December 2015 – The WOOF Guide : Getting there / Eating / Sleeping info is at the bottom of this post.
If you’re interested at all in seeing a bit of higher-altitude Christian Myanmar but don’t have time for Chin State then Tan Daung Gyi in Kayin State is easily accessible and offers just a glimpse of what you’re missing.
There has only been anywhere licensed for foreigners to sleep in Tan Daung Gyi since October 2015. You don’t need any kind of permit to go there. There are now two guesthouses and just a trickle of tourists have already made the 40Km trip 4500 feet up there from Taungoo.
The winding road up the hill to Tan Daung Gyi is very pretty. And very quiet. Actually there are two roads. An up road and the down road cross each other in a couple of places. There are one or two tiny hamlets (one with a teashop) an army medical post and not much else. The views over Taungoo and the river are great on a clear, haze-free day.
En route you will pass at least two occupied bamboo army forts, one on the flat road, one on the hill. They are cool to look at. But take care about taking pictures. The soldier on guard carries live ammunition.
At first sight Tan Daung Gyi does not look much. There’s a reason for that. There is not much to it. What little there is is spread along a long ridge road that sits beneath a Prayer Mountain. This is the highest peak around, has a big cross on top and is why most visitors come here.
But the first thing you see of note is not Christian. It’s Buddhist. Shortly after you pass the town gate (be sure to stop) ahead and above you twenty-five larger-than-life golden Buddhas stand in ranks facing and pointing towards the plain below, their right arms outstretched. I’m a bit jaded by the whole Buddhism malarkey these days but sometimes, when it’s done well, when it’s funny and when it’s at its most camp (Buddhist iconography is so camp) it’s ace.
Across town the competition goes very strong on an inclusive tip. Bwe Hee Kho Naw Bu Baw (Kayin New Year) Prayer Mountain to give it its full name has amongst its aims and objectives that “all the peoples on earth, whether the[y] be Christians or not, may love one another, co-operate together in whatever they do heartedly”.
Which is nice.
And so unlike ISIS.
There are 374 steps to the top which is 4824 feet high. Along the way there are small prayer chapels and seats to take a breather. This is where I met a small group of young Christians from Lashio and Muse, part of a larger group staying for a week at the pilgrim’s guesthouse at the foot of the steps. (Be sure to sign the visitors’ book; that’s what ‘Note for Visitors’ means).
We had a bit of friendly banter about the illogicality of people from the borderlands of Shan State and Yunnan in China following a religion conducted in the name of a man whom some say (but for which they have no evidence) lived 2000 years ago near the Mediterranean. They struggled to see my point of view. Because they ‘know’ Jesus. Because ‘He’ has ‘saved’ them. Just because.
Not that they are complete biblical literalists. Looking out for miles across beautiful hilly Kayin state they readily accepted that the bible is wrong about the age of the planet. They just don’t think it could wrong about anything else. Same old story. Utter bullshit and a waste of young lives. Friendly people though.
As well as smashing long-distance views from the top of the Prayer Mountain there is a chapel made to look like the Ark. It’s a great spot for Titanic impressions.
On the way back down the 374 steps my new friends were where I had left them. We avoided talk of religion this time. We talked about ants, until joined by Father Jonathan one of the group leaders who has first class Indian bible college English. He invited me to join them for a campfire and sing-song that evening.
Tan Daung Gyi offers no nightlife to compete with a fire and singing. There is little by way of anywhere open after 7.30 so after dining (at the most basic of eateries near the shops) on fried in batter vegetables cooked on a fire on the floor (great actually) I ride back up the hill to the pilgrim guesthouse and on foot in the dark I follow the sound of song and laughter up onto a flat hilltop opposite the Prayer Mountain.
The group number almost forty and they are dancing around the fire whooping and hollering like some, doubtless culturally inaccurate, scene from a Western – except they are accompanied by three guitars which I don’t recall the Navajo having. I am welcomed into the circle as the next singalong begins. It’s another laugh-inducing lung-buster.
The song after that involves all sorts of actions, including making the heart shape that Gareth Bale makes when he scores and another two-person version that he could do with Angel di Maria should they ever play together. It’s a song all about Jesus loving me. And you. Both of us. I think they all are.
Then a great game that I’ll inflict on people the next time I’m around a campfire in a country where I speak the language. It took me a while to work out what was going on but it’s quite simple, very lively, great fun and just a little risqué. It needs chairs. The next game was also great fun. The men stand in a circle with their right hand on their hip . The women – who outnumber the men – circle around until the guitarist (his back turned) stops playing. The women then grab the nearest man’s crooked arm or they end up manless and are out of the game. It’s Musical Men. It doesn’t need chairs.
Amazingly all the while all this rushing around playing games and dancing is going on no-one falls into the roaring campfire that’s keeping us all warm and provides all the light we need (what with the light of Jesus shining so brightly).
After a couple more songs it’s time for something a bit more serious.
The next day the group will head out into the countryside on a mission to share the gospel and to try to make Christians of Buddhists. Father Jonathan gives an ‘encouraging’ sermon about the Christian family. Then we stand and hold hands and the Pastor leads a lengthy prayer. Her deep voice seems to fill the night. The big metal cross atop the prayer mountain is brightly lit. The Milky Way in the super-clear sky competes for attention. There is just the first sliver of a new moon.
It’s a great moment. I’m so pleased I can’t understand a word of whatever rubbish she is talking. Except “Hallelujah”. She says that a lot.
The evening draws to a close. The Pastor comes over and offers me her personal welcome with a handshake. Father Jonathan ‘reassures’ me that even though I don’t believe in him Jesus still loves me.
And those ISIS guys I guess.
Tan Daung Gyi is an army town. More than half of everything and all the biggest and best buildings, including any left from the British period, are in the hands of the 500 troops who live up here.
At the furthest end of the through-town road sits Fort Bayint Naung. From across the valley it’s possible to see that there are a number of big statues inside the camp and I find that if you smile nicely enough early on a Sunday morning one of the guards, after a bit of a conflab with his mates, might hop on his motorbike and accompany you a half a mile or so inside to have a look at some of them (and a pagoda).
Three of the great kings of Burma stand together just as they stand together in the military zone at Nay Pyi Daw. They are four or five metres tall, well made and look out across the town, over the heads of the ranked Buddhas and way beyond towards the lands they once ruled.
But why? Apart from residents of Tan Daung Gyi who ever saw them all the way up here? Who ever sees them now?
Further along the ridge, where I did not get to go but later saw from afar, there is another, perhaps even larger, statue of a King-like figure standing on an ornate platform cut into the hillside. What has been going on up here? What will go on up here? Weird one.
Also slightly weird (but perhaps more easily explained) is the numbering of some of the large brown boulders that stick out of the ground amidst whatever grows from it, all across town, up on the hills around town and through the valley immediately below.
Locals see shapes In this bunch of big rocks (I thought one looked like a sperm whale). They are apparently part of the town’s attraction to visitors and for some reason some of them are numbered. No one I spoke to could tell me why, other than to say it was the army’s doing.
That’s that. [Scroll down for The WOOF Guide : Getting there / Eating / Sleeping info] There is no point to this story. It’s not even much of a story. It’s just some stuff I did one weekend. There is no narrative arc that I pull together with some pithy closing remark. I hope that’s not what you were looking for.
The WOOF Guide
Eating and sleeping
As well as the fried vegetable place there are a couple of simple lunch and dinner restaurants and a decent teashop for breakfast near to the school in the centre if town.
The two guesthouse are called Grace for Grace and I Wish.
I Wish (054 45024 or 09313 59388) is in an old colonial building (1912). There’s a large twin room with scruffy bathroom and toilet (25,000 Kyat for one person, easily reduced to 20,000 for multiple nights) and a couple of partitioned twin almost-rooms with outside bathroom (15,000 Kyat for one). Shabby-atmospheric might best describe I Wish. Its big plus point is its large sunny garden and friendly host family.
Grace for Grace (054 45026 or 09364 36363) got my cash because they have tidy 10,000 Kyat single rooms. Perhaps a bit musty but the fresh cut flowers – nice touch girls – covered that. The shared toilet and hot (well, not cold) shower are clean and fine. Breakfast is included. I also like it when a guesthouse manager has a good working knowledge of the oeuvre of One Direction (she likes Harry).
At the time of writing there is no internet in Tan Daung Gyi. No wifi. No 3G. But Telenor are coming soon. “We can’t wait”.
Getting there is half the fun.
If you’re starting out from downtown Yangon then Taungoo is best reached by train (only six hours and no need to subject yourself to the horror of getting to and being at Aung Mingalar bus station. The bus takes 4 hours) and is a town worth seeing for itself. Or worth spending a few days in. I did. [See Taungoo Tips below]
I was told that four or five pick-up buses run between Taungoo and Tan Daun Gyi. Not sure about any early buses from Taungoo but the services starting out from Tan Daung Gyi at 6am daily return from Taungoo from 11. And so on. It’s 2000 Kyat each way. The same source says motorcycle taxis cost 7000 each way. A car taxi will be more. If you can add to this information, please let me know. email@example.com
But it’s best to make your own way because Taun Daun Gyi is pretty much one several mile long road that would be a pain to have to walk up and down all day (though there are stepped shortcuts).
I was able to rent a motorcycle in Taungoo for 5000 Kyat a day for a few days (8000 for one day) at a Kenbo branded motorcycle shop (09494 30268).
Head out of town on Highway 5. Once over the river the road splits three times. The first time, at the 0 km mark, not far from the bridge, stay left. The second time when the uphill road to the left is signed for Loikaw (120 miles. 10 hours plus!) stay to the right following the sign for Baw Ga Li. The third time it’s a three way split where you take the middle option, the road up to Taun Daung Gyi. The road to the right is Highway 5. The road to the left is the separate road down from Tan Daung Gyi.
Before that last turn you will pass through what the map calls Tan Daung (not Gyi) but which a local gave another name. Buy water and fill up with petrol here. On the way into town there’s a cool graveyard amongst the trees on the side of the road and a checkpoint where you should stop. So long as you don’t suggest you are going anywhere other than Tan Daung Gyi there will be no problem
Check out the north end of the lake in the hours before sunset. Eat at the excellent Win Family Restaurant (2500 Kyat) on Kan Lan or Kan Lan Fried Rice (900 Kyat). Nearby is my teashop of choice, the charming menu-free, open-fronted, old-skool and cobwebby Sha Twe.
The well-regarded Myanmar Beauty Hotel 2 (054 25073/4) deserves its reputation. The setting and rooms (the more expensive ones are great value) are special but … the out of town location is a bit of a pain. The cheaper rooms are a bit pricey for a solo traveller ($20 when it’s $25 for two people) but worth it. I think the famous twenty-plate breakfast is plain stupid.
There are other places of course but none that I saw worth compromising for. If you’re on a budget or heading to out of the way places you will stay in some rubbish guesthouses in Myanmar. I say ‘treat yourself in Taungoo’. Either at Myanmar Beaty or at the surprisingly competitively priced top end hotel on the west side of the lake where rooms start at $80.