Think of Myanmar and one conjures images of floating in a hot air balloon above the temples of Bagan or drifting by villages on the Irrawaddy River. Perhaps gold comes to mind? The winking wonders of Shwedagon Pagoda or the Golden Rock at Mt. Kyaiktiyo are among Myanmar’s most dazzling sights, but neither is the country’s most peculiar. That honor goes to the Pindaya Caves, or the “Shwe U Min Natural Cave Pagoda of Pindaya” as it’s officially known.
A Path to Nirvana
Pindaya, in Myanmar’s Shan State, is not on every Burmese itinerary. Some travelers may overnight at the sleepy town solely to break up their cross-country journey from Inle Lake to Bagan. They will most likely take an afternoon stroll along the shores of the calm Pone Taloke Lake and dine at one of the tranquil lakeside restaurants before climbing back aboard a bus the following morning. Others may visit Pindaya to trek in the remote hills above the town. The secluded six-mile hike to the traditional Yazakyi Monastery is a popular option.
However, the best reason to stop at Pindaya is to see the town’s “world famous” Shwe U Min Natural Cave Pagoda—one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country and certainly its most unusual.
Positioned high on a limestone ridge above the town lies a labyrinth of twisting natural caves and tunnels bursting with over 9,000 Buddha statues—often referred to as “images.” Large numbers of figurines continue to arrive year after year, installed by devotees hoping to receive favor in return for their endeavor. For believers, the ultimate aim is to escape the cycle of samsara—Buddhism’s series of death and rebirth—and finally achieve Nirvana, or enlightenment.
INSIDER TIPThe Shwe U Min Pagoda is located around two miles or a 20-minute walk from town. Taxis cost approximately $5. The final 130 stairs to the cave entrance can be avoided by taking an elevator.
A Unique Pilgrimage
The winding complex of caverns, stuffed from floor to ceiling with gilt images of Buddha in an extraordinary array of shapes, sizes, and styles, is a sight to behold. Every available inch of floor space along with every nook, cranny, and cavity features an image of the holy figure. The rows of statues fight for space amid slimy limestone stalactites and stalagmites formed from centuries of mineral-laden drops of water.
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10 Magical Fairy-Tale Towns in a Country Otherwise Known for Being Spooky
While Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel “Dracula” may have painted Romania, or, more specifically, Transylvania, as a dark and scary place, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Eastern European country is brimming with picturesque small towns, complete with grand town squares, riotously colorful buildings, myriad castles and fortresses, and rich forests, making it nothing short of a fairy tale. Here are just 10 to fuel your Romanian daydream.
Mark our words: Sighisoara will be on the lips of every influencer within the next few years. The main three cobblestone streets of the citadel boast Crayola-colored houses that are chock-full of photogenic cafes and boutiques. If you can tear yourself away from street level, the Clock Tower (easy to find—it’s visible from almost anywhere in town), the Sighisoara History Museum, or the Church on the Hill all offer beautiful views of Sighișoara. If you’re around during the final week of July, plan to attend the annual Medieval Festival. If not, you can always visit one of the many medieval Guild Towers or the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (also known as Count Dracula).
Most travelers use Brasov as a base to explore the nearby Bran Castle (also known as Dracula’s Castle, as Vlad the Impaler was once imprisoned there), but we’d be surprised if you didn’t at least consider extending your stay in the charming, ancient town. Visit the narrowest street in Europe (Strada Sforii, or “Rope Street”), sip coffee near the 13th-century clock tower or in brick basement cafes, climb to the White or Black Towers to watch the sun set on the city, or venture into the Carpathian Mountains to hike between villages nestled between vast forests and towering peaks.
When you hear that the houses in Sibiu have windows that look like eyes and a bridge that purportedly creeks when you tell a lie on it, you may assume the Transylvanian town has an air of spookiness to it. But instead, it’s the cultural capital of the region, with multiple squares that act as the center of city life, centuries-old churches, and a myriad of museums. The town is separated into Lower Town and Upper Town. The former is where most of the historic sights are, whereas the latter is home to more cozy cafes and families.
Though small in size, Sinaia is fit for a king. Literally. The town of just 11,600 in the shadows of the Bucegi Mountains, is where Romania’s first king, Carol I, spent his summers. Peles Castle–the brainchild of a myriad of artists’, architects’, and woodsmiths’ work over the course of 40 years–is reason enough to visit. The 150 rooms are a buffet of different decorating styles ranging from Art Nouveau to Gothic Revival. While grandiose wood carvings, stain glass windows, and marble stairs dominate the building, what you’ll remember of your tour of the residence is the armor room (for both men and horses), larger than life portraits of the royal, and several secret passageways.
Unlike the riotously colorful Sighisoara and Sibiu, most of the buildings in Viscri are a more muted blue topped with uniformly red roofs. It was lesser-known until Prince Charles expressed his love for the quiet getaway. Still, the tiny village (with a population of 400), is where you can see what life is really like in rural Romania. Many workers participate in traditional craftsmanship, like the blacksmiths who forge horseshoes and the artists who make tiles in earthen kilns. Breeze down the cycling trails that cruise by pastures or explore the area on horseback.
Suceava has changed hands numerous times over the years. For nearly 200 years, it belonged to Moldova before being controlled by various groups associated with Austria-Hungary until 1968, when it was relinquished to Romania. It makes sense that the buildings are wildly diverse. But the main attraction in Suceava is the 14th century Royal Citadel, and rightfully so. Where else is it encouraged to climb on the rocks and poke around various chambers unguided?
With a name that literally translates to “tree-logs” it makes sense that Busteni works in tandem with nature. Squirreled away in the Bucegi Mountains, it’s a popular ski and climbing town, with a bevy of romantic resorts and cottages. Spend the day hiking amongst the waterfalls or, if that’s not your thing, take the cable car to the top of the mountain for a panoramic view of the valley.
This little village is practically synonymous with explosively colorful frescos. The painted monastery here is arguably the most popular of Bucovina’s (and inarguably the one with the most paintings), all of which are known for the quality of the artwork and the fact that, despite hundreds of years of being exposed to the elements, the external paintings are still largely intact. Both the Old and New Testament find homes on the densely-packed outer walls (both the cheery ones and those that are decidedly not), with the exception of the western one; the story goes that after the original painter fell from the rafters, other artists weren’t keen on finishing the gig.
Corvin Castle, the largest secular Gothic building in all of Transylvania, is the number one reason to visit Hunedoara. Built on a rock looming over the city below, this imposing fortress has multiple circular and rectangular towers (some of which were used as prisons once upon a time), stone balconies, and an actual drawbridge.
Technically, the newly-discovered Tunnel of Love (not to be mistaken for the similar one near Klevan, Ukraine) is just outside of Caransebes, but finding it adds to the magic of the place. Their trees intertwine to create a botanic tunnel that surrounds an old section of the railroad where you can walk for miles under the greenery. As you leave town, go east along Road 68 and look for the original railroad station near the Obreja commune. From there, just follow the tracks into the woods.
The Enlightened One can be seen in his full spectrum of traditional poses and hand gestures along with a unique representation of the Buddha holding a single seed in his upturned palm. These caves are believed to be the only place in Myanmar where such a depiction can be found.
It is uncertain when or why the astonishing accumulation of Buddhist iconography began. There are many statues without engravings, but the earliest inscription dates from 1773. The statues are constructed from a range of materials including alabaster, brick, marble, lacquer, teak, and even cement. However, regardless of what is on the inside, all the statues share the same exterior: gold. Wherever you go in Myanmar, devotees enthusiastically apply gilded leaf to their Buddha images and the caves of Pindaya are an exuberant example of the practice.
Many pilgrims make the journey as representatives of a Buddhist organization in their home country while for others it is a personal journey connecting them and their faith. Throughout the complex, devotees can be found prostrate on the stone floor before the sacred statues. Other enthusiasts squeeze themselves into the cramped meditation chambers that have naturally formed in the cave walls.
There are no signs demanding silence or advocating modesty, but an eerie library-like calm permeates the hollows, encouraging visitors to communicate in whispers and gestures. The caves have the air of a cathedral. Only the cathedral is underground, hollowed out of limestone, humid, devoid of natural light, and deeply claustrophobic. So not really like a cathedral, but extraordinary all the same.
“I’ve Got the Spider!”
To enter the complex, visitors must make their way through the Shwe U Min Pagoda, climb a long stairway and pass a 40-foot-high gilded Shan-style sitting Buddha. At the pagoda’s entrance, sits Pindaya’s most incongruous exhibit.
If the sight of thousands of golden Buddhas staring out from the depths of an eerie cave wasn’t unique enough, then perhaps a surreal sculpture of a giant spider with razor-sharp teeth bearing down upon its guests is required.
There is a valid reason for the appearance of such an oddity at the entrance to a holy site. Nearby is a slightly less incongruous sculpture of a bow and arrow-clad prince which goes some way to explaining the giant monster spider.
Pindaya takes its name from a local legend. The story goes that seven princesses bathing in the lake below were captured by a giant spider living in the caves. It was down to brave Prince Kummabhaya and his trusty longbow to rescue the fair maidens who were trapped in an enormous spider’s web within the cave.
As the prince slew the spider he yelled “Pinku Ya-Pyi!” meaning “I’ve got the spider!” Over the centuries this would eventually evolve to become Pindaya and explain why one of Myanmar’s most revered pilgrimage sites is guarded by something that would arguably look more at home in a theme park.
Where else, but in this country unlike any other, can you see a gleaming Buddha-filled cave guarded by a giant spider? Of all Myanmar’s pagodas—and there are thousands—Pindaya’s Shwe U Min Natural Cave Pagoda is surely its most arresting.
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