There are several tings to see & do around Hpa An. We have chosen to hike to the monastery at Mt Zwegabin as the first thing to do as it combines a hike, an overnight stay at a monastery & being on top of a mountain. After hiking up the Golden Rock in the excruciating heat we planned an early start and booked moto taxis by 5am. 30min ride in darkness and we reached the Western side of Mt Zwegabin. Although it was a longer route it was also the easiest out of two. The eastern side is quite steep. In almost full darkness we passed fields of thousands of Buddhas. Literally huge space dotted with statues. It must be an amazing view, but we did not have time to wait till sunrise as even at 5.30 it was far from being fresh and cool.
Within 30mins we realized that it is not that easy to walk up in this heat. Besides I was carrying a backpack with sleeping bags, food and water. My t-shirt was almost completely wet. The higher we were climbing the more difficult it became, as we were getting tired and it was getting hotter. The rising sun was opening great views but increasing the killing heat.
We had to stop many times to get rest and drink some water. By 7am, i was soaking wet – t-shirt, shorts, backpack. Sweat was dripping like in sauna. One amazingly strange thing was that there was absolutely no breeze. Climbing higher we hoped for some fresher air and some wind, but there was none. There are several small temples on the way where you can hide from the sun. The last stretch covered between 7-8am was the most difficult as we walked already on the ridge in the direct sunlight. By that time the temperature must have been over 35*C. Mara was not happy at all but she did not give up. Anyway it was too late, we were almost at the top.
It was such a relief to have reached the monastery. We greeted a couple of people, left our shoes at the entrance, and walked up the stairs to the main stupa. Being terribly tired we just sat down on the floor and tried to get some rest. Eventually I went to explore the monastery. Views around were great but we were too tired to enjoy them.
I found a small shop adjacent to a dining room where monks and some teenagers were having food. There were residential rooms for monks as well. The conditions, of course, are very basic. No showers, just a tank with water and bowls to pour water on yourself.
There are about 20 persons living in this particular monastery: 8 monks, including the chief monk of the region, several young future monks, several teenage girls and a woman. There is a communication tower on the mountain with areals and antennae. Technical personnel makes three more guys who live in a house right at the top of stairs leading to the monastery from the Western side.
As the main purpose of all this is religion and parying, the monastery has several stupas, temples and other essential objects, structures and installations.
There is even a knelled white elephant, not alive of course, holding a column with holy figures.
As in other Buddhist monasteries and temples there’s a gallery of saints and it is well protected by a grate (not seen on the picture below).
While walking around a monk greeted me. He spoke English, and he showed me where we could stay. I returned to pick up our stuff and move to the dormitory. The monk gave us a mat, blankets and pillows. We unpacked our sleeping bags and fell asleep withing minutes. We happily slept from 9am to 2pm. Besides waking up at 4.30 am we climbed for over 3 hours in killing heat. It was a very well deserved sleep. It was interrupted by prayers though. The dormitory had an adjacent “DJ Monk” booth from were the leading monk was conducting the prayers broadcasting. For some reason they had to do that with the help of a microphone and loudspeakers. This also happens at 4am and we were woken up by chanting and chiming – very interesting experience.
We spent the whole day contemplating our lives. Even after long sleep we were not fully recovered. The residents lived their usual day: a bit of praying, some funny music in between, a bit of eating, a bit of cleaning, a bit of this and a bit of that. The woman, teenage girls and young boys are taking care of household chores. Villagers come to improve their karma and help monks with anything they need: fix something, built something or bring some food and money to donate. Monks are there to pray for us. We donated 10 000KS (12$) for our stay in the monastery.
The residents did not really pay much attention to us, just smiled upon seeing us. By the evening monkey came and were running around the monastery producing quite some noise. They had babies and were a bit aggressive towards people but a good old stick worked as a defense tool. The time was passing slowly closer to the evening. It became cooler and we spent more time sitting around the main stupa watching the sun going down. These couple of hours probably one of the best I have spent in Burma. It was peaceful and very beautiful. The people seemed not to notice the sunset. But of course they see this everyday. For us it was a gift. We absorbed every moment of that evening.
After it became completely dark the young girls lit candles in small niches around the main stupa and all the monastery people gathered for the evening prayer. It was an amazing experience to be on the top of this mountain watching the last hints of red light on the horizon and listen to the chanting. The whole atmosphere was like from a film.
Eventually we went back to the room. The monk was setting up a DVD players for two kids. We opened our laptop (yes, i had it with me ;-)) and WOW…there were wi-fi networks. in the monastery on the top of the hill. I tried to get a password but the monk said they don’t have internet, only phone. So it is either networks of the communication center or the chief monk needs to be connected.
The kids came closer and started peeking at our screen and we decided to show them our pictures from Europe. We showed snow to them, they were a bit confused but were very curious about pictures of cities. Once we were done with pictures the kids switched to their film.
We talked a bit to the monk who spoke some English – about life in Burma, coming changes in the country, about tourists coming to stay at the monastery, weather, and many other things. Eventually we went to asleep.
It was a difficult but great day. I am happy I have climbed up there despite all the difficulty and killing heat.
Morning greeting us early with chanting and chiming and singing. The monks started praying at 4am using the microphone and loudspeaker. I am still puzzled about this mystery – why loudspeakers. One possible answer – they make sure that people in the surrounding villages hear the prayers. Right after I sank back into my sleep after the 1-hour prayer, i was woken up by loud noise, like something was falling on the roof and rolling over. These sounds were coming from different directions and as if moving from one side of the roof to another. Puzzled for a second….and it dawned on me – monkeys! Yes, that were monkeys running everywhere around and galloping across the metal roof. and as in any situation it was good and bad. Bad – they did not let us sleep, good – they woke us up right by the time to watch another sunrise. We slipped out of our sleeping bags and went outside.
I don’t know why but people somehow are very fascinated by both sunrises and sunsets. But here we were on a spot recommended by one of the technician guys, sitting on a rock (close to the third water pool) watching hazy and clad in fog rock emerging from sleep, uncovered by the rising sun.
This was the end of our stay in the monastery. It was time to pack and leave before the heat hits the Eastern side of the mountain. When we came to the dormitory the whole area around was full of monkey. I guess there were 40-50 monkeys, running around, shouting, screaming, fighting with each other for food. We slightly missed the feeding time, when a young monk boy brought a huge bowl of rice to throw down to the feeding spot.
Full of energy after breakfast the monkeys organized the second round of races around the monastery. In this mayhem we packed our stuff, said “thank you-s” & “good-byes” to the monks and kids. A picture with our new friend who hosted us and off we went.
We chose the Eastern side to get back as it was supposedly shorter and there was transport from the village right next to the monastery. We did not expect that the staircase would be so steep, some places almost vertical. This may look easy, but it is not. On top of that our poor legs were in pain after yesterday’s climb-up. So here we were….walking like crippled downstairs, stopping every 20 steps or so. And the heat did not help at all. Mara was about to quit, but staying on the stairs was not an option. She had to continue cursing the day I persuaded her to climb the damn mountain. I was not happy either, i did not expect it to be so painful and difficult. It was more difficult than our hikes in Svaneti, Georgia, where we covered longer distances and bigger altitude differences. Probably it is the heat that makes muscles work differently.
Eventually we reached the bottom and it was a very good feeling. I have probably never felt soo good just to sit on a chair.
Short walk away to the main road. A glance back at Mt Zwegabin. Did we do it? We went up there and then down? It felt like we have watched a film. I am very happy we have done that. It was an amazing experience despite all the difficulties.