Photo: A stunning religious monument.

Kawgun Cave

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One of the region’s most spectacular caves, Kawgun is found in a small limestone outcrop just over the river from Hpa-an off the Thaton Highway. Amazing Buddhist carvings and stucco work line the shallow caverns and limestone cliffs, and are said to date back as far as the seventh century. A few ancient Hindu images remain and bear witness to the area’s former religious diversity.

Initially then this was a sacred site for the area’s earlier Mon inhabitants — it was said to have been originally created by a Mon queen — but it has been added to and expanded for some 1,400 years. The main cave itself is small and shallow — nearby Saddar or Shan State’s Pindaya this is not. It houses various seated and reclining Buddha images, but what is spectacular is that almost every inch of the cavern’s walls and roof, plus the adjacent limestone cliffs, are covered in red-painted stucco images.

The entrance to Kawgun Cave. Photo taken in or around Kawgun Cave, Hpa-an, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

The entrance to Kawgun Cave. Photo: Mark Ord

These small, intricate images are extremely fragile. We seriously doubt that any of the ones you see today are anything ancient; as old ones have crumbled, new ones have been added. Inside, the images are afforded the cave’s protection but the cliffside ones are open to the elements, not to mention the site’s considerable monkey and pigeon population. In addition, blasting at neighbouring quarry sites is said to have sadly caused substantial damage.

Quite a few of them. Photo taken in or around Kawgun Cave, Hpa-an, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Quite a few of them. Photo: Mark Ord

Many of the carvings and stucco creations are visibly crumbling before our eyes as not only the wind and rain undermine the mortar but the brittle limestone rocks themselves erode. The stalactites clinging to the rock-face dripping with water during showers reveal that the entire site is still very much a natural work in progress. We doubt there’s much anyone can do to protect such a vulnerable site, though new images will be added and several of the oldest carvings have been removed to a locked cage for protection. Some of the stone carvings found on site are still clearly very old though.

The sheltered cave roof is in good condition. Photo taken in or around Kawgun Cave, Hpa-an, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

The sheltered cave roof is in good condition. Photo: Mark Ord

A sprawling Buddhist temple complex has evolved around the cave and while there’s a few snack and drink stalls outside be very careful because there is a significant population of macaques!

The temple is reached by taking the Mawlamyine highway out of Hpa-an. Upon reaching the Than Lwin Bridge, a few kilometres out of town, turn right onto the bridge in the direction of Thaton and then take the first road on the left. This winds through Kawgun village to the entrance of the temple at the foot of the limestone outcrop. It is signposted in English.

A mixture of free-standing Buddha and stucco images. Photo taken in or around Kawgun Cave, Hpa-an, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

A mixture of free-standing Buddha and stucco images. Photo: Mark Ord

While it’s an easy bicycle ride out of town, if you have a motorbike you can push on down the Thaton road to Bayin Nyi, another visit-worthy cave temple. Going back to the bridge and taking a right leads you down past Zwegabin, with the turn offs for Kyauk Kalat, Lumbini and Saddar. Kawgun is generally featured on Hpa-an guesthouse day trips, which is probably the most economical and practical way to visit. If two cave temples visits sees you reach your personal saturation point, then we’d advise putting both Saddar and Kawgun on your list.

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