Just a five to six hour trip from Yangon chaos lies a land of jagged karst mountains, fresh water springs, epic caves and peace and relaxation. Hpa-an awaits.
Close enough for a weekend visit, beautiful enough to be visited multiple times. Take a Shwe Myanmar bus from Aung Mingalar bus station at 8pm to arrive in town between 2am and 3am.
The best parts of Hpa-an are not in the town but lie in the surrounding countryside which is best reached by motorbike or a three-wheeler (tuk-tuk style). The roads are empty enough for novices to feel comfortable riding their own bike.
Rise and get ready for a day of immersion in lush green countryside and epic karst landscape. Skip the mediocre guesthouse breakfast and go to White tea shop near the triangular roundabout in the centre of the town for some hot samosas, paratha and eeja kway (deep fried dough-bread) to dip in your sweet tea. Then get ready to hop on a motorbike, which can be arranged through your guesthouse, and spend a full day touring the various caves, natural springs and pagodas.
A huge cave which you can walk right through to the back where there are boats waiting to take you back around to the front. In a hand carved boat you will be rowed through the greenest paddy fields with great karst mountains dotting the horizon all around you, the only sound being the gentle slap of oar on water. Trip takes 10mins (1500K) and is a Hpa-an highlight.
A pagoda built on a tall rock formation in the centre of a manmade lake which can be climbed easily. From the top there are great views of the surrounding Karen State landscape.
KAWKA THAUNG CAVE
A cave with a natural spring swimming pool at the back. Perfect to cool off and refresh with a swim. Be sure to wear a t-shirt and shorts over your bikini! There are restaurants next to it if you wish to stop here for lunch. It is recommended to try the local rice wine or khao ye for 500K for a large, fizzy bottle.
KAW GOON CAVE
Another another interesting cave with thousands of Buddha carvings.
In the evening just before sunset, go to what is known as ‘Bat Cave.’ Climb up to the pagoda, sit back and watch millions of bats swarming out from the cave in formation, flying away over the bridge in a tunnel of flitting black wings darting from the grasps of hovering hawks.
Get a motor taxi to the base of Zwekabin Mountain once day breaks. It is recommended to ascend on the east side (well paved) and descend on the west. The climb to the peak (720m) is very tough going because it is steep but it’s well worth it for the great views at the top and the sense of satisfaction. The climb each way takes 2-3 hours. Bring water, a hat and suncream.
After your decent and a well-deserved rest, another unforgettable sunset view to catch with food and drinks by the river is at Pyo Oo Yin Restaurant on Kanna Road.
Before you catch the 1:30pm bus back to Yangon on your final day, visit the market in the town centre in the morning and wander to Shwe Yin Myaw Pagoda by the river for a nice view and to watch workers loading and unloading their colourful boats.
For backpackers looking to meet other backpackers: Soe Brothers Guesthouse, $5 dorm bed
Budget: Galaxy Motel, $22 private room, hot shower, very friendly and helpful staff.
Mid-Range: Hotel Gabana, $55