A Cave with 8000 Buddha Statues
The town of Pindaya sits in the south eastern corner of Shan state and is often bypassed for the nearby, and better known, Inlay Lake. Having seen both I would say both places warrant looking at if you have time. If you are on a tight schedule I would wholeheartedly recommend foregoing Inlay, and spending a couple of days in Pindaya instead. My reasons for this recommendation are based primarily on the visual splendor of Pindaya Cave. If you add in the low numbers of travelers going there, the less commercialised feel of the town, the great scenery, the 350 year old Banyan trees lining the roads, and the exceptional Green Tea Restaurant, and its views across the lake, then Pindaya seems like a far better option than Inlay.
Getting there: The third leg of my northern loop trip around Myanmar would take me from Bagan to Pindaya. This trip by road (on a local bus) is quite long and time consuming so, in the interests of maximising my available time left in Myanmar, I opted for a flight with a local airline: KBZ Airlines. There is no direct flight to Pindaya. The nearest airport to Pindaya is in the small provincial town of He Hoe, approx. 45 minutes from Pindaya by taxi. The flight time from Bagan to He Hoe is roughly 40 minutes and the cost is approx. USD 80 for the one way trip. Once you arrive in He Hoe, the fun begins trying to haggle with the taxi mafia to get a lower price for the ride to Pindaya; approx. 40 km. Invariably you will end up paying more than you must but if you share the cost with others who are heading there, or onto other locations, you can reduce the cost.
NOTE: the distance by road from Bagan to Pindaya is 320 km, over some fairly rough provincial roads. A bus trip (by local bus) can take around 8 hours or more, depending on how many stops are made along the way.
NOTE: the actual fare for a one way trip from He Hoe to Pindaya, or vice versa, is 35000 Kyats. When I traveled back from Pindaya to He Hoe the hotel I was staying at, the Golden Cave, arranged a taxi for me and the price was as above. Unfortunately, the taxi mafia in He Hoe don’t see things this way, as they will charge 50000 Kyats and not budge on the price.
The road from He Hoe to Pindaya is a narrow, winding provincial road (its sealed all the way) which takes in some very nice scenery along the route. If you go in the cooler months (Dec – Feb) and travel in the early morning (Pindaya to He Hoe) you will see a surreal landscape of valley’s filled with heavy mist.
NOTE: It’s also much colder in the Pindaya area, as compared with Bagan, as it’s at an elevation of approx. 1350 meters (4000 feet) above sea level. Overnight temperatures in the cool season can get as low as 8 Degrees Celsius. A jacket and a woollen hat are highly recommended.
The only other thing of note to see on my drive from He Hoe to Pindaya was the local cow market day. It was quite a spectacle in the bright sunshine as hundreds of beasts milled around with their owners, in a large fenced off area. To break up the trip we asked the driver to pull over for a few minutes while we got in amongst the cattle to get some memorable photos.
NOTE: As with all other areas in Myanmar, there is a zone fee to enter the Pindaya area. The zone fee is 6500 Kyats (approx. USD 5.00). There is a road side booth which the taxi driver will stop at, just outside He Hoe, and you will be required to pay the 6500 Kyats. You will receive a stamped ticket for the Danu Zone, which is good for one week.
Recommended Accommodation: There are a number of choices in Pindaya with the Golden Cave Hotel, and the Conqueror Hotel, being the more popular. Perhaps because they are the closest to the Cave and only a 30 minute walk from the cave entrance. I booked 3 nights at the Golden Cave through Agoda. The price was around USD 40 (a little on the high side for what it is) and includes breakfast and free WIFI. http://www.megaworldasia.com/hotels-and-accomodation/burma/the-golden-cave-hotel-pindaya/
Where to eat: If you are staying at the Golden Cave Hotel you’ll get breakfast included in the room rate. For lunch and dinner there are basically two options. The first is the Burmese food restaurant right next door to the Golden Cave Hotel. This is a good option in the evening if you don’t feel like making the 600 meters walk to the Green Tea Restaurant. The food is inexpensive and wholesome with a mix of vegetable, rice, and meat curries available. A great spot for some good food, and a great view out over the lake, is the Green Tea Restaurant. This sits on the western side of the lake and serves a great brewed coffee, espresso, or cappuccino. It’s an excellent place for lunch after a morning walk around the lake.
Sightseeing in Pindaya: The town of Pindaya sits around a small, picturesque lake. The main town area is at the northern end, while the Golden Cave Hotel is at the southern end. One complete circuit on foot, of the lake, is approx. 2.5 km and is a nice walk in the cool morning air or at sunset.
350 years old Banyan trees: As mentioned, the walk from the Golden Cave Hotel to the cave entrance takes approx. 30 minutes. The initial part of the walk, when you leave the hotel entrance, is flat and takes in a forest of massive Banyan trees which sit in a wide, grassy area on both sides of the road. I would say the better option is to take a motorbike taxi up to the cave entrance (cost is 3000 Kyats for the round trip) and after you’ve seen the cave, have the driver drop you off at the bottom of the hill on the way back. That way you’ll be able to view the temple and stupas which sit at the bottom of the hill, and then take a leisurely walk back through the forest of Banyan trees on the way to the hotel.
Pindaya Cave: This is definitely the highlight of a trip to Pindaya and an amazing sight to say the least. I first learned about Pindaya Cave, some five years ago, from a fellow traveller and cave enthusiast. I determined, there and then, that any future trip I made to Myanmar must also include Pindaya Cave. The cave entrance is half way up a peak which over looks the town. The road, once you leave the flat section, is quite steep. It’s for this reason I’d recommend taking a motorbike taxi, to conserve your energy for the trip through the cave. If you pay 3000 Kyats for a round trip, the driver will come back to pick you up at your nominated time. The cave itself is not that long (just a 200-meter penetration), compared to caves in Laos and Vietnam. However, what it lacks in penetrative length, it makes up with amazing colour and vibrancy from all the statues that have been put in place. The cave is actually part of a temple complex and as with any other temple in Myanmar there is a requirement to remove one’s shoes and socks before entering. There are two options to access the cave; a long, covered stairway and, if you’re feeling less energetic, the lift. There is also some bizarre artwork in front of the entrance which includes and archer lining up his bow and arrow at a huge, black spider. The cave opening hours are 6 AM – 6 PM and if you want to beat the crowds, get there early. I went at 7.30 AM and also got the benefit of a great view out across a mist covered terrain below. As mentioned, if you get there early you beat the crowd of locals who normally turn up at around 9 – 10 AM. If you can’t make it in the morning, plan to arrive at about 4 PM. The crowd begins to thin out by this time and you’ll have two hours of a less crowded sightseeing tour. If you’re planning on doing photography with long exposures (and using a tripod) as I did, getting an uncrowded site is important to avoid movement in your shots. If you use a flash, then it’s much less of an issue.
As with all other temples and pagodas in Myanmar, there’s an entry fee for foreigners. There are signs which clearly advertise this above the entry booths. And even though it seems like blatant discrimination (locals go in for free), when compared with the entry fees for foreigners in Thailand, it really is just a small amount (just USD 2.50).
NOTE: If you are planning on using DSLR cameras, or video handycams, there is also a charge for foreigners to take these into the cave as well. The charge is 300 Kyats per camera. Basically, it’s about 25 US cents and is being administered by the vendors who sell photos of the cave to sightseers. I guess they figure that it’s a way for the photo vendors to make money if they can’t sell photos to foreigners with cameras. My cynical view on this is “when will they start charging 300 Kyats for mobile phones?” They have inbuilt cameras as well.
Once you enter the cave proper you will be confronted by a mass of Buddha statues in the first room. This is actually the largest, and highest, room of the cave and as such there literally thousands of Buddha statues crammed in there. Many small ones adorn the walls and higher sections of the first room but it’s the floor area which catches the eye. Most of the largest statues are amassed in this first part of the cave. So much so there are only narrow paths to follow amongst a jumbled maze of statues. If you make your way to the back end of this first room you’ll get an elevated view across the thousands of statues, towards the front entrance. It truly is quite an amazing sight. From the first room there’s a short, narrow path which leads into the rest of the cave. The second room is quite large and dry and there are a number of smaller side rooms, on different levels, with access stairways from the main pathway. Actually, the second and third room are virtually one as there’s a large opening between the two. The divide between the two is marked by a large, golden stupa.
At the back end of the cave is the 4th and last room, and as is with many enclosed caves (there’s only one entry and exit point) the further you penetrate, the more humid it becomes; to the point where moisture is dripping from the ceiling.
NOTE: if you are carrying expensive DSLR cameras, or video equipment, don’t spend too much time in this end room as there’s a very real chance the high humidity will impact on the sensors or internal circuitry of your gear (it has happened to me on a number of occasions in caves in S.E. Asia).
My recommendation for doing the tour through Pindaya cave is to quickly move through to the back end (noting the most attractive points as you go) and then take your time working your way back to the main entrance (exit) getting the shots you want. As you get closer to the entrance/exit the cave will become dryer and there’ll be an increase in natural light.
All in all, I would say that a tour through Pindaya cave is a definite highlight of a trip to Myanmar and should not be missed. Yes, it’s a bit off the beaten track but, as so often is the case (e.g. MONYWA http://www.megaworldasia.com/burma/monywa/) that’s where the best things to see always seem to be.
TBC in the trip report on Inlay Lake……