When the idea of a trip to Pyay was first articulated, it came from two
Burmese housekeepers in collusion — eager to show this foreigner
something beautiful about Myanmar.
A van was arranged and we rolled out of town up Pyay Road in the Yangon darkness at 3:30 am.
we got past Hmawby, the road became narrow and it was hard to
distinguish one small town from another as we traversed the 282
kilometers sleepily toward Pyay.
Situated on the east bank of the
Irrawaddy, Pyay is a town of 135,000 people established in its current
location by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in the late 1800s as a cargo
transshipment point between upper and lower Myanmar during the British
Following an egg and rice breakfast at a riverside cafe
in Pyay — our group crossed the Irrawaddy River bridge, over the
rolling hills and south for another 90 minutes to a village called
Htonbo right on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
Probably 30 wooden
riverboats are usually lined up at the waterfront to ferry people back
and forth from to the famous cliffside adorned with carved resting
places for 1,000 lovingly prepared homes for Buddhas.
go on the sunny excursion, you may purchase a hat to shield your head
and features from the sun.
The riverside vendors do a lively business in
the hat trade.
Our entourage purchased hats and bottles of water
before we all walked down to the riverfront and hired a boat which took
us up to the concrete pier at the bottom of the steps below the cliff. I
heard the cost was 15,000 for a return trip, but I think it depends on
the number of people and how many foreigners are with you. Local prices
seem to differ significantly from foreigner prices, based on the
principle of whatever the market will bear.
As we motored perhaps
20 minues down the Irrawaddy and the first cliffs came into view, each
was decorated with Buddhist iconography making for exotic viewing as we
passed slowly by, imagining people and families over the days, years
and months not only for those Buddha images to be carved and prepared,
but for them to have been maintained by subsequent generations. The
whole Akauk Thaung Mountain cliffside experience is a well-worn
visitor’s area, with moms and dads, aunties and uncles, brothers and
sisters all climbing up the concrete switchbacks.
for the place is "Customs Hill" coined for the tax men who waited to
collect money from passing boats during the colonial period.
huffing up 367 concrete steps, you come to the first in a series of
Buddha repositories carved in the face of the stone cliff. Each one has
been chiseled from the stone cliff, some at least a couple hundred
years ago. The builders probably arrived much as we came from some
distant place — and they made return trips to the same place, day after
day, chiseling in the stone to create the little protected area for
their Buddha to stay. They used cement and often gold paint to finish
off their Buddhas.
You could imagine the scene even prior to the
British Colonial period, when devout Buddhist families from the area
would take a boat to the cliffside, bringing tools, cement and paints
with them, spending the day performing acts of construction merit.
Buddhism, your acts of merit are all recorded and added up. They
benefit you in your life because you took the time to do actions of
selflessness, actions in service of others according to the teachings of
Buddha, deeds in service to others who would experience some amount of
reverence or peace when they passed by and saw the beautiful Buddha you
had carefully created in a special resting place on the cliffside.
group trudged up the concrete steps, followed closely by a throng of
little Burmese girls, ages 7-12 years, whose job it was to accompany
both locals and foreigners during their sacred visit to the cliffs.
They didn't ask for money, but just stuck around, doing helpful things. For example, when I stopped to sit down on a step and do some heavy breathing, one of the girls wafted her fan in my face.
our housekeepers’ entourage made the triumphant ascent to the summit
where we caught our breath and made a donation to the resident monk on
our knees in the little pagoda to the left.
There are things to
touch for good luck and make wishes — so it is good to have a local
person with you to explain the traditions.
Once the summit was
reached, I had a wonderful feeling as the view of the mighty Irrawaddy
spread out before me, twisting like a big watery snake from north to
south like the main artery of Myanmar’s life blood.
We gave the
attendant girls a few thousand kyats as they rode with us on the boat
back to Htonbo. During the return journey, just before we crossed the
bridge to Pyay, we hung a left turn and visited another important
pagoda, one rumored to be a favorite visiting place of Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi. We released birds from cages there.
After Pyay, we all
settled into our ride back through the villages along Pyay Road to
Yangon, arriving just after dark and bidding farewell to our driver and
companions and heading home for dinner. It was with great appreciation
that I thanked our two thoughtful housekeepers who knew that taking me
on a trip to Akauk Thaung Mountain by way of the riverboats of Htonbo
would be an experience that enriched my spirit. What stuck in my mind
the most were thoughts of those generations Buddhist families who — at
intervals over the years — went to the trouble of visiting those cliffs —
giving time and effort from their lives to make something of great
lasting beauty and spirituality. I knew that it was time well spent.