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To extract the most out of a Pindaya trip, we recommend arriving on two legs or two wheels – trekking or riding a bicycle from the town of Heho. Those arriving on a visit to Pindaya under the cover of night are recommended to rise early and make the most of Shan State’s crisp and cool mornings. Accompany the townsfolk on a brisk walk around the lake or, alternatively, settle down in one of the tea shops and dip ee jah kwe dough sticks into a cup of sweet tea.
To the canorous sound of the Buddhist dhama emitted from grainy television sets, while laden trucks begin to chug up and down the mountains, Pindaya shakes itself awake …
Pindaya itself is an attractive and comparatively wealthy town of roughly 50, 000 inhabitants. The town is known for the giant Banyan trees that visitors to Pindaya will notice peppered over the town’s festival fields below the Shwe Umin Golden Cave.
One of the most pleasant things to see in Pindaya is the Hsin Gaun Kyaung – the “Elephant Head Monastery” – on the edge of one of the hills that surround the town. The little boutique hotel Cottage House is a delightful place for lunch in or an evening tipple (better yet – stay the night!) and the bamboo restaurants Wah Te is breezy, jolly, and offers expansive views out over the lake. The morning wet market is perhaps our favourite in Myanmar: clean, airy, and plenty of spots to settle down for a big bowl of noodles.
Trekking is one of the top things to do in Pindaya. There are now a selection of ‘Danu Trails’, up into the hills surrounding the town. On these one-day, two-day, and three-day treks, travellers can meet, eat with, and sleep amongst the farming villagers of the Danu and Palaung ethnic groups. Longer treks can also be made to Ywangan, Kalaw, Indein, and Inle Lake.
Pindaya is very much green tea country. Steaming cuppas will revive flagging spirits when trekking through the tea fields and munching on the celebrated tea leaf salad (“lahpet thoke“) mid-hike is a pleasant way to pass the time with hospitable farmers.
Based in the hills of Pindaya is the Lost Tea Company, happy to offer those passing through a closer look at this most ubiquitous of Myanmar snacks. Also based in Pindaya is Plan Bee, a social enterprise facilitating advanced beekeeper training so to empower the people of Southern Shan and Kayah. They too can be visited when on a trek and their honey and halva must be sampled!
Looking over the town are the Pindaya Caves. The most famous of these caves is known as “Shwe Umin” – the Golden Cave.
Ephemerally lit, entering Shwe Umin can feel like stumbling upon Aladdin’s Cave. It is huge and bedecked with glittering Buddha Images of all shapes, size and materials. The deeper one enters into the Shwe Umin Golden Cave the more ledges and floor space is available, allowing other merit-makers to donate yet more Images.
It is best to visit Shwe Umin in a small group in the early morning, as when it is quiet the sound of the rhythmic pattering of droplets falling from the stalactites and splattering on the stone floor provide an eerie backdrop. At the end of one of the caverns is a sign saying ‘Terminus of Cave’. Though the carpet on the floor ends, one can see that actually this is the start of a tunnel that curls downwards and out of sight. Not far along the tunnel further access has been barred after one adventurer, in the hope of finding the legendary passage that leads all the way to Bagan, wrigged down and was never seen again.
Legend and mythology is woven into the fabric of most destinations in Shan State and the Pindaya Caves are no exception …
Pindaya used to be called Pin-gu Ya, meaning ‘got the spider.’ This comes from the legend that when bathing in the lake many years ago, seven princesses lost track of the time and when night fell took shelter in a nearby cave. Unbeknown to them, this was the lair or a giant spider. When this oriental Shelob returned home the women were trapped and facing the imminent prospect of being gobbled up by the spider.
A travelling Shan prince fortunately heard the cries of the royal ladies (not to mention the ferocious grumbles of the spider’s stomach) and came to their rescue, vanquishing the spider with his bow and arrow at the mouth of the cave.
“Got the spider!” he exclaimed, and wasted no time in marrying the youngest and fairest of the princesses on the banks of the lake. Large statues of both spider and prince now welcome visitors at the foot of the stairs leading up to the Golden Cave.
Cycle into the Pindaya valley. Follow the Coffee & Tea Trail to see the elephants of Kalaw.