Naw Bu Baw MountainGamekeeper Naw Bu Baw Mountain
Overnight on a mountain of myth
Thandaung Gyi, the old mountain terminus in the state of Kayin, offers a spectacular backdrop from which mysterious stories emerge. At the outskirts of the city rises the highest point of the Dawparkho Range, a rugged 1462 meter high summit, which offers a marvellous view of wooded hills in all direction on clear day.
However, the climate is instable and changing wind conditions often cause low cloud cover over the mountain top. No wonder, given the uncanny atmosphere, the summit is the centre of an old story about a highland marrying a native princes of the area, a highland tribe called Naw Bu Baw.
The Kayin was accused of being a sorceress because of Naw Bu Baw's foreign nationality and the fact that she had a magic crest that made her coat glow like the light of the day and gave her the power of cloaking. The Kayin was taken to the high summit, taken to court and arrested in a cave where she was swallowed by starving souls.
Jump over the era of the Myanmar Armed Force in which Myanmar troops tried to take the jagged mountain top for strategy missions. Celestial powers, dissatisfied with the arrival of evil favorites of the unsanctified rulers, threw lightnings at the summit and sent the troops into the depths, never to comeback.
One of Myanmar's largest Christians crucifixes towers above Naw Bu Baw's Mountain, as it is localy called. Directly below the summit is a guesthouse, which is led by the Zion Hill Baptist Church, and from there a staircase with 374 stairs leads to the summit crucifix, which was built in 1995.
I stayed one evening in September in the guesthouse of Zion Hill Church, an undertaking that took some perseverance from me and my two Myanmar chaperone. That' because Thandaung Gyi - embedded in a mountain area that once was a battlefield between the Myanmar and Kayin armies - has only been open to the tourist trade since the beginning of this year, and some community officers are still puzzled about how to handle aliens, especially those who try to remain in the city after nightfall.
I have cycled the route between the two cities in about three hrs while my boyfriends were travelling by motor. Early in the day we crossed the Sittaung River just south of Taungoo and followed a street that led us past rice paddies and through a number of Kayin and Bamar victims.
10 kilometers later the plain gave way to gentle slopes and thick broadleaf forest, and after 21 kilometers we roll into Thandaung Lay. It is a relatively new city, founded in 1959 as the new administration center of the municipality; the former capitol Thandaung Gyi was considered too outlying.
We had a rest in the early afternoon at Thandaung Lay, the home of the Shwe Thandaung Village. Arriving at the hotel - which is open but needs renovating to bring the accommodations up to the highest possible standard - the employees took the chance to spoil us with grilled venison, grilled juice and delicious Kayin popaya sauces.
Thandaung Lay, the small street led 23 kilometers steep to Thandaung Gyi. Every U-turn through the tree-clad hills provided more stunning views than the last. We had no vehicles, few motorbikes and only a few Kayin towns on the way. And we also walked through one or two bamboo-tipped zoos; they look like zoos made by someone who hated wildlife, but they were actually junta bases occupied by Myanmar troops.
Thandaung Gyi was arrived before midday. So I put my bike in my friends' cars and we drove to the Zion Hill Church run home. Insisting that we have a bamar and kayin dinner with them, which included a savoury bowl of bamar, pig meat and "herbs from the forest", and then escort us to the guesthouse on the slope of Naw Bu Baw's Mountain above the city.
So we withdrew to the guesthouse and went to the terrace and waited for the end of the rain. We went into the city in the afternoons to look around. At a store on the highway we stop to buy a few drinks and a few drinks - something I was looking forward to during the long, warm cycle tour up the mountain.
It was run by Daw Suu, an older Nepali-born lady whose grand-parents had left for the top of the mountain in 1915 to supervise a plant that used local teas for shipping to Lipton in the UK. The company will remain a center for growing teas - as well as coffees, betelnuts, and beets, and red berries named the gold banana plantation, which is still in use.
This small plant is now run by the military to produce and pack the Myanmar soldiers' malt. Passing by, we were guided through the complex by an exceptionally kind military commander, who served as our aide. Around 6 pm we went back to the guesthouse, just in the right moment to watch the sundown.
We had a cuisine in the guesthouse, but we were very pleased when the parish sent more meals at noon, with an apology for the shortage of power. The furnishings in the guesthouse were quite simple: there were no cots, and we were sleeping on the carpet-covered cement floors with thin ceilings for upholstery and warmness.
After waking up before 6 a.m., we find the mountain fully shrouded in impermeable, bluish mists. Packing our things we went through the wet nebula to the city, where we found a humble hut with the words "Coffee Shop" in light, slovenly characters on the front doors. They serve us taungoo-style taunginga, mashed potatoes, beans and the locally known Thandaung Coffees.
Prior to leaving the city, we went to the old English Orthodox temple, which appeared gray and ghostly in the thick mist. The last stop was a center for contemplation on the outskirts of the city, where we found a humble Stupa and a Buddha picture on the hill. At this point the cloud broke open and the light was coming through, so that we could have one last unbelievable look at the mountain from the top of Thandaung Gyi before we drove back to Taungoo.
Thandaung Gyi is lacking in major attractions, as one would expect from a place that has only recently been opened to international travellers: It offers pristine splendour and the opportunity to explore a city that was once taboo because of the violent struggles between the Myanmar administration and the Nepali people. Today, however, it is a tranquil refuge for the Kayin and Nepalis.
The journey to Thandaung Gyi is not as simple as to Bagan or Inle Lake. There is no clear agreement on whether the overnight stay in Thandaung Gyi is actually allowed for non-nationals.