Cave and this one leading to a modest overlook. The last was Barrinyi Cave, with its collection of colorfully painted shrines, pagodas and statues. At the end of my visit, I refreshed my feet at the natural hot spring at the bottom of the hill before heading off again.


Buying snacks from young vendors outside Barrinyi Cave. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

After 40 kilometers of cycling I reached the town of Thaton, famous in Burmese lore as an ancient capital that King Anawrahta of Bagan pillaged in the 10th century. His aim was to retrieve Thaton’s trove of Theravada Buddhist texts, which he loaded onto 30 elephants and carried back to Bagan to entrench the religion in upper Myanmar. From Thaton it was another 100 kilometers to Kinpun along a hilly road that wound through a series of quiet villages and past more rubber-tree plantations.

After my long ride I spent the night at a guesthouse in Kinpun and started the walk to the top of Mount Kyaikhtiyo at dawn. Most visitors reach the peak by crowding into trucks that careen along the winding paved road to the top. Unfortunately, bikes are not allowed on the road, so the foot trail seemed the more interesting option.

The forests below the peak are laced with paths leading to hidden shrines to Buddha and to powerful supernatural beings called nats. There is the monument to Shwe Nan Kyin, a girl who died of exhaustion while running from a tiger sent to kill her because she neglected to worship her family spirits. Then there is the stone shaped like the beak of a crow at which pilgrims throw coins — if the money lands in the crow’s mouth, it is believed, their wish will come true.

It is also said that walking the 11-kilometer path to the top requires crossing 33 “mountains”, a reference to the fact that the terrain often flattens out and fools climbers into thinking they are near the top, only to rise again around the next corner. Many of these “peaks” have intimidating names like Phoe Pyan Taung (“where elderly people give up and turn back”) and Shwe Yin Sout (“where the golden heart grows tired”). The final mountain, from where the Golden Rock can first be seen in the distance by trekkers, is more inspirationally known as Shwe Yin Aye (“where the golden heart refreshes”).

The walk took about four hours. The pagoda complex at the top of the mountain was swathed in a blanket of intense spirituality. Worshippers chanted, meditated and lit candles. Men rubbed gold-leaf squares onto the surface of the boulder to gain merit toward their next birth. Others placed wooden sticks, affixed with monetary offerings, in the space between the bottom of the boulder and the cliff on which it rests; some say that it is possible to see the sticks flex as the boulder rocks back and forth. And many believe that it is possible to pass a thread under the rock from one side to the other, proving that the boulder is actually hovering above the cliff on which it appears to sit.

Adding to the enchantment is the Golden Rock’s ability to exude both agelessness and infinite changeability. It seems to have been sitting on the cliff edge since the beginning of time, yet in the course of a few hours it can pass through myriad transformations, from hiding dully in the mountain mist, to glinting in the strong tropical sun, to reflecting the orange and purple radiance of sunset, to glowing in the soft electric lights that illuminate the pagoda after dark.

Buddhists say that making three visits to Kyaikhtiyo will ensure that they have a rich and fulfilling life. For me, the experience of walking the path to the top, under the watchful eyes of the spirits of the mountain, was its own reward.


Buddhist monks meditate at Golden Rock on the peak of Mt Kyaikhtiyo. Photo: Douglas Long

When to go

The best time for cycling in Myanmar is the winter season (October to February), when temperatures are lowest and rainfall is virtually nonexistent. March to May is summertime, when afternoon heat can make outdoor exercise unpleasant. While monsoon (June to September) can be pleasantly cool, the area around Mawlamyine receives huge amounts of rain that sometimes causes flooding in low-lying rural areas. 

How to get there

There are no flights to Mawlamyine, Hpa-an or Kinpun, but they can be reached by highway bus from Yangon in seven hours or less. Bus tickets can be arranged through hotels and travel agents in Yangon, and there might be an extra charge to bring bicycles. With enough time (7 to 10 days)  it is possible to tour the area on bicycle without using public transport: Kinpun can be reached from Yangon in one long day of cycling (about 160km), or two shorter days with an overnight stop in Bago at the halfway point. From there a loop can be ridden taking in Thaton, Mawlamyine, Hpa-an and back to Thaton, then retracing the route through Kinpun and back to Yangon.

What to take

There is literally only one bike shop in the entire country (Bike World in Yangon) that caters to anything other than cheap single-speed clunkers, so it’s a good idea to bring spare parts, any special tools that might be required, and an ability to creatively jury-rig bicycle failures on the fly. For self-supported tours panniers are a good idea, but I’ve done plenty of cycling around Myanmar with nothing more than a medium-sized pack on my back. In most areas, including the Mawalmyine/Hpa-an region, you’re never too far from a village where you can find bottled water and snack food.

Contacts and further info

With increasing numbers of tourists visiting Myanmar, demand for accommodation is outstripping supply in many areas, particularly during the winter season. Therefore it’s a good idea to plan your route ahead of time and book rooms in each town where you plan to stay. Roadside camping is currently not permitted for foreigners in Myanmar. To avoid the hassles of booking your own accommodation, guided bike tours to the Hpa-an area can be arranged through Bike World Explores Myanmar ( Bike tours to other parts of the country can be arranged through Spice Roads ( and Exotissimo (


Written by latefornowhere

September 3, 2013 at 3:37 am

One Response

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  1. Amazing pics, great article!!!
    You are very brave to ride on bumpy roads of Myanmar.
    One of my friend met you and told be about your blog, it’s like travelling with you.

    Those links are complementary info I found about Hpa-An and Kyaiktiyo:

    The best,


    February 19, 2014 at 7:33 am

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