MYANMAR – Welcome to Hpa-an

Na-na na-na na-na na-na BAT CAVES!!

(Written by Steph)

Nick and I love to ride. Ok, so let’s clear that up – Nick likes to ride, I like to be a passenger, and how better than with a motor? No exertion required. Perfect.

We had been in Nepal for 6 weeks before arriving in Myanmar, and the petrol crisis had meant that we had accrued a total of about 30km by bike. Hashtag, firstworldproblems.

As Nick wrote, our preconceptions of Myanmar were largely based on the internet, and a couple of my mum’s friends who have been going there for years. But this is a country on the move; no sooner is information posted, it changes. So we really weren’t sure how much we were going to be able to ride bikes here.
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We needn’t have worried. Our guesthouse hosts were only too happy to rent us a bike. Nick has a licence, but even if it were me that wanted one, I don’t think it would have been a problem. We hadn’t much idea about this town, it was just on the route, but our guesthouse owner was ready with a map of the sites and some broken English. Caves seemed to be the big thing here. We would explore by bike the next day.

The next day came and it was baking, but we soon discovered relief in the lush, foresty shade. I often dream of living in a wooden hut in the forest, and here people were, doing exactly that. A whole forest community, smiling and waving, welcoming us to their country. We were off to a good start.

Now, my idea of a cave, is a huge stone entrance that’s dark and wet inside. I was half right. This cave had bats – noisy ones. It also had giant buddhas. And so the theme would continue.
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The Buddhists really like their Buddha statues, and this cave had quite a few ginormous ones inside, but this was not my favourite thing. Tiptoeing through the cave with our head torches, we felt like we were intrepid adventurers. I was none too convincing as I squealed everytime a bat flew overhead.

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Out the other side we hopped on a row boat to take us back to the entrance, ducking our heads as we passed through the underneath of the cave. “Crocodiles?” we asked him jokingly. He looked puzzled, so I whacked out my charades skills. He smiled and nodded his head, the same way everything that is not understood is reacted to here. We would assume he wasn’t aware of the international mime for big jaw snapper.

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We had had an amazing day chipping about on the bike, and had even gone swimming in an outdoor pool we happened upon on the way home. Loads of kids were swimming, and one asked me to come in. I’ve got no swimming clothes, I thought. Not that that matters in a country like this. Everyone goes swimming in their day clothes and lets the sun do what it’s best at afterwards. Including us. Apart from humiliating myself with the world’s longest build up to an underwater handstand (which was more of a roly poly in the end), it was the perfect end to a sticky day.

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“One day. Only one cave?” Our guesthouse owner seemed confused by our obvious lack of speed. There were two other caves on the map, as well as a sunset spot, where you could see the bats come out at night. We would be more efficient with our time the next day, we thought.

Day two:

The following day came and we were determined to tick off some more caves to save us from the quizzical look of our guesthouse owner. We set off with a drawn map, and some vague idea of how to say one of the names of the caves. At least that’s what we thought. Our pronunciation was obviously lacking in finesse, and we were still discovering what we should have already known – people just don’t speak English here (there was to be the very odd exception to this, but that comes later). So, out came the charades again. “Bat” and “cave” being somewhat more advanced than “crocodile,” it took a while. But, eventually we made it to the caves, and to the Buddhas.

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We were joined by a huge swarm of young monks, doing what you imagine all young monks to do – take selfies with the buddhas, duh. It was not long before they turned their attention on us. Here we were, serial photographers, having the tables turned. It was to be the first of many times we were treated like celebrities, and a reminder that this was a country where tourism was still very, very new.

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After seeing the sum of two bat caves in the daytime (a 50% increase on yesterday’s total), we decided we should explore some of the foresty villages that surrounded us. More than monuments or statues, I loved meeting the people. And the people here were just incredible. We stopped off for a tea at the side of the forest (much harder to get here than I imagined!) and were then lured in by the mystery of the network of houses there. If the people of Hpa-an hadn’t seen that many tourists before, they certainly hadn’t seen any brazen enough to walk right into their shaded sanctuary. Feeling slightly obtrusive, we weren’t exactly sure how people would react, but we needn’t have worried.

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After happening upon a full size snooker table in the middle of the forest (they really love this sport!) we had a communal place where we didn’t feel like we were encroaching upon their space. We had no means of communicating verbally, but we laughed and played with a boy – equally ecstatic and nervous that these alien people were by his house, and his grandmother brought us drinks and snacks, refusing to take any money. She even wanted to take us on a tour of her house, but we had to go – the third bat cave that day awaited us.

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Now, this last cave was not one we were going to go in. This was a one way system, and at this time, there were due to be lots of bats, coming OUT. I don’t know how many I expected to see, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer amount that suddenly started swarming out. It was quite incredible! Painting a wavy path across the dusky sky, a continuous stream of black, tens of thousands of them exited for what must have been near half an hour. Buddha only knows how they all fit in one cave. All I can say is, as a Brit, and lover of organised queues, these bats were really quite something.

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