The palace under the rock (Bayin Nyi Cave – Myanmar)
Nobody really knows how we got there, how many turns we took, how many miles we drove until reaching the path guarded by the golden dragons. It must have been sometime in between dusk and sunset, in that queer few short minutes of the day when the shadows come to life There was a warm summer feeling in the air and yet, along the road, lines of autumn trees were sheding leaves next to blooming forests, while evergreen bananas casting web-like reflections over dry cane houses. Homes made of bamboo with bay leaves for a roof scattered here and there dotted the woods.
It must have been the flying man, it was certainly him who pointed us the way. A pink path, the bottom of a transparent sea of haze, crowned in surrealism by two silent concrete creatures, sitting patiently under a tall gate, and shining in the fading evening light. His index finger kept still for a moment fixed towards a high rock.”There” – he uttered sharply before taking off and dwindling in the dusk. He was the first flying man that we saw, the first one of many wandering those faraway lands. After a long drive in a carriage heaped up with porcelain thrones, jumping off the pile of unusual and uncomfortable seats (toilet seats) felt like a blessing, and we were eager to walk in any direction. A lonely rock, dressed in a gown of green trees, rose up high above the mist, overlooking a kingdom of jungle plains. Holding our breath and hands, we stepped into the pink path, passed quietly by the guardians and headed towards the grand rock hidden behind the curtain of mist and dust. Without thinking much, step by step, we walked down, unaware of what the evening could keep in store for us, wondering how long we would have to go and what our destination would look like.
One step and then another, our feet swiftly danced ahead. Out of a sudden a cloud of dust swirled loudly nearby. Petrified we stood up facing the noisy newcomer. A carriage, so full of people that one wonders if it was loaded with men, or made of them itself, clumsily slowed down. Somebody, talking words we could not understand, grabbed us firmly but gently by the backpack and accommodated us in between a tangle of arms, legs and heads. Crushed and smashed, they took off again, only to land back on the ground in the time that it takes for a second to pass. “Here we are!” – a choir shouted. ‘Alright, thank you so much” – we smiled greatefully. It was somehow a relief to know that there we were! Now, we only needed to figure out where was that…
The sun waved a final good-bye sending a silent exposion of pink and orange colouring the air, and anouncing the closure of another day that would soon get lost in the bottomless well of time. We looked around, shy to move, visually exploring the area. We were in the middle of a building ground. A party of bamboo sticks and palm tree rooftops was slowly raising from the dusty streets like a summer fair, a town made of huts and stalls, where the only concrete room seems to be a common bathroom standing proudly at one end of the meadow. The village was a place that was there, but not fully there yet, and that looked as much a visitor to the fields around as ourselves. We had no means to ask the reasons for the ephemerous nature of a Cindarella village that came up at night to be probably dismantled at dawn. We had not yet learnt more than “hello” in the language of the place, and most certainly repeating it with different intonations woud not bring any sufficient explanation. Getting into conversations was more a game of confusion than a way to find answers, and only a great deal of patience and a dose of imagination could satisfy our curiousity.
Several minutes of akward and intense staring in all directions and the answers lurking in the shadows, started dispathchings their harbingers. Slowly and almost solemnly, a group of barefoot men wrapped in wine red rags stepped by and moved their hairless heads towards the forest. Quietly and ceremoniously they walked next to us past the village and led us through groovy corridor into a yard full of shadows. While our eyes were still adjusting to the darkness, a most unexpected view materialized in front of us. A city of fairies, nestled at the feet of the rock, and crawling in a stair-like manner around the solid stony base. Barely illuminated, we could only distinguish a handful of golden domes and colourful walls incrusted on the wall, a composition of unusual monuments. Groups of dancing figures reflected on a steaming lake, a multitude of unearthly creatures, certainly frozen for eternity by some unknown spell, were scattered here and there as if timidly sneaking into the warm candle light coming from the nearby windows. In the night, the city was an oniric vision of fainting lights and reflections floating in the air, guarded by flying shadows that scared us away. Our escort waved mutely a bit further away, where the doors of a big lonely building, resembling a giant wooden elephant, kneeling on its immense feet, creaked melodically. Making signs that explained this is where we could spend the night, the men disappeared. ‘Welcome’ – a voice whispered from above. Up the stairs the tiny figure of another monk dressed in long dark robes was lighting up a candle for us.
“Bath and then sleep until the morning light comes” – he said. Bath? We could not believe our ears. There is something extraordinary cheering in the idea of bath or shower when one is on the road for a long time. We could almost hear the imaginary song of an army of water drops, heading towards us with only mission to eliminate every bit of dust off our skins. So, even if the night chill was creeping through our shirts and even if we were so tired our eyelids fell while we walked, we accepted the offer, wondering where is the bathroom would be and if we could find it in the dark. But we were not to see one, ieven if we searched. There was not even a bucket of water to wash our hands. To our surprise, we were told to undress right there, in the yard, in front of all and to jump into the dark waters of a lake that washed the place. Expecting to feel a chill through the spine Boris put one toe first, and then a foot and a leg and then jumped with joy and surprise, for the water was warm like a shower at home, and that we had not seen for quite a long time. The floor was tickling our feet with a soft muddy brush. Intensly green even in the moonlight, the boggy vegetation spread as far as our eyes could see, forming little circular pools where people could bath and birds could fish. In the middle of the jungle the earth poured like a gift, streams of warm spring waters, not no drink, but to bath in.
Only in the morning we would get to see that the place, a feast to the senses, was even more astonishing than it had revealed at night. Its colours were brighter, the domes shinier and the stairs longer than we had guessed in the dark. Only then we got to know what the elusive shadows that had crossed our way during the brief night visit were, who were the guardians of the magic place. A family of monkeys lived in the crowns of the trees at the bottom of the rock. Swiftly jumping and clinging to boughs and domes they looked like the undisputed masters of the place. Creaking and hissing they made us believe that were was still some more wonders to see. And us, unsure if it would be rude to reject their offer, and enjoying and fearing their company in equal measure, jumped on their backs to be taken up, almost flying theough the stairs, past the golden domes and the lake into a large cave. There, inside the rock palace, lived the lord of the place. Hidden from husle and noise of the village, from the joyful bathers, from the sleepy monks and the proud monkeys, he sat quitely on a cool stone throne, meditating day and night with a calm and peaceful smile. Free from the chains of physical life, he sat blissfully in a lotus throne. There, hidden in that rock, and in thousand places more, he smiled from different shrines and walls and trees, an unatainable image to be ever pursued, trying to remind the crowd of devoutedly prostrated followers that there is a path towards the enlightment they strive for.
Notes to the travellers:
(a) When we wrote this post we did not really know what the actual name of this monastery was, but somebody called Michael kindly updated us, and now we know it is Bayin Nyi Cave.
(b) If you are keen on searching for it, the pink path and the large rock lies to the right on the road from Hpa-an to Taton (pronouced Tatou). The kind updater even left us a link to its google coordinates, so no room for doubt anylonger, you can certainly make it there and bath in the warm waters of the lake.
(c) If you try to look for it, but get lost on the way, do not worry, a million wonders lie ahead.