My wife is an anthropologist and involved in research. One of her areas of focus are villages in the vicinity of Hpa-an, the capital of Karen state, in Myanmar. Last week, I decided to take our 4 year old daughter and head down to Hpa-an, from Yangon, where we currently live, and check out what is so special about Hpa-an and it’s surroundings.
I am working in the travel industry and my focus has been creating awareness for some of the beautiful places in Myanmar, that are more well known, such as Inle Lake, in Shan state. But, every time I visit a new place I am so completely speechless at the amazing beauty that I find. After having come back from a super beautiful spot, Pwin Oo Lwin, located about an hour and a half from Mandalay, I thought, it will be hard to match this stunning town. Well Hpa-An absolutely did that. What a super place to visit. My only regret was that the 3 days were barely enough to explore everything. I was unable to see all that was recommended, but the places I did, completely 100% convinced me that this is a special destination, so much so that we have added it as a destination to visit and am the biggest proponent of beautiful Hpa-an and I can quite comfortably say, the hotel was one of if not the nicest hotels I have stayed in here in Myanmar, and I have stayed in a lot, it’s my job after all to know these things!
Day 1- Driving to Hpa-an and Hpa-Aa Lodge
Leave Yangon between 6am and 6:30am latest, to avoid Yangon traffic, especially if it is a Friday.
My daughter and I took a private car to Hpa-an, which took 5 and a half hours including a quick lunch stop on the way. But we left early, to avoid the sometimes horrendous Yangon traffic. My advice is leave early (around 6am or 6:30 am) like that you will arrive latest around lunchtime and can enjoy the rest of the day. Our driver, Kyaung, was great, super safe driver and spoke English really well. After we arrived, we spent the rest of the day at our fabulous hotel, where I met with the general manager, to let her know how impressed I was with the hotel, and my daughter got to enjoy the pool – which has the most amazing view of the famous Mount Zwegabin …but you can likely get in a afternoon sightseeing tour, if you are up for it!
Day 2 – Pagodas and Caves
After a really nice breakfast (we were spoilt with croissants, eggs, fresh fruit, yogurt and gourmet coffee) I went to meet Phaung Phaung, who started with his wife, a 3-classroom English language school, inside a Hpa-an monastery. The monks gave them permission and space to start the classes. They want their students to get the chance to practice English and I wanted an enthusiastic guide and so it was a perfect fit. One of their students, Pan Phyuphyu Say, took my wife, daughter and I to see the amazing Kyauk Kalap Pagoda. Now you may have seen a lot of Pagodas already and be thinking, hmmm is it worth it? Answer is YES! I have seen a lot, so was initially a bit skeptical, and once again amazingly surprised.
Kyaup Kalap Pagoda
The pagoda stands right in the middle of a small lake on top of a roundish, tall sheer block of rock, commanding stunning views of the famous Mount. Zwegabin…and at the base, they will tie a small orange bracelet around your wrist (please make a small donation) and then at the top you may be lucky to find a monk who just might bless you, who is part of the excitement of the visit, as he chants and blesses. A donation is recommended, especially if he asks your name and blesses you a few times – he did so for our daughter Maiya!
Eat at We We…..show the driver the picture with the street name, it is slightly off the main grid, but worth it.
Hmmm where to eat? Sounds funny, but we went and ate at a secret restaurant that served the best Thai food. Why Thai food? One can of course also eat delicious local Myanmar food, but try this Thai restaurant. A lot of Karen, go to Thailand and work for many years, save up and return to do different things, including opening restaurants, and they have become incredible Thai food cooks! So we ate at a small and very reasonably priced restaurant….check out We We’s…..after a super meal, my wife and daughter were a bit tired and decided to head back to the hotel….the pool with the view of Mount Zwegabin was beckoning them…I on the other hand had a mission to see the famous Saddan cave, so our student guide, Pan Phyuphyu Say, our driver Kyaung and I headed to Saddan Cave. Yup – completely shocked once again. What an experience. This cave was super amazing – there are one or two spots that are a bit steep – there are staircases but they are wet and slippery, so hold the railings tight and descend slowly.
I heard that one can only do this during the dry season between November and April but I actually did this end of May and it was stunning! Again, I am glad I filmed some short clips and took pictures because my written description simply cannot do this place justice! Whilst they now have lights throughout Saddan cave, bring a torch just in case. You will enter a huge football size cavern with many Buddha statues and carvings…in a huge open space, where your 1 and a half hour journey will begin…at least that’s about what it took me, but I took loads of pictures and filmed. As you continue, you will see lots of crystals and huge massive (the largest I have ever seen) stalactites.
Towards the middle and then especially near the other end, you will hear thousands and thousands of bats, that are high up clinging to the roof of the cave. Actually there are 7 different species of bats numbering about 100,000 – for those who are sensitive to noise, you might want to bring earplugs or head quickly past the main bat hangout area!
And then, although there are one or two cool openings in the middle of the cave letting in natural rays of light, one is suddenly exposed to a burst of light that reveals the most idyllic lake….
On the other side of the cave, you can hire a boat, go through a small cave and back around to the main entrance, without having to walk back through the cave.
Walk down to the local boats and confirm (you will pay about 5,000 Kyat per boat) that they can take you back around to the main entrance…and if conditions allow, your boat will go through another short (about 3 minutes) cave
and reemerge on the other side to be greeted by the most stunning scenery – beautiful hills and who knows who is hanging out on the lake in their boats…take lots of pictures, definitely though, not scenery to be forgotten easily. Such beauty.
Day 3 – Above the Clouds
Above the clouds…climbing Mount Zwegabin. This, especially when one says there are steps all the way up, may sound relatively doable. It’s not. It’s steep and will take between 1 and a half hours (if you are really fit) to up to 4 hours if you stop a lot and take pictures. I took a little over 2 hours and took loads of pictures and videos. I consider myself relatively fit and my legs were sore for about 3 days afterwards! Having said all of that, it was definitely one of if not the highlight of my trip to Hpa-an. The climb itself was very exciting with some extremely picturesque stops.
Once at the top, you are above the clouds at a little monastery (there is a restaurant for a well deserved meal) and an incredible view. You can also hit the large gong that is placed at the top, next to the pagoda. Remember it must be rung 3 times to honor Buddha, the Dharma and the Sanhga
The sound has a certain calming yet energizing effect, and doing this at what seems like the top of the world is rather spiritual….then there is a tall straight pole and my fit student guides told me that if you climb to the top, just using your hands, your wish will come true…well I climbed to the top, but definitely not with just my hands, I used every single muscle I had in my legs and hands and was lucky to touch the top!
The odd pole sticking out of the ground at the top next to the pagoda….is there for a reason. Try the challenge – maybe your wish will come true!
Spend at least an hour at the top of Mount Zwegabin and you will feel a special serenity and sense of calm.
I really relaxed at the top….but I could see the Hpa-an lodge from up there. Remember going down is also not easy on the legs…be prepared.
After the climb....pfew.
Best view for the price of a pop soda!
In the center of town, there is a hotel called Hotel Glory, tell the reception that you would like to go to their top floor, to the restaurant to have a drink. Buying a soda is well worth the view you get. They can open the doors and there is a balcony on both sides that you can walk around and take in the view of the whole surroundings. This will give you a nice perspective of the town and area…doing it at sunset is even nicer! Did I mention there is an elevator?
I went to speak to the students at the English Language school who were very interested in talking to me and hearing about my work in the NGO sector and the travel industry.
Afterwards, we went back to our hotel for a late afternoon swim…and an early dinner. What an adventure. You should also stop in Hpa-An and check out the lake, it has a lovely view of Mount Zwegabin and if you are up for renting a little “swan” peddle boat, they have them. Besides, our Hpa-An Lodge hotel, there is one other place that has super nice coffee and worth a stopover. My suggestion is do this in the afternoon, after a visit to the lake – in the town - check out the view from the hotel Glory and then go have coffee at Hotel Gabana. Not inside the hotel, but just right to the main entrance is a small café - you can’t miss it. Glass windows, very visible!
Day 4 – Driving back to Yangon
After another amazing breakfast, Maiya and I headed back to Yangon…it was raining, and I was happy that we had seen so much and were so lucky to have stayed in such an amazing boutique hotel.
If you have any questions about Hpa-an, please contact us, we are happy to give you advice. Thahara has selected Hpa-An as one of our destinations and can organize trips from Yangon with a car service tour and special rates at our partner boutique Hpa-an Lodge.