After going from Thazi to Mandalay, my next bus will be heading to Monywa. Luckily, the minivan from Thazi stops at the same bus station that the bus departing to Monywa. I reach this highway bus station at about 2 pm, and the bus to Monywa is at 3 pm. That was perfect as I could have some time for lunch, buy a few fruits and depart on an approximately 3 hours journey. Of course, the bus is not a bus, it is a Minivan, and anyone at the bus station will be pleased to point you where you can hop on this bus from Mandalay to Monywa. There is also someone shouting Monywa out loud every 5 minutes, or just whenever someone passes by. The ticket costs 3000 kyats.
The journey could actually be shorter, but this bus stops for too many times and some of them are long. You can also hop on it at a bus station near the river. The street to get to Monywa is actually not so bad and the views are pleasant.
I stayed at Hotel Ba Thaung. There are no Hostels in Monywa, but this one has a shared bedroom with 5 beds. It was actually a pretty good hotel. They rent motorbikes for 10.000 kyats a day, no matter how many hours you will be on the road, they always charge the same. I rented my motorbike in another place about 20 minutes’ walk away from the Hotel, and there you can rent a motorbike for 1500 kyats /hour. I couldn’t hide my surprised face as the deal was much better than at the Hotel. You need to hand them your passport and they will give it back to you by the end of the day. As this was my first time on a motorbike for a whole day and doing considerable distances, I filled the tank with 5000 kyats which turned out to be enough for 3 days and many kilometers. So, when you fill in motorbikes, don’t do the same.
The attraction that mostly caught my eye in Monywa, was the Phowintaung cave that turned out to overcome my expectations. This place is absolutely awesome and incredible and it was definitely one of the highlights of this 3rd time in Myanmar.
Phowintaung cave is far from Monywa, 50 kilometers, and for a new rider like myself, the journey took longer as I am a slow rider. I also made several stops for pictures along the way and I enjoyed the ride pretty much. I was way nervous at the beginning and starting the ride in the middle of the city is more nerve-wracking. But then, once you are out of it, there is no such thing as traffic, and riding is actually calm and lonely. The views along the way are pleasant and the fact that I’m riding for so long for the first time is exciting. At some points, the street is not that good and you can’t actually ride that fast as there are too many bumps to try to avoid on the street. Finally, and almost 2 hours riding, I reach Phowintaung cave. There is a board showing a fee for foreigners, and I’m pretty sure I could have escaped it if I just continued to ride with my helmet, mask, and sunglasses on. Yeah, you surely need a mask otherwise count on eating a lot of dust, cause as you know, Myanmar might have the dustiest roads in Southeast Asia.
I stop, pay a ticket of 3000 kyats, and take a chance to go to the toilets just behind the ticket counter that was empty when I reached it. I proceed a little bit further and stop for lunch, I was starving! There are a few food stalls, mostly empty, that are good enough to comfort your stomach. I parked my motorbike there and head to Phowintaung cave probably from the most unconventional way. As I walk through the stairs, not many steps done, I face myself with what was already pleasant to me. A place that looks pretty abandoned, surrounded by small weeds that grow uncontrollably around, hides a façade beautifully designed and embroidered in the landscape. The whole set recalls an Indiana Jones movie. I have never been to Petra in Jordan, but it reminds me of pictures I have seen from the famous place. Inside the old and decadent façade are Buddha statues, ones bigger than others, covered by spider webs and falling apart, but still remaining some color from the adorn ceilings. This place looks so cool and I wonder why nobody cares about it, cause clearly not many people are going there. The sight pleases me a lot, and I’m already fully excited for what is yet to come. As I walk, more and more, an area of a cliff reveals adorned doors and walls that protect more Buddha statues. The place faces a beautiful landscape that can be admired during km and km away until your eye can’t reach any longer. Why do these people don’t try to maintain this place and care for it? If they only knew how wonderful it is. But I think they don’t. Maybe they got just too used to it, but I believe that they have pure treasure in there.
One thing I wasn’t surely expecting was the size of the thing. I spent there more than 3 hours exploring Phowintaung cave, and I can sadly state that I could spend much more if I only knew that so many things were hiding it that hilly place.
As further as I walk, I can only get more overwhelmed… There are so many decorated walls, just like façades that invite you to a house. Many of them are kinda hidden in a hill and I’m afraid I missed some of them for that same reason. I really felt like an explorer discovering new sight around each corner, and so many are the corners in this place.
As I am alone, I spent much time trying to get a picture of myself in that scenario that makes it look worthy, but none can show how magical this place looks. There are not many people here. Some Burmese selling Thanaka and a few more stuff, but just ahead, I find a different architectural style and more people on sight. I have only seen 5 other foreigners here, but none of them came by motorbike as they were moving in groups with a local.
Ahead, I see and realize now why they call it Phowintaung caves. There are, I would say, hundreds of little caves filled with Buddhas, just so many that some of them I was skipping after seeing too many…
They have thousands of Buddha statues inside. God, I have no idea how many Buddha statues are here. Some of them appear very well conserved, while others not. Each cave is different from the previous one besides the fact that they are just a few centimeters away. Each cave has an adorned ceiling, and the most impressive ones have pretty well-preserved drawings. It remembers me of Bagan and how wonderful this place must have been back in the years.
Some reveal the stones that made these natural formations possible, and that is also a great sight as they vary in color and the stone is magnificent.
At some point, I start realizing that there are too many caves and I skip some. If I would enter all of them, I don’t know how many hours could I stay in that place. Mostly cause I’m the kind of person that likes to appreciate and analyze the content of the caves, and not just enter it and go away. There are so many drawings on the walls, so many details to be observed and probably many histories that are told, but there is too much to see.
There are also monkeys here. I saw them approaching by the end of my route, as I believe I started the wrong way-lt was for me the perfect way- as I can see the hustle and bustle around this particular area of the complex. All the crowd and cars, minivans are parked in the place where I finished. I was glad I started in a different way, as I believe I have seen some parts of Phowintaung cave that others don’t…
But, more than 3 hours later and at the end of the exploring for me, I could still be surprised and amazed by more caves and carved walls that hide one after another.
This is truly a hell of a place, and one of the most beautiful ancient complexes I have ever visited. Fortunately, it is not touristy at all and you can fully enjoy the Indiana Jones feeling. I could surely stay longer, but I know that the way back is still long and I don’t want to reach the town after sunset, in the dark. So, I established an hour that I should leave no matter if I haven’t seen everything I want- cause I didn’t. I missed among other things, one hill with a pagoda at the top. The highest one I saw, so I bet that the view from up there was amazing.
I leave Phowintaung cave surprised and thrilled that I had the chance to visit it. I hope these people try to conserve it for many years as it is an impressive example of how that area must have been great a long time ago…
Here is my video of this place: