A small town surrounded by endless beauty at nature’s best. Hills, mountains, rivers, caves, rice fields; the landscape here is absolutely stunning. Many travelers here come through Mai Sot from Thailand and stay for a day before moving on to the famous Kyaiktiyo pagoda, but if you stay longer you’ll find that Hpa n has lots more to offer. It’s also the perfect town to set as a base to see the numerous caves and temples in the area. The power goes out every now and then, you’ll hardly see tourists around as compared to Yangon or Bagain, there’s a lack of western meals and English menus, but I guess that’s why I liked this town so much. It’s just different from other parts in Myanmar, it almost feels untouched.
My first morning was spent at the busy market. Bicycles swishing by, vegetables and fruits all fresh washed and ready to go. I’m amazed at the variety of food they have here for breakfast. Most of them are deep fried, some baked, some steamed, but a lot of them seem to be made up of flour. Strange rice wrapped in banana leafs, betel nut stores around every corner, freshly cut fruits on skewers and in bags. Bright colours spill across the streets; rainbow umbrellas, different shades of green from a wide array of vegetables displayed on stands, live fishes swimming in giant metal bowls, vendors cleaning chicken parts on the streets in buckets. What a sight !
I had my first breakfast at White Teahouse which consisted of two delicious cups of Cho-bawq (tea with less condensed milk) and freshly baked naan served with dahl curry. The man over the counter with the apron flips the dough, places it on a huge dome shaped pillow, removes the pot cover on the charcoal stove and sticks the neatly rolled circular dough on the walls of the stove. Ploof! It sticks there and within seconds it poofs up, forming a perfectly round airy naan. It was a really humble cafe, people greeted me with smiling faces, kids were running the cafe, cleaning tables and serving me up plates of fried breakfast snacks and in between, the indian teahouse owners make short conversations with me.
People stop by for quick cups of milk tea dolloped with a thick and generous portion of condensed milk while chewing on dough fritters. Apparently the naan here sells out really quickly, sometimes ever as early as 730am. And they say the early bird catches the worm. I had such a good start to the morning ! It was indeed a good choice to wake up at 5:30am.
DAY TOUR AROUND HPA AN
With a motorbike (only semi-auto) or a combined tuk tuk tour, it’s easy to see the attractions around Hpa An. My original plan was to rent a bike and go around, exploring the caves and the wonders of nature but unfortunately I had no skills nor knowledge on riding a semi-auto scooter. Even after a quick crash course over whatsapp with my friend, I didn’t think I want to take the risk and thus I joined the tour with Soe Brother’s Guesthouse. Although it’s not possible to hike up Mt Zwegabin on the tour as it takes at least 1.5hours to 2 hours to hike up the mountain.
It was a day filled with sights of stupas that reflected the golden shine as sunlight hits, epic buddhist sculptures and bright colours. We exchanged many “Mingalaba’s” and “Justin Timberlakes” (Chezu Timbadeh) with the locals, explored into villages and gardens that were just filled with hundreds of Buddha statues, saw grand pagodas and temples that were hidden in caves. I remember this one cave where we had to walk into darkness. With a torch in hand and bare feet on the cold wet floor, I marched up into soil made steps and emerged at a cave opening that had an amazing view. Some of the trails leading to the caves were rather muddy and there were moments we had to all get out of the truck so it could get through the mud! Thankfully I didn’t go for the scooter option, I might have gotten very lost/stuck in the mud.
Loving the bad digital imaging of the ducks! Haha
CLIMBING MT ZWEGABIN
The next day I decided to go to Mount Zwegabin, which promises a picturesque viewpoint at the peak where it also houses a pagoda. It was a really hot and humid 1.5 hours hike up, even though it wasn’t tough, the heat just gets to you especially if you attempt the climb after 9am. After heaps of steep steps and a never-ending incline, reaching the top always unlocks a new level of achievement for me. Though the view was restricted due to cloud cover, it was nice to sit down and enjoy the cool winds and quietness of the pagoda grounds. Being greeted by a huge golden stupa at the top as I entered the gates was amazing. With the white foggy clouds as a backdrop, it almost felt like a scene in an old Chinese movie. Heading downhill was a real bitch. The steps were incredibly steep and high, the water flowing down from the mountains, mixed with the humidity made the entire path down slippery and mouldy. Then came what seemed like the longest and steepest, most narrow flight of steps. I stared at it for a good while and somehow I knew something bad was going to happen. It was wet, I knew my nike trainers didn’t have the best grip and I made sure I told myself to hold on to the railings on the left but somehow in that split second that I let go, I went all the way down – On my ass.
TIP: Apparently there was an alternative route to hike down from the back of the mountain I would NOT recommend that path as I had to walk about 30 – 45mins more through Thitchi village in the blazing noon heat just to get to the main road to get a pick up back to town. If you’re hiking up from Lumbini Gardens, take that same way down as it is nearer to the main road.
HPAN PU MOUNTAIN
In the late afternoon, Alex & Catherine was headed for Hpan Pu Mountain and invited me to join them. God knows why I said yes after being so worn out from that hike and fall. I was all bruised up but my instincts said yes just because I have major FOMO.
A short boat ride from the “jetty” (located next to the only pagoda in Hpa-An) will take you across to the other side where you’ll find Hpan Pu Mountain. From far it almost looks like an amputated foot with the oddly shaped bulge sticking out from the top of the mountain. Unlike Mt Zwegabin, this is an easy one to climb, 30 minutes is all you need to take to conquer a flight of steps. However it seems quite impossible to reach the top as the path is overgrown. Despite how exhausted I was, the view up there left me with no regrets. The panoramic view spread all the way to the other side of the river, seeing all the way to Thailand. There was a massive rainbow that spread across the sky that evening and that sight was plain alluring. Seeing Mt Zwegabin and how I hiked that tall mountain just this morning felt amazing!
Caught what we could have been the last boat back to Hpa An and it was the perfect time to enjoy the silence, soaking up the view and enjoying the breeze in my hair. The wooden boat had a small leak, the boatman was scooping water own the whole way as we sailed slowly across the brown murky river as the orange sun slow falls behind the mountains. Too picturesque, too serene, too perfect. The landscape reminded me so much of Laos.
It was my last night in Hpa An and I haven’t gotten the opportunity to catch the sunset due to the bad weather the past couple of days. I should thank my lucky stars that the weather was perfect that evening. We grabbed beers from small shop, set up a little plastic table by the bench and watched the sky reflect and light up the clouds as it sets behind the mountains. Nothing like ice cold Mynamar beer, a breathtaking landscape and the best company to spend my last sunset in Hpa An. As the sky turned dark we appreciated the little lightning storm from across the river.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Getting to Hpa An is so easy it’s almost brainless. The challenge is finding the right bus station to get your tickets. Buses from Yangon run very frequently and you can get tickets at the Aung Mingalar Highway bus stop under the bridge.
6 hours, 4500 kyat (although i paid only 3,700 kyat)
4 hours, 5000 kyat
2 hours, 1000 kyat