A day trip to Alaungdaw Kathapa

On one of the last days of 2015, my parents and I woke up at 2 in the morning to get a bus to Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park. Alaungdaw Kathapa is the largest national park in Myanmar, and a place where people can go on elephant rides. The national park is named after Maha Kathapa, one of Buddha’s disciples, and also contains a shrine dedicated to him.

We had arranged bus tickets a few days prior to our day trip, and the minibus was supposed to come pick us up from our hotel at 3am. We were in the lobby at 2:50am, but the bus didn’t arrive until 3:30am. This was the first, but not last, hiccup of the day.

Sleep-deprived and irritated by the constant tardiness of travel services in Myanmar, when the bus finally came, I curled up in a corner and tried (unsuccessfully) to sleep. When we got on the bus, my stepfather asked the driver why they were late, and the driver replied that he had to wait for other passengers who weren’t ready when he had picked them up. If you are traveling on a mini-bus in Myanmar, the driver will wait for you if you are late or aren’t ready, at the expense of frustrating other passengers though.

The bus played Burmese preachings by a Buddhist monk as we drove to the national park, and so, it was utterly impossible for me to get any sleep on the way there. It was a 5 hour trip, including a half an hour stop at a roadside cafe. It was an extremely bumpy ride during some parts, and when I opened my eyes periodically during the bumpy parts, I saw that the bus was actually driving over rocks and through streams, showing how vastly undeveloped some parts of Myanmar still are.

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Parking area at Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park

We arrived at 8am, and disembarked, stretching our limbs from the dull ache that 5 hours on a bumpy bus ride had given us. The driver instructed us to be back at the parking area and find the bus by 10am, for our return to Monywa. If we left at 10am, we would get back to Monywa at 3pm.

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Starting the walk from the parking area

From the parking area, the shrine was supposed to be a 40 minute uphill hike. For people that didn’t fancy an uphill walk, there were elephants which could be ridden on. I had been looking forward to an elephant ride, but in the morning there were too many people lining up, so my parents and I walked (which I was glad for later on).

Pedestrians walked on the same path as elephants, and would have to move to one side when they walked past. With paved roads that weren’t bumpy at all, it was a fairly easy hike, and many elderly people could be seen walking.

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An elephant on its way down the hill

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Initially, I had been looking forward very much to visiting Alaungdaw Kathapa, mainly because of the elephant ride. While we were walking up to the shrine though, I watched the elephants carrying passengers going past, and began to pity the creatures, who had numbers branded into their skin.

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While walking, we passed a stream, which was a site of many photos for people undertaking the pilgrimage.

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My parents lagged behind as I walked uphill, and gradually we got separated by the crowds. The paths were smoother than I had expected, and were easy to walk on, but you had to keep your eye out for smatterings of elephant dung, which was army green in colour, and the size of a person’s head.

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After about 30 minutes, I arrived at the top of the hill, where the shrine was. About 30 feet from the shrine, there were stalls with people who directed you to take your shoes off and leave them there.

Given that there was elephant dung strewn all over the path, I was reluctant to take my shoes off and walk barefoot, but rules are rules. Near the shrine, there was a toilet which you had to pay to use, and it became extremely crowded around this part. Naturally it was a squat toilet.

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Noisiest section of the shrine, where people were ringingĀ  bells

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The above photo was right at the end of the pathway, and the busiest area and main attraction. Housed in here was a reclining Buddha, but I unfortunately couldn’t get close enough to take a picture because women were not allowed at the front, but my mother managed to get some pictures.

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In Myanmar, there are many sections of shrines which are male only, which is unfortunate.

Passing on, I explored the other areas of the shrine. There was a staircase, which I ascended to find some more Buddhas, and an elephant training ground at the top of the hill.

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After seeing everything and walking back down, I found my parents who had just reached the shrine after lagging behind, and we walked back down together. Despite the bus driver telling us to be back by 10am, the others in our group did not come back for another two hours, leaving my stepfather, my mother and I to wait in the heat. The others also would not have come back at that time had the driver not left to go find them. When they did come back, they came back muttering about how inconsiderate we were and that they were on holiday. Biased as I am, I really thought it was more inconsiderate of them to keep us waiting for hours, as the driver had specified to be back at a certain time. This was an incident that really annoyed my stepfather, and not the first time that we had been inconvenienced by local Burmese people while on our travels. Needless to say, the mentality of many local Burmese people left me with a negative impression, and further increased my sense of culture shock and alienation. Despite that, Alaungdaw Kathapa was one of my favourite parts of the trip, and I highly recommend a visit, despite the 4 hour bumpy ride.

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