It was 3:30 in the afternoon. The sun was beginning to arch toward the west side, but the day’s heat still lingered in the air. My shirt was drenched. Sweat oozed out of every pore. I never knew my shins could sweat like this.
Unfortunately, these were the absolute last things on my mind. My body was screaming at me, giving me all the warning signs. My legs ached and my thighs began to shake uncontrollably. Why had I agreed to climb a mountain that’s over 2,300 feet?
I was so ill-prepared for this, especially after a full night of entertaining surprisingly delicious and smooth Mandalay rum. The hike sounded like such a good idea at the time, when I was relaxing on an outdoor balcony with my new friends from Argentina and France.
“Mount Zwegabin is one of the most sacred mountains in Myanmar,” the Argentinian started.
“And think of the amazing panoramic view at the top of the monastery,” the other said.
They assured me, “It’s just some stairs. Local elders do it all the time. You should have no issues at all…”
Yes. Just a couple of steps, I encouraged myself. Many people have done it before. How hard could it be?
It was hard.
We chose to leave Hpa An, the town closest to the mountain at 3 pm. That way, we’d ascend after the scorching sun had peaked directly above us. We also strategically opted for the less strenuous and stair-focused East Side of the mountain.
Encouraging sights greeted us when we arrived at the base camp of the site. Small restaurants and snack stands lined the path. Children ran around joyfully, while groups of families, young and old, lingered about.
See, this is a family activity, it really can’t be that difficult, I reassured myself.
Relieved and relaxed, we began to climb. The first section was a breeze. We chatted, laughed, and distracted ourselves with entertaining stories. Within no time, we arrived at the first pit stop. Surprised and impressed with ourselves, we continued on.
Little did we know, the fatigue would hit us all at once. One minute we were laughing and having a great time, and the next we were all quiet, focusing on breathing and not losing our footing on the rocky steps.
For a period, the three of us were silent. Lost in our own thoughts. We simultaneously realized how tired and how far from the finish line we were.
From what we’d gathered from previous hikers, it was going to be around a two-hour climb — and we’d only been at it for half an hour.
Eventually, we began to liven up again. We were in this together and we would be each other’s crutches. We had aimed to be at the top for the sunset. But with the overcast cloud coverage and exhaustion clinging to us, our new goal was just to make it to the summit. A sunset would be the cherry on top.
Moving forward, we encouraged each other and celebrated our small victories — like making it to another checkpoint or passing a group of elders.
Through these thigh-burning smiles, the minutes and steps drifted away from us.
Our first glimpse of hope came to us in a form of a radio tower.
“Radio towers are only built at the highest points of a mountain,” one of my companions screamed.
Giddiness and pure relief flooded over me. We were almost there.
We somehow found our second wind and hobbled up the mountain with renewed vigor. Over the next 20 minutes, every little sign of civilization made us scream with joy. A small shrine, garbage cans, or rainbow coloured-cloth streamers made me delirious with happiness. Finally, we saw the sign we were all looking for — carefully carved steps that lead to a giant archway, welcoming and congratulating us on our feat.
We’d made it.
After taking our socks and shoes off at the monastery, we took a quick tour around and found the best spot to catch the sunset. A few other hikers had made their way to the top as well. We greeted each other with nods and the same idiotic, exhausted grin.
Somehow, at the top, everyone was instantly friends. We bonded over the fact that we had just endured the same painful and treacherous two hours.
Perched beside a wall, looking down at the flat land before me, my heart rate calmed. A fresh, cool breeze hit my face and the sweet smell of crisp air filled my nostrils. Peace and serenity rolled over me and, just like that, everything I endured on the journey up rolled off my shoulders.
Then, as if the skies knew what we were waiting for, the clouds opened up just as the blood orange sun was about to hit the horizon.
The land in front of me basked in a warm evening glow. The snaking rivers shimmered and flowed in tune with the gentle breeze up in the mountains.
Like most things in Myanmar, it didn’t need any embellishment or modern technological enhancement. It was raw. It was natural. It was perfection I’ve never seen anywhere else.