sign in a cave in Laos

28 July 2011

Caving in southern Myanmar

Since going caving in the southern part of Myanmar, or Burma, in January 2009, I've written various articles for caving and other magazines (see links at end).

Here is one short piece that I prepared for WildAsia. (Some of the photos here may not be the same as those in the original article)

Barefoot In Burma
After years of closed-door policy to travellers, a rare opportunity to explore Myanmar's sacred cave temples had LIZ PRICE taking off her shoes to experience the dry and muddy 5-day caving expedition.
Written by Liz Price on 18 Aug 2009

In January 2009, I joined two German cavers for a five day caving expedition in the southern part of Myanmar. Some of the caves had been turned into temples so we had to remove our shoes and do our surveying barefoot.

History

Many caves in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, were visited and documented during colonial days at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of these visitors went to the Shan state northeast of Rangoon, and to the Moulmein area in the south. Particularly famous are the Pindaya Caves in the Shan area, and Kaw Gon and Farm Caves near Moulmein. Since then very little work has been done on the caves, and when Myanmar effectively closed its doors to travellers, it was not easy to travel to the limestone areas.

2009 Trip

Our trip was planned to the Hpa An - Moulmein area in southern Myanmar. Permission was obtained from the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board in Yangon. As required by law, we had an official tourist guide and hired a van and driver for the duration of our stay.

We were met upon arrival at Yangon airport, and immediately drove to the first cave in Hpa An, six hours away. . Hpa An is the capital of the Kayin state in southern Myanmar and although it is possible for tourists to travel there, few do. It is a reasonably quiet town, with no high rise buildings and not much traffic. It lies on the banks of the Thanlwin River.

We spent four days caving in the Hpa An area, then drove south to Mawlamyine, formerly, Moulmein. Mawlamyine is Myanmar's third largest city and capital of the Mon state.

The Limestone Hills

Most of the hills we visited were isolated tower karsts, although we did see some ridge karsts. Mt. Zwegabin is one of the most famous hills at 722m high. It is considered a sacred hill, and has many chedis and shrines and a pathway up to the top.

The Caves


Most of the caves we visited were temple caves, already well known from historical documents. Some of the most famous are the Farm Caves at Moulmein, Saddan Cave and the Kaw Gon archaeological site in Hpa An.

Many of the caves had impressively large passages, around 20-30 m wide and chambers as large as 60m x 60m. The longest cave was Saddan Cave in Hpa An at 800m.

Each day, we would decide on an area to visit and drive to the biggest cave temple. Then we would ask the monks and locals for information on other caves in the area. We found that the people were friendly and more than willing to help. They didn't question the sanity of three Westerners trekking through all parts of each cave!

Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country, although there are quite a number of Muslims in the Hpa An area. Almost all the caves we visited had been converted into a Buddhist temple. In some, just the entrance was used. In others the whole cave had been developed. Some of them had electric lighting, walkways and statues throughout the cave.

Nobody questioned us whilst we were surveying, even though some caves were quite busy with visitors and pilgrims. Footwear had to be removed at the entrance of the temple compound, even if it meant walking on muddy ground before reaching the temple. This is different from countries such as Thailand where you only remove shoes at the inner temple.

The Myanmar caves were quite dirty with rubbish strewn everywhere even though they are sacred sites. People just drop litter, mostly wrappers from candles and incense sticks. All the caves we visited were dry.

Cave fauna

Some of the caves are home to a wide range of bats and invertebrates. We collected samples of cave fauna for identification.

The Heteropoda spiders were particularly interesting, and are amongst the largest in the world. Currently, the world's largest spider is Heteropoda maxima from caves in Laos, but the Myanmar specimens may prove to be just as exciting and are currently being identified.
Whip spider above, Heteropoda below


Long legged centipede

© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission

See more on my webpages Caves of Myanmar ,
Myanmar fauna
and
Atlas of the Great Caves and the Karst of Southeast Asia.

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