Hpa-An is the capital of Karen state, Myanmar, and famous for the amazing limestone rock formations containing many cave temples in its surroundings.
Boat ride from Mawlamyine
We travel to Hpa-An by boat from Mawlamyine. The boat ride is already a small adventure. Before leaving, we have to do some annoying haggling at the pier as the small boats (1 row = 1 person in a plastic chair) are completely overbooked. However, it turns out to be worth it! After a while we are on the boat, have the wind in our hair, the sun in our faces and a breath taking scenery around us. On the three hour trip, we pass through high limestone mountains protruding from vast rice paddies, reminding us of the formations we have seen in Railay, Thailand. The view of countless golden stupas, Buddha statues and monasteries is dazzling and we are getting more and more eager to explore from close up. Finally, we arrive at Hpa-An’s pier.
Sights around Hpa-An
In contrast to Mawlamyine, the city itself only has very few highlights (see further below for more details). The reason why visitors come to Hpa-An lies beyond the city borders. The Soe brothers’ guesthouse offers a full day (8.30 am – 6 pm) trip with a trikshaw, passing all the major sights in the surroundings. We decide to join this endeavor for the fair price of 5000 Kyat per person.
The first of many natural limestone caves we visit today is the Ya-The-Byan Cave on the western side of Twan-Lwin River. The interior of the cave is decorated with votive tablets (small Buddha reliefs in a row) and Buddha images, ranging from a few centimeters to nearly two meters in height. We find especially the votive tablets fascinating as they are stuck and carved into to the cave walls. Thanks to the lack of direct sunlight, the images and votive tablets are well preserved. They originate from the 17th century. Some of the Buddha images may even date back to the 13th century. The cave is quite large and leads to an opening on the other side. Outside the cave, monkeys are waiting for the visitors in the hope of getting food. Eating a banana without a furry friend on your neck turns out to be a serious challenge.
In contrast to Ya-The-Byan cave, the Kawlgoon cave is rather a large cavern. However, it takes the displayed artisanship to the next level. Again, the cave walls are decorated with votive tablets made of tiny clay buddhas, this time from the 7th century. The gallery is said to be constructed by King Manuaha after he suffered defeat in a battle and had to reside in the cavern. The votive tablets are very delicate work. Several newer Buddha statues stand, sit and lie around the walls in different poses.
Kyauk Ka Lap
For a change, the next sight we visit is not a cave, but instead a monastery surrounded by a lake with a stupa towering on a high rising limestone rock in its center. The view on the monastery is marvelous. Nature has provided a unique spot of beauty and the Buddhist monks managed to weave their monastery with a delicate thread into this already fantastic fabric. On the top of the rock, at the foot of the stupa, a monk sits with a small group of followers and prays in a singing voice. We listen to the magic moment and enjoy the great view from the limestone rock into the backcountry.
Directly at the foot of the Zwegabin Mountain, the highest point in this area, over 1000 Buddha statues sit around in a plane field. They have recently been erected by local families. Some of them have a roof over their head, others don’t. Each of them is roughly 2.5 meters high. This great sight is yet another demonstration of how important it is to the local people to create religious monuments up to today. I think it is partly because they believe that “making merit” by donating to monasteries or erecting religious monuments compensates for their sinful deeds.
The Saddan Cave Temple is the first one where we are advised to take our shoes inside. Soon we realize why. The temple is situated in the main “entrance hall” of the cave. It is a bit more of the same that we already had in the two previous caves, but at its backside the cave continues and we put our shoes back on. That’s very convenient, given the large number of bats under the ceiling and their excrement covering the floor. Just to be clear, we talk about thousands of bats! Their noisy screams echo through the whole cave. The cave is 500 meters long and at least 10 meters high. We walk several minutes through chambers into which you could fit a small church covered with crystal walls and decorated with several meter high stalactites. Finally, we reach a second opening on the other side. A moss-covered Buddha awaits us there, illuminated by rays of the sinking sun. We climb down a couple of stairs to a smooth-as-glass lake. From there, a small nutshell boat takes us on a journey under the mountain passing a half flooded cave, following channels of the surrounding rice paddies and finally drops us off close to the front side of the cave. On a short walk through the rice paddies we meet some rice farmers and are amazed with which speed they plant the rice. A lot of manual labor, standing in the water of the rice field surrounded by malaria mosquitoes the full day… tough job!
Kawtka Taung Cave
The last cave temple on our route is less spectacular compared to the ones we have already seen that day. However, close by, stairs lead upwards. In a steep ascend we gasp up a small mountain. Ten minutes later we arrive on the top, with sweat beads on our foreheads but the breathtaking view in the light of the setting sun more than compensates for the effort. On a short, brittle and partly broken bamboo bridge we cross over an abyss to an adjacent hill top. Afterwards we descend and rattle back in our trikshaw to town before the last light is gone.
What to do in Hpa-An
As mentioned above, Hpa-An city has only few attractions to offer. In half a day, we explore the city center.
Sights in the city center
The Shwe Yin Myaw Pagoda is the city center’s main sight. Build directly at the riverfront, the view over the water onto the pagoda-topped Hpan-Puh Mountain alone are worth the visit. We walk back from the pagoda to the clock tower. Merely 100 m to the southeast of the Pagoda we discover a worn down temple in the center of an artificial lake in a small back-alley. A third temple is waiting for us just east of the clock tower. Apart from these three rather average complexes, the only other highlight of Hpa-An downtown is the energetic morning market, which is a great place to observe the local lifestyle.
Restaurants and cafes
Hpa-An has a surprisingly good restaurant and cafe scene. We find multiple excellent places to eat serving Burmese, Chinese and Indian food.
Our best of:
Lucky 1: Excellent Chinese dishes and draught beer make an excellent combination for a relaxed dinner after a day of sightseeing.
New Day Café: The only Italian style coffee we found in the whole city. They also serve European and Myanmar style cake
Near the morning market: An Indian tea house serving excellent dosa and potato curry for breakfast. Be there before 10 am or you won’t get any food anymore.
What else is there in and around Hpa-An?
There are two more things you could do in Hpa-An, which sound like fun:
#1: Climb Zwegabin Mountain. It’s a tedious hike, but you can enjoy the great sunset there and spend a night in the monastery (they ask for a 5000 kyat donation) up on the hill. Next morning you watch the sunrise from up the hill and hike down again into the city.
#2: Take the ferry over the river to Hpan Pu Mountain. Leave the pier at 4 pm, so that you make it up the hill for a great sunset. But make sure you get a boat ride back.
After two nice days in Hpa-An, we leave the city in an icy cold AC express bus to Yangon, which is a 7h ride away.
Soe brothers’ guesthouse is our hostel of choice. It is probably the most popular spot for backpackers. The guesthouse is run by a friendly, extremely helpful Burmese team and offers all the help you could wish for to arrange tours, drivers, motorcycles, bicycles, guides, laundry etc. Also, the public rooms give you plenty of space to mingle with other backpackers. We highly recommend this place despite the fact that the rooms are not exciting and the prices relatively high for what you get. But that’s an overall Burma problem.
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