A thousand Buddha images on the Irrawaddy cliffs of Akauk Thaung Mountain near Pyay

Photo - Stuart Alan Becker

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.

Once 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 Colonial period.


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.

Before you 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.

Another nickname for the place is "Customs Hill" coined for the tax men who waited to collect money from passing boats during the colonial period.

After 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.

In 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.

Our 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. 

Finally 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.

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Longtime Asia journalist Stuart Alan Becker, wrote for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia, and served as Mandalay Bureau Chief for Myanmar Times. At My Magical Myanmar, Mr. Becker serves as Editorial Consultant and is in charge of our upcoming What’s New 2017 Directory coming out this September.""


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