I arrived in Hpa-An around 10am, desperate to get some sleep after the discomfort of the bus journey from Bangkok which I had left at 4.30pm the previous day. I’d awoken at some point in the journey with the man across the aisle touching my chest where my blanket had slipped down and couldn’t get back to sleep afterwards. The worst part was his repugnant finger; badly cut or undergoing necrosis I’m not sure, but it was scabbing and clotting with what looked like exposed bone from tip to knuckle, dry, dead skin rolled in a sheet from each side like an unravelled parchment. Arriving at the hotel (Soe Brothers II 15,000 MMK a night) I tried to have a nap but was too restless to sleep; how would I cope now as a solo traveller in a country with less of a beaten track, would I find other people to travel with? I’d been messaging a friend who had recommended a two hour hike 725m up to a monastery perched atop Mt Zwegabin. He said it required some courage if attempted alone but was totally worth it. In a rare brave moment I packed up an overnight bag and grabbed a motorbike taxi (3,000 MMK) to the base of the mountain before I could change my mind, deciding to deal with anxieties about wandering through a deserted forest and sleeping in a creepy monastery as and when they arose.
I was dropped at the bottom step around 3pm and ushered away with a promise to pick me back up at 8am the next morning. I could see someone sitting in the cafe at the bottom and hoped they too were planning on making the ascent (come on girl we had that one last time!) but didn’t ask in case I found in him an excuse not to make it myself. Passing under a gold painted arch bearing the unusual curls of the Burmese script I passed into a field full of Buddhas, 1,080 to be precise, all in the same pose and mostly facing the same direction. With their cast down eyes I felt invisible and irrelevant to them and hurried through so as not to disturb their peaceful vigil. At first, although the steps weren’t even, there was a railing to hold on to giving some stability on the rain soaked steps. It didn’t take me long to realise that if you plan on climbing a lot of stairs, starting the day with squats is a very bad idea!
I purposefully didn’t check my phone and had no watch as measuring time could only have made it stretch out. Anyhow, with two sprained ankles and the fitness of someone who had eaten and drunk away the last month in Bali, there was no way I’d make the summit in the suggested 2 hours. Maybe 20 minutes in I came upon the end of the railed steps at the foot of a huge, empty building painted gold and white at the front with an enormous timber structure behind. I was baffled, surely the 2 hours couldn’t have been such a massive over exaggeration and I was actually already at the top? A ‘this way to the top’ sign corrected me and I carried on past the minor monastery, hurrying away from its desolate feel that left me with the urge to keep checking back over my shoulder. The next hour or so wasn’t marked by anything in particular.The monotony of the steps and paths winding around natures immovable obstacles lulled my mind, allowing it to wander. I constantly thought I could hear people, or things around and behind me, following through the trees, branches that swung as if snagged just out of the edge of my vision. Wherever the railings reappeared they emitted strange metallic clangs that no matter how I tried I couldn’t mimic by striking them with my hand or sticks or anything – I never worked out where the sounds were coming from. The mist that had completely settled around me leaving around 50m of visibility ahead and gave a ghostly white backdrop to the foliage either side of me, only cultivated this fear. My sense of unease peaked when I saw ‘I remember’ carved into the stone of the path ahead of me. It seemed ominous and I had to firmly suppress the desire to run, knowing that if I kept my pace slow and calm I could also maintain some control of my terror.
Not long after I came upon the first of two stupas. At this point the electrical wires that had run alongside the path also began to level out and I really believed I’d almost made it to the top. I pushed myself hard up what I thought was the last set of steps, eager for the company I hoped awaited me, only to be bitterly disappointed when the wires again began to slope upwards into the clouds and the path stretched on. A second peak held a second stupa and the same crushed hopes, but as they say ‘third time’s lucky’, the third peak held the monastery – I had made it, finally. Even better, as I turned round, taking one last breather, I saw another lone traveller making steady progress behind me. I awaited him on the top step and it turned out he was Belgian and spoke English – joy – I wouldn’t be braving the night alone! Together we searched the seemingly empty monastery until we heard the sounds of music emanating from behind a closed door. I knocked and was greeted by a maroon clad monk who fetched a woman to take our donations (5,000MMK each for the night), adorn our wrists with their yellow woollen blessing and show us to the sleeping quarters; a long corridor with about 15 beds in a row. The cardboard thin mattresses were raised from the ground which was infested with cockroach type bugs which screamed all night long. We were joined by two others, a Frenchman and an Italian who was afraid of miniature versions of normal sized things! Just before we sat down to eat the clouds parted for us as if on cue, exposing an utterly awe inspiring view over the plains at the base of the mountain. Much flooded by the incessant rain, there were lakes everywhere which mirrored the grey of the clouds and stood out spectacularly against the greens of the succulent trees. To the right, for just a few moments, the two hope giving stupas came into view on the adjacent peaks before being engulfed by the waterfall of clouds cascading over the mountain which eventually reclaimed our view.
Dinner (2,000MMK) was rice with a myriad of vegetables that I didn’t quite recognise, some sort of noodle broth and fried potatoes – fried potatoes?! A very rustic, Myanmar version, but absolutely not what I was expecting in a Buddhist monastery atop a mountain! The after dinner entertainment was watching some boys throw stones at the silhouettes of monkeys but as the darkness descended we retired to our dorm to change out of our wet clothes. The mist settled on the building over night, reducing visibility to about 20m and casting shimmering halos around the lights that had been left on, breeding thoughts on how haunted such a place could be. This and the invasion of hundreds of monstrously proportioned moths prevented me from venturing to the loo without one of the boys as a safeguard! With nothing to do but chat we all fell asleep fairly early, a good thing as the wake up call was 4AM when the monks began their chanting. I’d hoped this would wake me in time for sunrise, but as the rain had become heavier whilst we slept the clouds were far too thick for anything other than a vague increase in brightness to be seen.
The boys, being boys, wanted to make the most of the extra time in bed with no sunrise to get up for and wait out the rain before descending. I on the other hand had an 8am deadline so I bid them a sleepy farewell and headed out at 6am into much heavier rain that the day before. This was where it became apparent why an umbrella was so much better than a rain coat; my clothes were so damp anyway that the rain really made no difference but the umbrella when used as a walking stick prevented many a painful slip! It had rained all night, and as it was rainy season I doubt the path had seen sun in days so it was slimy and slippery and had a sheen where damp loving mosses had begun to grow. Even so, I sped past the two stupas, keen to get out of the cloud line, although with less fear induced urgency this time, knowing the boys would be behind me at some point. The mist had settled much lower down the mountain and I was still engulfed by the time I got to the lower temple/monastery which I reached in no time at all. I had a couple of slips, but thanks to the umbrella nothing drastic and was at the bottom easily in about an hour and 20 minutes. Around five minutes from the bottom a break in the mist gave me a view over the 1,080 Buddhas stretching to the road in the distance, but from this height they all looked just like identical tiny squares, each glimmering a pale gold. My jellied legs carried me down the last flight of stairs and I’d finally completed the hike. I sat in a canteen style cafe at the base awaiting my ride. As the half hour passed several monks joined me, smoking, drinking coffee and absorbed in their mobile phones – tainting the devout impression the monastery had left. When the motorbike pulled up we hurried back to the hotel where breakfast and a warm shower awaited me!