It’s dark in Saddar Cave. Bare bulbs are strung along the entire path, providing just enough light for the holiday crowds to slowly make their way through the cave. My feet are cool on the damp dirt as I walk barefoot, which is a wonderful change from the 40’C/104’F dry heat outside.
Talking to Myself
Everyone removes their shoes before entering any religious place in Myanmar, and of course I follow the rules. I’m afraid of just two things in this cave: Will I get some weird zoonotic disease from the bird shit I have to step through barefoot? (Or, is it bat guano?) Second, what if I stub my toe on one of these steps and gush blood, the way I did in Chile?
“Stop being scared,” I tell myself. “Just wash your feet when you get out and be careful walking. It’s not that hard! Enjoy the experience: it’s not every day you get to walk through a cave barefoot. Can you imagine what S. or any of your other caving friends back home would say if they could see this? No one here is wearing boots with ankle support as we do in wild caves back home. This is definitely not a wild cave, though! Oh, and stop talking to yourself, Jess.”
And, that’s how I walk through Saddar Cave with a ceiling that seems a hundred feet high nearly all the way through the 40-minute walk: First talking to myself, and then reminding myself to stop talking to myself.
Outside the Cave
Giant, white, concrete elephants guard the entrance where we left our sandals. Outside the cave I’m overwhelmed and looking in all directions, unable to keep my attention on any one thing for more than a moment. The holiday crowds visiting from near and far include families strolling and groups of young people taking selfies with their mobile phones. Vendors have colorful fruits sliced and ready for snacking and toy horns that sound like squawking geese, capturing my attention and that of small children. There is so much happening on all sides and so many voices calling out in a language I do not understand. It’s hard to take in all the action as I hurry back to my new friends after my bathroom break in the squat toilet.
Entering Saddar Cave
After the action outside the cave, I am awestruck just within the cave entrance. I’m captivated by bright colors from twinkling neon lights; parents in Hawaiian shirts carrying sleepy children; as always, some people wear shirts with marijuana leaves; Buddhists are praying; and, the golden stupa glows in candle light from their offerings. The massive cave entrance is so much larger than anything I’ve ever seen in California, where many of the wild caves require entry by crawling on hands and knees, squeezing through a tiny gap between sharp and pointy rocks.
Who is Who?
I’m not the only westerner here, nor the only American, as many Myanmar people have emigrated to the USA and other western countries for one reason or another, sometimes under refugee status after years of living in a Thai refugee camp. Many are back in Myanmar this April visiting for the New Years celebration of Thingyan or the Water Festival. Although I can’t recognize those people by sight, I can recognize caucasian tourists, and I don’t see any of them here. I entered the cave with my new friends, cousins Kwar and Adh (pronounced Ada). They are Americans living in Minnesota.
Kwar works in a factory and Adh is in nursing school. With them is a couple, who don’t speak a word of English. The husband is a Karen pop star and his wife is friendly woman. They have 3 kids, but the kids wanted to stay home and watch movies and tv, so I don’t meet them.
Saddar Cave is our second cave today. We met an hour ago at a different cave. Kwar, as jovial as Santa Claus, invited me to join them in their car for the rest of the day. “I’m on a motorbike,” I’d explained, “and, I only go 40 kilometers per hour, because I like to look at the scenery. Plus, the water festival slows me down, since getting soaked with buckets of water, garden hoses, and sometimes even a firehose at every village is tiring.” Kwar decided it would be fine, but after we drove a short distance he told me that I should park my motorbike at his friend’s house in a village we would pass through, and get in their car for the remainder of the day. Fine with me!! Watching buckets of water come at me through a closed car window is easy! Sit back and enjoy!
No Shoes in the Caves, Right?
As we walk through the Saddar Cave, I stop and try to take photos. A monk gestures at me to take his photo. That’s when I notice he has shoes on. “Kwar, why is that monk wearing shoes? Everyone has to take their shoes off at the entrance.” That’s how I learn that among the monks many special privileges, they can wear shoes in caves. In my post-trip research, I found that anyone can wear shoes in the non-religious portions of the cave. Could I have worn my shoes in the cave? Maybe. Check with someone who knows, once you arrive.
Among the masses of people, it was not possible to set up a tripod without causing some chaos, so my photos are handheld. Too many are blurry. I take a deep breath and hold my camera, steadying my arms and holding still for nearly a second.
As we come around a bend, I see natural light and people working. I get close and determine they are building a new stupa from concrete and green mirrored tiles.
We Ride in a Boat!
Suddenly we are at the other end of this horseshoe-shaped cave. We walk through more bird or bat shit, and outside is a small lake. We can ride in a boat! And, we get to go through a rock tunnel! This was not mentioned in the guidebook and Kwar asks if I would like a ride in the narrow wooden boat. Of course I would! Some other tourists board our boat with their selfie sticks. The monks get into the next boat. We all head through the tunnel to the other side.
It’s a short ride through the tunnel, and then we have to walk the rest of the way. Unfortunately, since it’s hot-dry season in April, the lake does not extend anywhere near the parking lot. The hot ground burns my feet. Unaware of this walk, we had left our shoes at the other entrance. We run from one shady spot to the next until we reach our shoes again.
Back in the car, we leave Saddar Cave on the narrow, dusty road, still heavy with holiday traffic. Finally, back at the paved road, we bounce onto it with the dried flowers hanging from the rearview mirror swinging.
Travel Details: Saddar Cave
Location Saddar Cave is near Hpa-An, Myanmar, located between the Mae-Sot overland border and Yangon and 4 hours from Mawlamyine.
Safety Safe area and foreigners have come here since at least 2012.
Food and water Available. Vendors are outside the cave entrance, and a village is 5 minutes from the cave by motor vehicle, if you prefer a roadside restaurant.
Dress As throughout Myanmar, both men and women cover knees and shoulders, especially in religious places. Carry your shoes through the cave. You may have to walk a distance back to the parking lot. Also, shoes permitted in some sections of the cave. I wore flip-flops, as did all the locals
Cost Free, like all religious places in Myanmar. Donation boxes located at entrances. During non-holiday periods when the cave is empty, you may need to donate 1,000 kyat for electric lights to be turned on.
Accommodation Guesthouses in all price and quality ranges are available in Hpa-An, about 30 minutes away. Soe Brothers Guesthouse fan rooms start at $7 USD with shared bathrooms. Air-conditioned rooms are available. Please see my tips on selecting a budget hotel.
Transportation Motorbike rental is available for 7,000 kyats per day in Hpa-An. Helmets are 1 size fits all and I recommend testing fastening buckles when selecting yours. Ensure they work.
Tours Day tours, which include Saddar Cave and others are available from Soe Brothers Guesthouse for 35,000 kyats per vehicle, up to 6 passengers per vehicle.
After Saddar Cave, we ate lunch in the countryside.
Want to visit wild caves? Learn about caving gear and joining a caving club.
Want to read more about Myanmar now? Have a look at the main Myanmar page.
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Last, here’s a Pinterest pin for all my Pinterest fans!