Nestled down in the depths of the South East of the vast country of Myanmar, Hpa An is a destination that only the committed travellers venture down to. Its arduous journey and distance from the capital, as well as the main backpacker route, means when talking about this destination, you receive many blank expressions.
Needless to say, because of this, the town’s tourism industry is quite basic, with locals still amused and entertained by westerners and many lacking basic English (although still trying to be helpful-despite the language barrier!) making the town still authentic, as tourism has not made a significant impact on the place- yet.
There is not much to see in the town itself; a local mosque proudly chanting melodically to all those who will listen next to a bustling local market, dozens of local shops selling various hardware and other bric brac to suit daily needs, as well as cheap noodle cafes home to steaming broths and sticky tables. It’s easy to get lost within the town centre, where sights look similar and monks eagerly enquire, “Where you from?” on every street corner. Well at least I managed to, a number of times. Hitching a ride with a rusty truck that creaked past me, I leapt onto the back and shared the woven mat with napping Grandma’s and I was taken in the right direction I needed to go. Rejecting my haste of giving some money to the family and pinching my love handles bemusedly, (I really must get rid of those) they let me off the truck, waving me goodbye as I headed into the town centre.
If you have some time whilst you are in Hpa An, it’s worth a stroll along Kan Than Yar lake, where hopeful fisherman sit and wait patiently, and couples sit nearby, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. With the reflection of the voluptuous mountains behind onto the smooth shimmering surface, the lake is a calm and peaceful spot away from the noise and commotion of the town, where shops seem to pile on top of each other, jostling for space. Shwe Yin Myaw Pagoda (the only pagoda in town) is worth a wander around too. A view of a river stretches out into the distance reaching Mawlamyine, where temples and pagodas are in abundance. It’s a wonderful spot to catch sunset too.
What really draws travellers to Hpa An are the numerous amount of caves that are dottted around the outskirts of town, some miles apart from each other. It’s quite difficult to locate the caves with little signs and treacherous roads, so renting a motorbike and visiting them yourself can become a challenging task. Luckily, the hostel I stayed at, Soe Brothers, organises an all-day cave tour which visit six caves around the area. It is a long and sticky day, but it’s an incredible experience. You visit religious sites and sacred monuments that are hidden within the depths of enchanting cascading caves, which continuously drip water as you wander around, tinkering in the background, playing their own tune.
The Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, is a pagoda embedded into a suspended rock in the air, balancing on a precarious piece of rock, as if a natural piece of Jenga. A mystical and breath-taking sight.
Another favourite of mine was Sadan Cave. Walking in to the open space filled with glistening Buddha’s and ancient holy images crumbling off the walls, the cave is as if any other cave you have visited throughout the day. However, descending further and further into the darkness; past stagnant rock pools and over rickety bridges, you reach the other side of the cave. Where a bright clear opening invites you in, where thousands of bats hang upside down, sleeping serenely, and where at precisely 6pm, hundreds of bats flutter out into the sunset. A bewitching sight to see, I can only imagine.
Taking a two thousand kyat boat trip to the start of a nearby cave, you float under a dangerously low level wall of solid rock, narrowly missing your head as you quickly duck for cover. Be careful to not shine a torch up into the black darkness that looms above you, the sight of hundreds of bats nestled in gaping holes, lurking within rock faces, just might terrify you. The tour can be organised through either Soe Brothers or Soe Brothers 2 Guesthouse and varies in price depending on how many people sign up to the tour and share a tuk tuk with you.
Another wonderful thing to do in Hpa An is hike up the monstrous Mt.Zwegabin. “Only” 740 metres above sea level, it doesn’t sound too steep, but the numerous sharp steps that jaggedly line the path in front of you, are a little soul destroying after a while. I guess the hike can be described as if waxing your legs, extremely painful, but rewarding as you admire your efforts, nonetheless. Climbing over two thousand steps, (I say steps in a very loose manner) you reach a humble monastery peering out at the peak of the mountain. The views are stunning;, picturesque pagodas merge with peaceful paddy fields and lakes line the horizon. The magnificent mountains stand next to Mt Zwegabin, shoulder to shoulder, showing off their curves and smooth ridges.
There is a restaurant hidden amongst the monastery- although expensive, after a gruelling trek up its face, a chilled coca cola and fried rice at 7 thousand kyat is heavenly. A shared taxi with others can be as little as two thousand kyat each, a return journey from town to the mountain. There is no entry free on Mt Zwegabin and the easiest way to ascend this beast is through Lumbini Gardens, where thousands of Buddha statues line orderly to attention.
I stayed in Soe Brother’s 2 Guesthouse, a little out of town but the guesthouse is modern and clean. Double beds with AC and a private bathroom cost 20 dollars a night, including breakfast which was quite a luxury. Coming directly from London to Soe Brothers 2 in Hpa An, after two flights and a day bus, I craved comfortability and thus, I decided to splash out on my first destination in Myanmar.
The guesthouse is a little out of town which can be a hindrance at times, but it is walking distance to the night market and has a delicious “Thai food and coffee” restaurant nearby- it’s the restaurant that has pictures of dishes all over its walls and MTV blaring out. The staff are super friendly and each time I went, each dish was equally as delicious! If travelling on more of a budget, check into Soe Brothers 1 in town, where single rooms with fans and shared bathrooms are 5 dollars. A little more rough around the edges, it still has a friendly backpacker vibe.