Myanmar in Focus: Hpa-an
For this month’s edition of Myanmar in Focus, Tour Mandalay are pleased to feature Hpa-an, a bustling market town located approximately five hours south east of Yangon by car.
Regardless of whether you’re planning to drive straight there, or stop off at Kyaiktiyo to view the magnificent Golden Rock, a stop at the dried fish stalls en-route comes highly recommended. These can be found dotted along the roadway a short distance away from the capital of Bago.
It was clear to see that these businesses were all family owned, with two to three, maybe even four generations helping out each other with the operation of the shop front. Even though the temperature was sweltering and the smell from the dried fish unbearable, it was clear to see that they took great pride in their produce and worked strong as a family unit. The following shot captures one of the shop stall workers swinging her child around joyously under the shade.
The amount of fish on sale was remarkable – as you can see in the below image, there was literally mountains of the stuff! It was even attracting the local chickens, who we guess are treated now and again.
Just across the road from the above stalls, Tour Mandalay spotted local fisherman looking to add to their already impressive collection. The catch would then be prepared for drying on the bamboo racks which you can see to the left of the image below.
From here, the journey to Hpa-an takes approximately three hours on a relatively well maintained road that will take you directly into the heart of Myanmar’s deep south.
Most people do not associate a trip to Hpa-an with relaxation, however Tour Mandalay feel this is about to change. Our property for the next three nights was the picture perfect Hpa-an Lodge, a luxury boutique property with 18 Karen-style chalets located at the very foot of Zwekabin Mountain. Located well away from the town’s hustle and bustle, Hpa-an Lodge provides guests with a pleasant, natural oasis in which to unwind. As you can see from the reflection of the mountain in Hpa-an Lodge’s swimming pool below, it also guarantees an impressive view.
The view of Mount Zwegabin was just as awe-inspiring in the morning. The following shot was taken directly from the balcony of our chalet, just before we made our way down for a delicious morning breakfast.
As some of you reading this may already be aware, Hpa-an is particularly famous for its sacred limestone caves, some of which need to be added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites asap. Take Kawgun Cave for example, a natural marvel which houses a range of rare Buddhist artwork dating back to the 7th century. Here you will find literally thousands of Buddha images, all carved into different shapes, sizes and positions. Some of the images are positioned at least 5-6 metres high so one can only imagine how much time and dedication it would have taken to position them there.
Further inside the cave can be found 3 large reclining Buddhas, all of whom were surrounded by smaller Buddhist images and an army of loyal devotees.
The smoke from the incense and candles created a peaceful setting from which to enjoy the impressive range of rare Buddhist artefacts. One of our favourite shots captured here was the one below – here you can see a local admiring the cave’s artwork whilst a cloud of incense smoke slowly floats past. It’s clear to see that he was clearly in the middle of a special moment.
From Kawgun Cave, it’s only a short drive into Hpa-an’s small, yet lively town. One of the main attraction here, assuming you can get yourself out of bed early enough, is the lively morning street market. Whilst the goods sold here are geared towards locals, it provides the perfect opportunity to brush shoulders with Hpa-an’s friendly population.
Another great spot to carry out a bit of people spotting is Kan That Yar Lake – a vast expanse of water with a stilted bridge perfectly positioned in the centre. As you can see from the image below, the centre point has been designed to mirror the shape of the mountain behind.
In hindsight, we would have changed the order of our tour to witness sunrise at Kan That Yar Lake, followed by a visit to the morning market. For breakfast, we would recommend getting a takeaway box prepared at Hpa-an Lodge.
A tall clock tower can be found a short walk or drive away from the market – whilst its history is not as long or impressive as some of the area’s major attraction, the locals are very proud of its presence and it’s certainly worth a quick photo stop.
Just around the corner from the clock tower is Shweyinhmyaw Paya, a temple which looks out across Thanlwin (formerly Salween) River. Compared to most temples we know, Shweyinhmyaw Paya had an extremely laid back vibe – we found people reading the daily paper, children playing in the hallways and families sat outside eating lunch. One of our favourite sights however was the following – a young girl plays a game on her mobile phone, whilst her brothers peer over in envy.
Due to its proximity to Thailand, it’s safe to say that Hpa-an has no shortage of Thai restaurants. Having opted for a Myanmar-style set at Hpa-an Lodge – which was delicious btw – on our first evening, we decided to eat at a restaurant called Golden Cock. Whilst it might not sound very Thai, the food served here was authentic, fresh and tasty.
From here we then decided to venture back to Hpa-an Lodge to put our feet up and unwind in the pool for a while. The sun was belting down on us in full force at this point, so it provided the perfect excuse to crack open a beer and relax underneath the shade of a poolside umbrella.
At approximately 5pm, our driver picked us up from Hpa-an Lodge and drove us directly to Kyauk Ka Lat Paya. Located 5-7 minutes away from Hpa-an Lodge by car, it would actually be possible to cycle here using one of the property’s rentable mountain bikes – the road is extremely dangerous after dark however, so Tour Mandalay would like to suggest avoiding doing this at sunset.
As you can see from the image above, the view of Hpa-an’s countryside from the top of Kyauk Ka Lat is simply breathtaking. In total, we spent over one hour admiring the almost 360-degree panoramic. The view of Kyauk Ka Lat from the bottom wasn’t too bad either. The following was taken from the walkway leading to the entrance of Kyauk Ka Lat.
After an extremely peaceful night’s sleep, Tour Mandalay woke up early the following morning to explore Sadan Cave. Whilst it’s fair to say the artwork on display in Kawgun Cave is more impressive, the grand size of Sadan’s entrance will humble even the most experienced of travellers.
For one of the best photo opportunities the cave has to offer – turn around just as your about to walk inside the cave’s inner tunnel. Doing so will provide you with a marvellous view of the main pagoda and the cave’s craggy interior.
Before continuing further into the cave, it’s advisable that you carry a torch seeing as some of the areas that lead through the cave’s tunnels are unlit and the route is pitch black. It’s also important to mention that there’s a large amount of bat droppings inside so be prepared to get your feet dirty!
As you can see from the images above and below, part of the passage is lit by powerful bulbs. This not only helps to light the passage, but it also helps to show off the cave’s palette of colours and fascinating rock formations.
Approximately 30 minutes later, bearing in mind that we stopped a few times to take photos, we reached an opening signalling the exit of the cave. Whilst it’s possible to walk back the same way you came, most people return to the entrance using the shared paddle boats, which there were certainly no shortage of. This costs 3000 kyat (approx $3) for foreign tourists and 2000 kyat (approx $2) for Myanmar nationals.
The part of the journey most people look forward to is the part that takes you through the underwater cave. The ceiling gets pretty low in places so be sure to watch out for your head.
Once you’ve passed through the cave, it’s then a slow journey through a narrow water way, surrounded by luscious green fields on either side. The boat’s required to float slowly so be sure to bring some sun protection to avoid getting burnt.
From the point where the boat drops you off, it’s then necessary to walk for 5-10 minutes through picturesque fields before arriving back at the cave’s entrance. Halfway along this route we came across a couple of locals and their dog, happily resting in the shade of a tree.
With a view like this, you can hardly blame them!
For anyone looking to escape the typical tourist trail and experience an area that has just opened up, Hpa-an is a must! Before the opening of Hpa-an Lodge late last year, it’s fair to say that Hpa-an has never been viewed as a destination in which to relax. Now that’s about to change. Rather than spending 1-2 nights here, why not look at spending 3-4? A trip to Myanmar’s Deep South is always going to be hectic, especially if you’re looking to combine the cities of Yangon, Bago and Mawlamyine. Whilst they’re of course completely different, Hpa-an now boasts similar characteristics to Inle Lake in the sense that it provides the perfect blend of adventure and relaxation.