Coming down the steps of the Ya The Byan cave, I see a tuk-tuk full of backpackers roll up to the entrance. They get down, their white skin lashed red from the strong sun, blond hair matted with a mixture of sweat and road dust, and start taking pictures of the forested ridges jutting deep into the cloudless sky. I nudge Si Thu with my elbow and say, Hpa-An is becoming popular.

“I hope so," he says, “but I am worry."

Why is he worried, I ask him. He hesitates, as though he doesn’t know quite how to say it, or even if he should say anything at all. Then, with a shake of his shoulders, “It’s not safe."

Tableau of monks at Tai Ta Ya monastery. Photo: iStockphoto.
Tableau of monks at Tai Ta Ya monastery. Photo: iStockphoto.

But it is safe, I insist. Sure, there had been reports of some fighting between rebel factions in Kayin State, of which Hpa-An is the capital, but it was nothing like the conflict that was brewing in the north, in Kachin, and burning Rakhine in the west, nor even like the skirmishes stirring parts of northern Shan State in the east. The Karen National Union (KNU), the main political organization representing Karen interests, has signed a milestone Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Union government, unprecedented in a conflict that has lasted over 60 years. The agreement, meant to bring all ethnic armed organizations—and there are many—into the ceasefire fold, is only a first step in a protracted and fraught peace process. The difficult last mile will be to reshape the constitution into a federated union of Burma that everyone likes enough to not pick up guns.

That’s the other thing that worries Si Thu. “Do you know how a KNU soldier catches fish?" he asks me. I do not. How? “He empties his gun into the river."

Si Thu is a geologist by training and before becoming a tour guide, he used to work for a local mining company that owned many gold assets. He made $250 (around Rs17,000) a month working for them, in their exploration division, living in camps inside deep forests, most of them in KNU strongholds. It involved working with the Karen soldiers because (a) they controlled the place and (b) only they could guide you safely through mountain forests that were rigged with land mines. It was a working relationship, spent in close proximity with the rebels. It was this first hand experience that made him nervous. He had seen a soldier get annoyed at a barking dog and shoot haywire into the distance where many of the workers had been sitting. He had seen soldiers get into drunken brawls and shoot people’s heads off to settle the argument. Yes there was peace, but everyone still carried guns.

Natural pool near Kyauk ka Thaung cave. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint
Natural pool near Kyauk ka Thaung cave. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint

For now, I ignore him. Hpa-An is beautiful, a vision full of dramatic karst hills and dazzling rice fields, and the weather is perfect. The place is known for its many caves, and Si Thu leads me on a diligent itinerary to visit as many of them as possible. Most of the caves are filled with statues and frescoes depicting the Buddha, in a variety of postures and mudras, but having no great interest in these, I spend my time exploring the damp interiors that wind around stalactites, following the natural gradient as it sloped up and tapered off, narrowing now and then opening its mouth wide to swallow me up. At one cave, called Bayin Nyi, I spend far too much time observing the resident monkeys channel their inner Tom Daley by repeatedly climbing on to rocky heights and plunging into the natural hot springs that sit invitingly at the base of the hill, a gentle steam rising from the water’s surface. In a case of monkey-see monkey-do, after we have climbed up and down the steps to the cave, we too jump into the hot water for a soak, our eyes feasting upon the verdant surroundings. At another hill, we give the cave-cum-pagoda a miss altogether and splash about a natural pool formed by a waterfall, joining Saturday holidaymakers from the nearby village in the startlingly clear blue-green waters. Afterwards, we eat at one of the many shacks that surround the pool; all of them serve Thai food. The menus are a cartographic reminder: Thailand is near. But the cave that I end up falling in love with is nothing like the rest; you cannot even go inside the cave in fact. The locals call it the bat cave after what lives inside: bats, millions of them. It is a sight, I was told, to see them all come out to feed in the evening.

We had made our way there just as the sun was leaking its last light into the Salween river, which the Burmese call Thanlwin, with Si Thu growing anxious by the minute because timing was paramount. We reach the place, take off our shoes (because this cave too is attached to a monastery), walk through the sandy floor of a forest and come to a clearing where the limestone cave stands oddly, like a teenager with a bad posture. We wait quietly, fighting off mosquitoes and distracting ourselves from the fiendish stink of guano by taking photographs of the bridge in the distance, made carmine by the dregs of sunlight.

Then, like a trickle that precedes the flood, a few things fluttered into the sky. Soon, the noise in the air grew to a clamour, and they came out, millions of them as promised, and started flying in the direction of mountaintop on the other side of the river. It is a proper exodus, and it seemed as though there was no end to the hordes. Against the darkening sky, their flight appeared as a stream of musical notes lifted off a page and carried across the river like an open song.

***

The Kyauk Ka Thaung cave. Photo: iStockphoto
The Kyauk Ka Thaung cave. Photo: iStockphoto

The caves and the pagodas, the hot springs and the natural pools are all nice, but I want to see the edges of this state. The Karen conflict is among the country’s oldest, nearly as old as the independent nation of Burma, and I was curious to see how things were getting on outside the tourist bubble. Also, I was itching to see Christian villages; this was Karen State after all! About a fifth of the Karen are Baptists, and the protection of their religious freedom and way of life has been an important part of the identity politics. Yet, thus far I had only seen pagodas and monasteries, to the point of monotony.

I nag Si Thu to take me somewhere far, deep into the state. There is a waterfall, he tells me reluctantly, Kyone Htaw, that was popular with local tourists…but, it was declared a black area a few weeks ago. He would have to check.

“Black area" is code for areas not under the control of Myanmar armed forces, the tatmadaw, and tourists are explicitly forbidden to travel to these places. Black areas often became “brown", meaning there was active conflict between the Myanmar army (or its militias) and the rebel groups. “White" areas are areas devoid of conflict either because the government controls it or, as in Hpa-An, there is an arrangement between the non-state actors (KNU, in this case) and the armed forces. Si Thu had seen pictures on his Facebook feed of other guides at Kyone Htaw with domestic tourists and thought that it might just be possible. “But I am worry," he adds.

Kyone Htaw Falls is in Hlaingbwe township, a name he says he has only ever heard of on the news, and it is always about fighting. I googled it and read a few headlines about clashes on the road between Mae Tha Waw, the area in Hlaingbwe where the waterfall was located, and Myaing Gyi Ngu, a town we would have to drive through, also in Hlaingbwe. Most reports were dated September. It was almost the end of November now; I reckoned it would be fine (news travels slowly. A week after I returned home, I read about a landmine explosion near the waterfall on 22 November, the day we had picked to visit. It had killed one officer from the Myanmar army and two soldiers from the Border Guards Force or BGF, a Karen militia that works for the tatmadaw).

It’s a lonely, scorching road to Kyone Htaw, and even with the air-conditioning on, we feel the desiccating effects of the afternoon sun. We drive through small villages, but there is no one on the streets—sensible people, I think—and I wish I too was inside one of these wooden huts, eating a watermelon in their cool shade. I try to sleep, my eyes opening and closing with the jolting of the car as it navigates the bad road. On one occasion, I see a couple of armoured army vehicles with soldiers standing up with their guns pointed at the oncoming traffic. I sit up. After some time, a column of soldiers go marching past in single file, rifles slung across their bodies. They seemed sullen. Further on, a couple of army trucks go by, and then another of the armoured SUVs. It goes quiet after that, the streets empty again. I do not know how long we have been driving—at some point, a passer-by had said the waterfall was an hour way. After an hour, a man selling watermelons told us it was an hour more. I keep glancing at the Google Maps driving instructions that Si Thu has been following and take the reducing distance counter to mean that we are getting close. There is nothing more that I look forward to right now than a plunge into a cold, clear pool of water.

We come up to a checkpost and I think it is some more of the road fee nonsense that we have had to deal with all through this trip, a regularized pay-off for local units of one armed faction or another. Google Maps says we are 30 minutes away from Kyone Htaw. I sit back, waiting for Si Thu to pay whatever toll it was that we had to pay. I wonder why it is taking so long.

Soon, there are heads poking inside the car. I hear the word kala repeated a few times. I knew what kala meant—literally, foreigner, but in practice a reference to the dark-skinned Indian-origin Burmese, many of whom are Muslims. The pejoration lies in the suggestion that they are outsiders, when they are in fact Burmese by nationality and, for at least two generations, also by birth (the first of them had come from India with the British after they annexed it in the 19th century).

Si Thu turns to me and says, “They not allow." The rules are clear and written in big letters on a poster, in Burmese: “Only Buddhists Allowed." I look like a kala, therefore likely to be Muslim, by which it is proven that I eat meat. Letting me in would violate the Buddha’s principles; this town was strictly vegetarian. This strikes me as odd given the whole of Myanmar is run on Buddha’s principles and I had been to most places without ever being summarily told my presence is a desecration and, what’s more, had been served with tasty pork and beef dishes. There is more talk and Si Thu starts to fumble with our papers. I am asked to come out of the car. It is only then that I see that every man has a rifle on him.

There is one man in something that could be described as a uniform, all the others are either bare-chested or in an undervest, grimy with oil stains and the reek of sweat. I hand over my passport and this passes from hand to hand. I am almost certain that none of them can read a word of English, yet they develop looks of deep, if vacant, concentration as they scrutinize every page. Finally, it reaches the uniform-man and it becomes clear that I was not, in fact, a kala. Someone points at me and says “kala-waw", and a chorus runs through them—kala-waw, kala-waw. I hadn’t heard the phrase before, and neither had Si Thu. It was a portmanteau: kala-phyu is used for Caucasians (phyu means white) or any white-skinned foreigner; “waw", literally meaning yellow but a stand-in for not-black-not-white, was combined to say I was not the standard issue Muslim kala. Si Thu seizes upon this and tells them I love Buddha and, being Hindu, was practically Buddhist.

Tourists at Kawgon cave. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint.
Tourists at Kawgon cave. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint.

This revelation leads to a tempering of aggression and even a bit of sympathy. A new impediment rises out of this. Now, I cannot be allowed to go because it is “not safe", there is fighting, it is for my own good. As this profession of concern for my well-being is being made, I see the men ransack our car with their guns, poking at every seat pocket and dashboard, opening every bag and polythene packet. One of them finds my bag of toiletries. He is curious about the pump of my moisturiser and wastes half its contents. I wonder if I should offer to let him keep it. They find nothing objectionable and soon a resolution is arrived at. I cannot go to the waterfall but I can go have a look about Myaing Gyi Ngu town.

“But since it is dangerous," a man whose undervest read ARMY continues, “one of us will go with you. It is better that way."

I do not have any choice in the matter yet I try to weigh the risks. We do not, at this point, even know who it is that has stopped us. Is it the Myanmar army? Is it the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of KNU? Is it the DKBA, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a breakaway faction of the KNU, which had morphed into the Border Guards Force? Is it the DKBA, in which the “B" stands for Benevolent, a renegade faction of the other DKBA that refused to work with the military initially but then turned coat and signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement anyway? Or is it the newly formed splinter group DKBA-Kyaw Htet that had been cobbled together from the original DKBA and some officers who had been sacked from the Benevolent Army. What if we ran into a group that was fighting with this group and we got caught in the crossfire? What if we came under government surveillance for having been seen as hobnobbing with armed men of unknown vintage? What if escorting was just a ruse and we were in fact getting led away for entirely different purposes? What if…

We don’t have time to think through this. Already, one of the men is getting into our car and we are being hurried on. He doesn’t bring a gun and I make a determined decision to make the most of this private guided tour.

Directed by our escort, we drive on towards downtown Myaing Gyi Ngu and soon reach the first stop. It doesn’t look like much, just a wide road with roadside paan shops on one side and a slum-like cluster on the other (“refugee camp", we are duly informed). Then I see the big slabs of white marble lying on the road, close to where we had stopped the car. At a casual glance they looked like construction debris, but were in fact tablets with inscription. It was the Buddhist Tripitaka, written up in Karen language, each individual tablet a page of the canon. I wondered why they were lying here like this, seemingly abandoned. The next stop clears it up. We have now come to an immense construction site, the proportions akin to a large football field. I see rows of miniature shrines, each housing tablets like the ones we had seen by the roadside earlier, and I instantly know they are trying to build a replica of the 19th century Kuthodaw pagoda, a Unesco World Heritage site in Mandalay, which has the entire Tripitaka written on stone (in Pali) and similarly enshrined, and was built in the mid-19th century.

I had walked about the Kuthodaw pagoda not too long ago and had found in it a sense of calm, a Buddhist calm in the sense of enlightenment, of knowledge recorded, of a grand library devoted to a single masterpiece. This pagoda here—half complete and half under construction, with cranes and excavators blowing up piles of rubble and clouds of dust and the gilted stupas emerging out of it—was a dystopia, a badly imagined alien landscape constructed for a low-budget sci-fi flick. “Impressive," I murmur a few times, “amazing." “When will it be done?"

Bayin Nyi cave. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint
Bayin Nyi cave. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint

Next stop, a photo exhibition. I am taken through a corridor where the walls are a collage of photographs. I see some photos of women soldiers and I take out my camera to take a picture. My interest pleases the monk who is leading us. He points to some other pictures and I nod politely. Si Thu steps in to say it is the picture of their sayadaw, abbot, the monk U Thuzana. “He is very famous," Si Thu says to me meaningfully. “They want you to take a picture of him." I obey.

In the days after, I would learn about the controversy around the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw, a powerful monk who was the chief patron of the DKBA at the time of its founding. His religious chauvinism outdoes that of Ashin Wirathu, the man Time magazine famously put on its cover and branded as the face of Buddhist terror. U Thuzana is said to have prophesied that peace would come to the Karen when 50 white pagodas had been constructed and he has made a crusade out of building pagodas inside or near the places of worship belonging to other religious communities. In these pictures, he looks like any other monk.

We are brought to a final pagoda. Its gates seem to be closed and there is no one here. This is not a problem. Our escort has the keys and he pushes open the collapsible gates. There is a statue of the Buddha, its height halfway to the tall ceiling. I am thrown off because I had expected something ugly. This was beautiful. It’s not the precious metal—38 viss (roughly 60kg) of pure gold, our escort tells us—there is something regal about it, a rising above, as if the Buddha could remain untouched by the grotesquerie around it, the fighting, the money, the violation of every principle of his path.

The tour ends with lunch, vegetarian, of course, at a riverside shack. As I gingerly eat my rice with a soup of roselle leaf, leaving the “vegetarian shrimp and vegetarian pork"—a thing in these parts, a soldier in a uniform comes along and sits down with us. He has a soft, feminine face and beautiful eyelashes. He sets his gun down across his lap as a boy might a beloved guitar. There has been a miscommunication. He is from some other unit and the folks at the first gate should have informed him but didn’t. He wants to know what a kala is doing here. Si Thu repeats my nearly-Buddhist credentials. He is convinced. We offer him a smoke and an M-150, a wildly popular energy drink that comes in medicinal-looking vials and has high amounts of taurine, caffeine and sugar. He accepts the offer. We learn he is 24 years old. He joined the army when he was 14. “When we had to go for marches, my rifle used to drag along the ground and make a lot of noise," he tells us. They had to switch out his unwieldy M16 with the more flexible AK47. I take his picture, we shake hands and say goodbye.

Soe Win, recruited by the Myanmar army as a child. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint.
Soe Win, recruited by the Myanmar army as a child. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint.

On the ride back, I finally feel relaxed enough to ask our escort his name. It’s Ashi. Ashi tells us he was formerly a KNU soldier but then joined the DKBA when the split happened in 1994. He shows us pictures of his wife. Si Thu ribs him by saying she is sexy. Ashi blushes sweetly. He shows us pictures of his three children. I ask him if they will go to Dhamma school when they grow up. Yes, they will. He shows us pictures of KNU classrooms where he was trained; he points out the Americans, the Canadians, the French who helped train them—the Karen cause was a global human rights cause celebre in its time, almost the way the Rohingya issue is today. I ask him why he is not carrying a gun. It’s okay to not carry a gun in the downtown, he says. “Here everything is under control. Only when we go a bit outside, we have to carry." As we drive back to the checkpost, I tell him he would make a better tour guide than a soldier. He laughs shyly.

***

Myanmar, officially, is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The “union" is a possessive pronoun, like an insistence on saying “my boyfriend" or “my wife" when someone is insecure about the relationship. The country is divided into “regions" and “states", and some self-administered “zones". Regions are what the tatmadaw fully control and in which the population is predominantly Bamar and practises Buddhism. States are where most of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups live, the largest of whom are the Kayin (or Karen), Kayah (or Karenni), Kachin, Chin, Mon, Shan and Rakhine. Each has myriad sub-groups and, typically, an armed group representing their various interests. Ever since independence, the government, which has always been Bamar-led irrespective of whether it was democratic or dictatorial, has had to negotiate with this fractured “union". Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the current head of Myanmar’s government, and often cast as father of independent Burma, held the first formal talks with the ethnic groups back in 1948. Suu Kyi has declared a new peace process and called it the 21st Century Panglong, after the place where her father held his talks. A Union Peace Conference was held this year but was overshadowed by fresh military offensives in Kachin state; the Kachin Independence Army has thus far refused to sign the NCA. It is not the only one. The only pathway to comprehensive political negotiations is through the agreement and it is complicated. The armed groups trust Suu Kyi but not the tatmadaw. The tatmadaw is still controlled by the generals and not by the elected government because of the way the constitution is framed; it is unclear how the relationship between the two will affect the peace process.

May Say in her kitchen. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint
May Say in her kitchen. Photo: Abhijit Dutta/Mint

If and when this elusive peace descends upon all corners of Myanmar, it would open up completely new frontiers for travel. Thandaung Gyi, a colonial-era hill station in Kayin state, is an example of what is possible. From nearby Toungoo, the road to Thandaung Gyi winds slowly up to 4,800ft above sea level. The air grows cool, and the sight of pine trees shuffles with clear views of hills peeking from behind each other’s shoulders. There, I meet a Karen couple, May Say and Moe Zar, who lived in Singapore for 18 years and returned recently to tend to their coffee plantation and run a restaurant-cum-B&B. KNU is the main authority in Thandaung Gyi, but the town is also home to a Myanmar military academy. There is an arrangement. The military gets half of the produce from the coffee and tea plantations, but the rest is for the locals. “There has been peace here since 1997," May Say tells me, although till very recently, foreigners were not allowed to stay overnight. She expects a busy season ahead. I want to buy the coffee she grows, so she sends me to her grandmother’s house, which doubles up as a roaster, and grandma Say tells me about Prayer Mountain, a small hill with a Baptist church upon it that the locals visit on special occasions. When I reach the mountain top with a steel cross and a small shrine with photos of Christ in it, I find both local Karens and Bamar tourists taking selfies against the open views of forested mountain shoulders. The church makes its own wine, and I buy some to take back. We have a traditional Karen lunch at May Say’s restaurant before heading our way. We had a long way to go and we were late.

That evening, we drove on bendy hill roads in pitch dark, under a pre-human night sky spawning stars like ocean krill in an austral summer. Our brake was singing so we stopped often at small villages to throw water at it, chatting awhile with the folk. At some point, we are stopped by three M16-wielding rebel soldiers and asked, very politely, to pay up some whisky money (we didn’t mind. The amount was a trifle, it was a cold night and they had a nice fire going. We ended up sharing smokes and learning to say “thank you" in their dialect.) The phone signal stayed stubbornly out of reach. Galaxies distended milkily.

All things considered, it felt like peace.

****

Who are the Karen?

The Karen people are indigenous to the Myanmar-Thailand border region and are one of the largest non-Bamar ethnic groups in Myanmar, although estimates tend to vary as to how many (from 3-7 million). There are numerous sub-groups that constitute the Karen population and each sub-group typically has a distinct language and culture. While there is a “Karen state" and many of its inhabitants are Karen, there are many Karen people who live in other states or regions of Myanmar, most densely in Tanintharyi and Irrawaddy regions, and in Mon State.

Missionary activity in the 19th and the 20th century led to a large number of conversions and today about 20% of Karen are Christians. The remainder practise Buddhism or a combination of traditional animist rituals and Buddhism. There are a very small number of Karen Muslims.

In 1989, the military government, which referred to itself as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, promulgated a change in nomenclature. Burma became Myanmar while cities such as Rangoon and Moulmein were renamed Yangon and Mawlamyine. Karen, an autonym for the ethnic group, was substituted with the Burmese exonym “Kayin" and thus Karen State became Kayin State. Karen people continue to refer to themselves as Karen.

***

Timeline of the Karen conflict

1881: Formation of the Karen National Association, an expression of growing Karen nationalist sentiment.

1947: The Karen National Association evolved into Karen National Union, uniting a variety of smaller Karen organizations that had formed over the years. An armed organization was also formed, called the Karen National Liberation Army.

1948: Burma gains independence from the British.

1949: Battle of Insein marks the beginning of Karen conflict.

1994: Democratic Buddhist Karen Army created as a breakaway group from the Christian-led KNU. It is headquarted in Myiang Gyi Ngu and its abbot becomes the chairman (later chief patron).

2010: The DKBA is dissolved, and the majority of its soldiers are absorbed into a Karen militia outfit of the Myanmar army, called the Border Guards Force. A renegade faction breaks away and forms the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA-Brigade 5).

2012: Bilateral ceasefire deal signed between KNU and the U Thein Sein-led civilian government.

2015: Both KNU and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army become signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. A new version of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army is reconstituted (Kyaw Htet faction) out of officers sacked from the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and some soldiers of the original DKBA who refused to be absorbed into the Border Guards Force. It pledges allegiance to U. Thuzana, the abbot of Myaing Gyi Ngu.

2016: The KNU and Democratic Buddhist Benevolent Army participate in the Union Peace Conference, an initiative led by Aung San Suu Kyi in collaboration with the Myanmar Armed Forces to progress the peace process.

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Ratings

Child friendliness: 2 star

The caves require some amount of uneven climbing. Should be okay for children older than 10 years. Safety is always a concern.

Senior friendliness: 3 star

As for children so for seniors. They will enjoy the sights within Hpa-an but it is inadvisable to go too far out.

LGBT friendliness: 2 star

No specific threat but it is best to be discreet.

***

TRIP PLANNER

Go

Fly to Yangon and drive to Hpa-An, which is the base to explore Kayin State. It’s a 5-6-hour drive depending on the road taken and traffic, and it might be good to break overnight in Thaton.

Stay

In Hpa-An, Galaxy Motel offers clean rooms, en suite bathrooms and free breakfast for $18 (around Rs1,220) a night. The owner, Kim Myo Thit, treats guests like family. If you are going to Thandaung Gyi, ask for May Say at the Amazing restaurant and she will guide you to a bed and breakfast.

Eat

In Hpa-An you will be eating Chinese or Burmese at one of two restaurants downtown (across each other). I got a stomach upset after eating at one. Karen food is less spicy and less oily than Burmese food, but I could find it only in Thandaung Gyi.

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