With only a month to spend in Myanmar we quickly decide to leave the glitz of Yangon and head to the rural heart of the country. Kayin state is located in the south of Myanmar and is home to the Karen National Union (KNU) who has the dubious honor of forming the world’s longest running resistance. For many years the area was completely closed to foreigners and the few journalists who braved the war zone emerged with horror stories of massacres and mass rapes. Today parts of Kayin are finally beginning to open and although there is still a significant military presence, the violence appears to have abated. With this in mind we pile into the back of a pick-up truck and left the bright lights behind us.
As we get further from the capital city, local men wearing checkered green lungis zip past us on battered motorbikes whilst their wives and children wave enthusiastically. The women and children all have thanakha smeared across their faces; this milky green paste is produced by grinding sandalwood and is used as a sun block and moisturizer seemingly non-stop by the Burmese people. Villagers pause from chewing their betel-nut to flash us horrific black and red toothed smiles as we bump along potholed roads and over dilapidated bridges.
The landscape slowly changes from flat farmland to soaring limestone mountains and mysterious inland lakes. Instantly we make the decision to climb the highest peak we can find. Although we are stopped by bored police a few times, we reach the state capital, Hpa-an, without any major incidents. We track down a rudimentary guest house run by an amiable pair of brothers and arrange a driver to take us to the foot of Mt. Zwegabin, the largest in the chain of mountains dominating the landscape. Knowing tomorrow will be exhausting we retire for the night and try in vain to dry our sweat streaked clothes with the fans in our room.
On the hike, it is impossible to see more than a few meters in any direction. The sticky, claustrophobic jungle presses in on us from all sides as we scramble up the muddy path. A colorful fresh water crab skitters away from my foot, shocked at this unwanted intrusion. Sweating, I curse and grab a branch to heave myself up another shortcut through the tangled undergrowth.
When we began our ascent we had passed thousands of Buddha statues uniformly laid out in a huge grid in a series of fields. Many were cracked, broken and half consumed by jungle, others had been freshly painted. Smiling serenely, they had seemed to wish us well as we began our climb, but that had been two hours ago. I have run out of water and the sweltering heat is sapping my energy. After half an hour we finally reach the monastery atop the mountain, the largest in Kayin state, and are able to refill our water bottles whilst chatting with some friendly monks.
To my left two young novices stare out at the scene unfurling before us. Tantalizing windows in the swirling mists below provide glimpses of forest covered ridges and stupa crowned peaks. Every major crag seems to support a monastery and even the tiniest spikes of rock are topped by golden stupas. In the distance I can make out a churning brown river ploughing through the countryside. Below us, luminous paddy fields are bordered by crystal clear lakes and small clusters of houses. It truly is a breathtaking sight. Best of all we have it all to ourselves, very few travelers make it to this corner of Myanmar and although this is likely to change I feel very lucky to be here.
We snack on juicy mangoes and delicious sweet bananas given to us by the monks before climbing down and heading to a small village. Here we swim in a local watering hole hemmed in by mighty limestone buttresses. It was not long before we heard of a huge cave concealed in the mountains. Intrigued, we went to investigate...