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Journey below the surface of the Earth

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Ethnic Pa-O cadets take a break from playing football to pose for photos near Hopong in southern Shan State.

To enter a cave is to abandon the easily recognisable waypoints that provide clues as to where in the world you are. There are no familiar hills or trees, no stars in the sky, no reassuring architecture with which to get your bearings.

It’s no coincidence that caves are commonly associated with otherworldly experiences. They are, in countless stories both ancient and modern, the realm of monsters, oracles and eccentric hermits.

Hten San Cave, located 42 kilometers (26 miles) east of Taunggyi in southern Shan State’s ethnic Pa-O country, is no exception.

According to local lore, the cavern was found by a 10-year-old novice named Shin Borida. For a long time he kept his discovery secret, using it as a place for meditation and sharing it only with the spirits who lived there.


The entrance to Hten San Cave

Eventually the monk asked these spirits whether he could open the cave to the public. The restless souls assented but on the stipulation that a ritual be held to aid in their relocation to another nearby cavern, where they would take up residence and where humans would be forbidden to enter.

The ceremony was held by Shin Borida and other monks, and ghost-free Hten San Cave was opened to the public on February 12, 2009, to mark Union Day. But it wasn’t until early 2013, when the nearby town of Hopong was removed from the government’s blacklist of areas off-limits to foreigners, that the cave was made accessible to international travelers.


Dragon sculpture near the entrance to Hten San Cave

I visited the cave earlier this month with my wife, driving from Taunggyi on a bumpy, madly twisting road through a landscape of sunburned hills and cave-riddled limestone outcroppings.

Upon arrival at Hten San, we were dumbfounded to find that the entry fee was a rapacious US$20 for foreigners, which the Pa-O ticket-taker agreed was too much. He acknowledged that the famous Pindaya Caves north of Aungban could be seen by foreigners for a mere $3, but he added that he dared not question the pricing scheme put in place by the cave’s board of trustees.

“At busy times Hten San Cave has only three or four foreign visitors a week, but sometimes we get only one foreigner in a month,” he told me. “I think more would come if the fee was lower.”

I asked if a souvenir stalactite was included in the price. He said no, but he offered to guide us through Hten San and afterward take us to another cave that had not yet been opened to the public. Two caves for the price of six: How could I resist?


Inside Hten San Cave

We plunged into the underworld. Hten San turned out to be much superior to Pindaya, the latter of which suffers because its natural beauty is concealed behind thousands of garishly painted Buddha images. At Hten San, several attractive shrines have been placed at strategic points, but the unembellished subterranean environment is also given plenty of space to simply exist for its own sake.


A Buddhist shrine inside Hten San Cave

Our guide explained that the entire cave system was about 6000 feet (1818 meters) long, but so far only about one-third of that has been made accessible. Originally, water flowed across the tunnel floor, but a dam was built to divert its course and gravel was put down to create a walking path for visitors. Some water still trickles through, and pilgrims believe that splashing it onto one’s skin will bring good luck.


A Buddhist pilgrim makes an offering at clay shrine deep inside Hten San Cave. (Photo by Thandar Khine)

We re-emerged into the sunlight and walked to the second cave. Along the way, our guide pointed out the barred and locked entrance to the forbidden third cave where the “spirits and souls” from Hten San now live. “It is very bad luck to enter and disturb the spirits,” he said.

Meanwhile, the second grotto, known as Meditation Cave, was even better than Hten San. There were no shrines, and we had it all to ourselves. We enjoyed the glittering rocks, narrow passageways and stalagmite forests, all shrouded in eerie silence.


Meditation Cave in all of its natural glory

Our guide said the trustees planned to maintain the cave in its natural state, aside from a small “swimming pool” under construction on a high ledge and intended for use by a resident angel named Nan Lu Hyawm, from whom the extraordinarily beautiful Pa-O women of the surrounding villages were thought to have descended.

“The girls work in the fields but still have fair skin and good body structure,” our guide said. “One village has seven or eight girls who are very tall and light-skinned like Koreans.”


The back entrance to Meditation Cave

As we returned to the surface, he admitted that although he was a devout Buddhist, he didn’t really believe most of the “supernatural” stories associated with the caves.

He did, however, fill us in on some history, describing how during World War II Japanese soldiers eluded the Allies by ducking into Hten San Cave and escaping through a back exit; how 30 years ago Meditation Cave was used by Pa-O dacoits to store the corpses of their murder victims; and how the area was riddled with “bottomless” sinkholes into which the aforementioned dacoits were thrown whenever they were captured by Pa-O villagers.

Hopong village, meanwhile, had been a flashpoint for vicious fighting between the Myanmar army and Pa-O rebels until peace deals were forged in the early 1990s.

The area is now at peace, and Shin Borida has a huge following among locals, many of whom emulate him in adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. He is even said to possess special powers, including the ability to read people’s thoughts and determine whether they harbour good or evil in their hearts. It’s said that one of his fingers grew back after being cut off.

When we visited Hten San Cave, a number of pilgrims awaiting the monk’s daily appearance were hanging out at a nearby pavilion where free vegetarian meals were served.

He didn’t show up at his usual time, so we drove to his hilltop monastery a few kilometers from the caves. On the way we passed a big house that Shin Borida’s devotees had built for his mother, and we stopped to photograph a group of pre-adolescent Pa-O cadets who were dressed in camouflage gear and playing football.

At the monastery we were told that the revered monk had just left for Hten San Cave – perhaps he had passed by while we were taking photos of the cadets.

Resigned to having missed out on meeting him, we took time to enjoy the sweeping view from the hilltop but declined an invitation to eat vegetarian food at the monastery. Our driver had told us about a place in Hopong famous for its fried chicken and rice, and we were keen to give it a try.

Had we met Shin Borida, and had he used his powers to probe my mind, he would have detected a small amount of consternation over the $20 entry fee, as well as profanely un-vegetarian thoughts of sinking my teeth into some mouth-watering Hopong fried chicken.

But mostly he would have sensed my contentment at having found my way into another extraordinary, formerly war-torn but now peaceful corner of Myanmar.


The view from Shin Borida’s hilltop monastery


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