Visiting the Pindaya Caves in Shan State

A Day in the Dark

Burma, Myanmar, Buddhism, caves, tourism, Shan State

The extraordinary array of images Pindaya Caves in Shan State provide a singular spectacle. Click the box below to see more images. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

PINDAYA, Shan State — Shan State has no shortage of attractions, but few can offer the unusual sights you are likely to behold during a trip into the depths of a limestone mountain near the southern town of Pindaya.

The Pindaya Caves are not so much a natural wonder as an intriguing pilgrimage site, where you can see thousands of Buddhist statues that have accumulated since the spot first became a place of worship sometime in the 18th century.

When you enter the main cave (there are three altogether, although one is only open for religious holidays), don’t be surprised to see a pair of sweating Buddha images. For some reason, moisture only appears on these two statues, making them especially popular with pilgrims, who compete with each other for a chance to wipe away the “perspiration” that constantly covers them. They do this because they genuinely believe this act ensures that their wishes will soon be granted.

As you come close to the end of the 490-foot walking tour of the cave, you will also witness another remarkable sight: Buddhist devotees enthusiastically collecting clay under a signpost that reads “Black Clay Hillock.” The reason for this is that this is the only place in the Pindaya area where the earth is black instead of red. The devout take this as a sign that the clay is sacred and can be used to ward off evil spirits.

“It’s very hard to explain,” says U Khin Maung Oo, president of the caves’ board of trustees. “Some people claim that their wishes have been fulfilled, so they just keep coming back for more.”

Even if you don’t believe in the magical properties of sacred sweat and soil, you are sure to be amazed by the sheer number and variety of Buddha images in the cave, which is officially known as the Shwe U Min (“Golden Cave”) Pagoda.

According to U Khin Maung Oo, who conducted a survey in 2006, the cave contains nearly 7,000 Buddha statues, although other estimates put the number at more than 8,000. They come in every imaginable size, and are made from many different materials, including marble, lacquer and wood. One thing they have in common is that almost all are covered in gold leaf, applied to them by thousands of worshippers.

Inside the cave, you will constantly feel the watchful gaze of the Buddha, whether you are navigating the maze of statues, sitting under huge stalactites, or carefully making your way along narrow stairs or a terrace dampened by water droplets dripping from rock crevices.

The cave can be visited at any time of year except the rainy season, but if possible, it’s best to come this month, March, when the pagoda’s trustees hold a six-day festival (March 11 – 16) that is one of the largest in the state.

Tourists who visit at this time can check out the festival’s famous mile-long market and watch traditional Myanmar dance troupes performing under centuries-old banyan trees in the pagoda compound.

Early visitors will also have a chance to experience the culture of the Danu, the main ethnic group in this area, who give traditional music and dance performances, but only on the eve of the full-moon day of March.


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