You should not miss Hpa An, Myanmar
Regardless of how amazing it is in the north of Myanmar, as the title goes, you shouldn’t miss the south of Myanmar either in particular Hpa An (pronounced as ‘pa-an’).
Why Hpa An?
Hpa An is the capital of Kayin State. This little picturesque town is certainly an undeveloped destination compared to Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake. Less crowded and touristy yet Hpa An boasts a number of fascinating caves and mountains nearby that worth exploring. This is the reason why I came here, trying to add a little different vibes to my Myanmar trip which so far only consisted of limitless stupas, temples and pagodas.
Getting to Hpa An
Since we finished at Inle Lake, we have done extensive research that there is a direct bus from Nyaung Shwe to Hpa An, non-stop 14 hours departing at 4pm. There’s only one bus every day, it’s advised to book ahead. We booked our tickets in Kalaw. It’s an air-conditioned night bus but not those VIP ones. Several rest stops were made for food, toilet breaks, snacks…and teeth-brushing. Once we got here, we were surrounded by countless tuk-tuk drivers who were eager to bring us to our hostels.
My lodging in Hpa An
Everyone knows about Soe Brothers Guesthouse (I and II) in town. We shared a tuktuk with the other two backpackers. The staff were the least welcoming Burmese I’ve ever seen. The rooms are very basic with a very unstable air-conditioning which turned off every other 10 minutes.
There is a lady who seemed to be always in a bad mood, she would answer your questions with a poker face. When I asked about the tuk-tuk costs which she said it would be split among all the travellers, she later added that there is a minimum cost like they are charging 3,000 kyats per person for a bat-cave tour, for example. Anyways, she made no sense at all.
It seems that Soe Brothers Guesthouse is not the cheapest option in town, there are hostels and motels near the town centre which might offer more convenience and/or better hospitality.
So…What to do?
In town, a stroll along Thanlyin River in the morning would be nice, following a lunch in the local market near the clock tower. Hpa An is extremely hot and stuffy during the day. I could not stand the heat at all and felt very dehydrated. There’s no air-conditioned cafes or whatsoever equivalent nearby to chill, so if you feel the same, it’s wise to get back to the hostel and get out at about 4ish pm to the bat cave.
I wasn’t a fan of bats but my friend is. It turned out to be an absolute must see sight. The bat cave is a small cave that you cannot go in but you can go there for sunset when thousands and hundreds, literally, bats are flying out. Before you secure a spot to watch the bats flying, you can climb up via an almost vertical ladder all the way to the top of the rock to see the amazing views over the river and the bridge.
Taking into the account of sunset time, when the sky changes its colours, it’s time to go all the way down and sit just below the cave. It is said that the bats will fly all the way to Mawlamyaine to feed and come back every morning. When the bats are flying out, the locals start beating drums so the bats make interesting flying pattern. You will also feel the bat pee too! Entrance fee for bat cave: 1,000 kyats.
The highlight of the entire Hpa An visit is CAVES. The cave tour costs about 8,000 kyats each person. We were first off to Yathaypyan cave which in the end is my most favourite one. First, it’s free entrance, second it gives you a good view. Footwear, sleeveless and shorts are not allowed. Countless of buddha statues near the entrance but as you walk through the cave, there are no more buddha but some amazing rock formations. It is in absolute darkness so watch your steps.
Kawgun Cave charges 3,000 kyats but I found it less fascinating than the first one. It is again about the buddha statues but what’s more eye catching is those miniature buddha images and drawings on the wall.
Kyauk Kalat Pagoda is a stupa-topped limestone pinnacle setting on a ‘rock’ with Mt. Zwegabin as a backdrop. You can climb up to the top but we don’t feel like doing it. It was an extremely hot and stuffy day. I’d rather not get a heat stroke.
Lumbini garden, named after the Nepalese birthplace of Buddha, is home to hundreds neatly aligned buddha. It’s at the bottom of Mt. Zwegabin that’s why it’s also a starting point for the ascent. Mount Zwegabin is another point of interest. It takes at least 2 hours to hike up and requires lots of hardwork because of the unbearable heat. (Seriously, Hpa An is very hot compared to other parts of Myanmar.)
Before we head to the next cave, the tour actually comes with a dip in their local ‘bath’. I have no words to describe that bath but it looks like a big pond with unknown source of water. There are two ponds but women are only allowed to use the farther one. This is clearly a sexism. So if you fancy a dip, bring your swimsuit and a long scarf as women have to be dressed. This is again sexism!!!
Saddan cave should be the most popular one among all the caves. You will be welcomed by two elephant’s sculptures at the entrance. You ‘can’t’ really wear your shoes when walking inside the cave with buddha statues around you. But you need to bring your shoes with you if you are taking the boat across the lake, if not, you need to walk all the way back to the entrance.
The entrance to the cave is surrounded by buddha statues and stupas. About 200m away it got darker with minimal lights on, there are stalactites hanging around and you can see bats were sleeping. I would say the path in the cave was not fun to walk on. For some time I need to put my shoes on and my friend was giving me a big ‘NO!!! This is a sacred place!!’
I said ‘For buddha’s sake, it hurts!!!’
After almost a 20 minute of walk, finally I saw some lights. As I walked all the way down I reached a lake. Taking a boat across the lake costs 2,000 kyats per person, we took it and it lasted like 10 minutes. It was another 10 minute walk back to the entrance of the cave and then we headed to the last cave of the tour which is the least interesting.
The ride going to and back to the town was a very bumpy and dusty one. We asked for a drop off to the night market instead of our guesthouse. The market is just by the lake and everyone knows about it. The market offers an excellent choice of cheap food and drinks. This is highly recommended!
Another boat ride to Mawlamyaine
This boat ride is a joke. It lasted about 3 hours on a boat covered with a roof but removable plastic chairs depending on the number of passengers, costs 8,000 kyats which is a bit too much. Buses only costs about 2,500 kyats if I remember correctly. The scenery along the way…if you asked me…you can see it in Southeast Asia everywhere. Yet I made some new friends so it wasn’t that bad.
What’s in Mawlamyaine (Moulmein)?
This was the capital when the country is ruled by the British. To my surprise, the town itself is very run-down. No infrastructure or whatsoever. Sunset is probably the best one in Southeast Asia. Apparently, south of Myanmar is very famous for this magical hour. The best spot to watch this sunset is just right in front of Mawlamyaine Strand Hotel or along The Strand Road. You wouldn’t miss it.
Surprise – Surprise
I had an epic food poisoning on my first night of arrival, making my only full day were spent in my (comfy hotel) bed. I thought I was going to die in Myanmar. When I thought I was fine to dine outside, I felt so sick again. I grabbed the bin right next to me and started puking…The locals didn’t seem to care as if it happens every day.
My food poisoning symptoms didn’t last for too long. I regained my energy on the next day and hopped on the so-called air conditioned bus back to Yangon for my very last adventures. The bus was supposed to be air conditioned but the locals just opened all the windows! Can-you-believe-it! The 5 hours no AC bus lasted for like a day. I called it a local experience.