By Cliff Lonsdale
There is more to Pindaya than just the caves…
If you were to ask a dozen visitors to (or residents in) Myanmar if they had ever been to Pindaya, I would bet a bottle of beer that the majority of answers would be in the affirmative. If you then asked those that had been there to describe the town or name the hotel that they had stayed in, I would bet a case of beer that most people would probably respond, “Oh no, I only went to the caves” or words to that effect.
Sometimes the ‘tick-box’ approach we take to tourism means we only really get to skim the surface of the country we are visiting or living in. Perhaps due to a lack of time we often set our sights on the highlights, and try to sample a little of everything, which means we often miss our chance to experience all that is really there. Without doubt, the caves at Pindaya are fascinating; with over 8000 images of the Buddha inside a naturally formed cave complex it is a remarkable place to visit. But there is more to Pindaya than just the caves.
Despite the popularity of the caves, very few of the tourists that visit them each year actually make it into Pindaya town itself, which is both a good and a bad thing. Bad in the sense that it means that those visitors miss out on experiencing one of the most wonderfully relaxing and peaceful towns in Myanmar, and likewise the town misses out on the money they would subsequently spend there. But the positive aspect of their absence is that Pindaya retains the very thing I am advocating, it is still very much a quiet dusty laid back country town.
Pindaya is enticing, from the centuries’ old Banyan trees that line Pone Ta Lote Lake in the centre of town, to the early-morning ox-carts lazily heading to the weekly market laden with agricultural produce grown in the surrounding farmland. It feels like it hasn’t changed a great deal in the last century. Its location under the shadow of the mighty mountains to the west, and surrounded on all other sides by lush farmlands, is made all the nicer by the temperature. It is much cooler here than in other parts of Myanmar, it gets decidedly chilly in the evenings.
There is plenty to see and do in and around Pindaya if you are so inclined, but it is also the perfect location to take time out and enjoy some peace and relaxation. Nothing happens very quickly in this little town, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed.
If you are looking for a taste of luxury, then look no further than the recently opened Thahara Pindaya hotel. The owner Ma Aye Aye, having worked at some of the top hotels in the country has returned to her hometown to establish her own place. Part of the Thahara group, the Thahara Pindaya is the epitome of excellence, as you would expect – serving fabulous home-cooked Shan food, and providing accommodation and service of the highest standard. With only six guest rooms, booking is essential, and a room on the first floor is highly recommended as you have your own balcony to relax on and watch the sun set over the hills. The restaurant has two floor-to-ceiling glass walls, and this is also an excellent spot to take a drink and admire the scenery. If lazing around is not your thing, then Ma Aye Aye and her husband can assist you in organising activities in the local area.
All over the town, you can go and watch the intricate and incredibly satisfying process of producing paper umbrellas in houses – men turning the wood on a foot-powered lathe whilst women complete the complicated operation of combining the wood and mulberry bark paper into the finished product at a speed that belies the delicate nature of the materials. Or you can observe someone create a bamboo hat that you can then buy for less than US$1, which is incredible when you’ve seen the effort involved in its production. You can even find some shade to squat in whilst marveling at the ladies who create the beautiful yet practical terracotta pots from nothing more than earth and water and a hand-spun potter’s wheel.
Pindaya is one of two townships that make up the Danu Self Administered Zone (SAZ) within Shan State, the other being Ywangan. The area is home to the Danu, Pa-O and Palaung tribes. You don’t need to travel far out of town to be able to visit the traditional villages of these tribes, and in fact if you are feeling a little adventurous or energetic then Pindaya is perfectly located to take a walk up into the tea plantations and experience a real slice of rural Myanmar.
Twenty brand new routes have just been mapped out in Danu SAZ, ranging from a half-day hike, to a four-day trek, and local tour guides are being trained in order to provide a high quality experience for tourists looking for something a little different. Although nearby Kalaw is renowned for its excellent hiking opportunities, Pindaya is a less well known trekking destination, though that will soon change. Blessed with steep limestone mountains covered in tea-plantations, and lush green forests, Pindaya offers a seriously challenging hike for visitors looking to work up a sweat. Those looking for a gentler stroll can meander through the colourful lowland farms filled with a myriad of fruits and vegetables growing in the rich red soil.
Getting there is quick and easy with several airlines, including Golden Myanmar Airlines, Asian Wings and KBZ operating daily flights to Heho from Yangon for as little as US$80 each way. Pindaya is only 45 minutes from Heho airport (thanks to a new road), so is an ideal place to head to for a weekend away from the hustle and bustle.
For more information about trekking from Pindaya, or to book a trek with a local guide, visit www.danutrails.com. For more information on Thahara Pindaya hotel visit thahara.com/destinations/pindaya.
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #13, November 2015.