My first visit to Kayin state was 8 years ago and as the area was just opening for tourists, the facilities for visitors were limited. Despite this, I was immediately struck by the sheer beauty of the region and its magical sight of the limestone mountains rising up from the paddy fields. Since the beginning I noticed that the interesting part of this area is not so much the state capital city, yet the surroundings including the traditional Kayin villages with wooden houses in spacious compounds hidden in the jungle. In that time I started to develop excursions that included immersion in nature, exploring Kayin villages, and showing the best of the area although many local people were still a bit hesitant to start in tourism.
Moving forward to 2020; I visited Kayin state last week and I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Hpa-An and its surroundings have really got their act together and are actively welcoming and encouraging tourism, and furthermore that the infrastructure has improved a lot. Somehow, the town is booming with optimism and especially local visitors are the main tourists but also a few foreigners have discovered this beautiful part of the country.
Things to do
Nowadays, you can easily stay 3 to 4 days in Hpa-An and its surroundings as there are plenty of things to see and do. I recommend spending enough time in nature outside the town and a good way to get close to the Kayin culture is going by mountain bike on a guided trip to different villages. Once there enjoy a tasty home cooked lunch and have a chat with people about their life and traditions. Another possibility is doing a walk through the countryside passing by traditional villages and meeting the locals and as you walk most of the time under the shade it isn’t too tiring or hot. Or you can rent a kayak and traverse the paddy fields simply enjoying the scenery and appreciating the green fields – the best season to do this is actually from June till November when nature is at its best. Visiting some of the caves is another interesting and fun thing to do. Probably the most famous is Saddar cave but I surely want to recommend some other ones as well:
- Ait Sathayar cave has only been opened since a few years ago. It is a huge cave that takes about 15 minutes to walk through. Few Buddha statues have been added for decoration so you have a natural feel of the cave.
- “Water cave” is a fantastic one which can be entered by a small pedal boat. The ride takes about 45 minutes and costs 5000 Kyats per boat and is spectacular.
- Kawgun cave has thousands of little Buddha’s stacked against the cave walls and it is interesting. Also, on the left side of the entrance there is a big step that leads to a fantastic viewpoint.
- “Bat cave” is amazing as every evening at sunset, millions of bats fly out on their way to the sea near Mawlamyine (they come back before sunrise). Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday a tourist boat leaves at 5 pm from the Hpa An pier for a sunset cruise which includes the bat cave.
- Yathaypyan cave is a huge cave you can walk through with nice views over the paddy fields at the back of the cave.
If you’re into mountain-climbing you could head for the top of Zwekabin Mountain. It is about 3-4 hrs. climb. The view from the top of Taung Wine Mountain is apparently equally good and it only takes just 45 minutes. For my next visit I am planning to climb Taung Wine for sunrise as I heard it’s mesmerizing and one of the preferred Instagram pictures for many visitors.
One of the pleasures of travelling is tasting the local food and Hpa-An has plenty to offer. Every afternoon a dynamic night market sets up around 4 pm along the Thanlwin riverside and there is a wide range of food offered as well as some handmade souvenirs.
Moreover, some of the tastiest food I had in Kayin state was the home-cooked food in some of the traditional villages. Some of the villages follow a belief based on 5 principles (Buddha, Sangha, Dharma like all Buddhists, and have combined these 3 with the principle of following Kayin tradition and culture. People in some of the villages wear their traditional clothes and people don’t eat anything that comes from animals. So no meat, no fish and no dairy. While I know vegan food is popular and trendy worldwide, I never knew that there are complete villages in Kayin state following a vegan diet for over a hundred years already.
Also, the proximity with the Thai border and the fact that many Kayin people have worked and lived in Thailand implies that some of the best Thai food you find in Myanmar is available at many small restaurants in the area.
Places to stay
Just a few years back there wasn’t much choice of places to stay, yet that has changed tremendously: Currently Hpa An has at least three excellent 3 to 4 star charming boutique hotels and a few more are currently under construction: the recently opened Zwekabin Valley is probably one of the best resort style hotels with swimming pool, good food, very spacious rooms, and probably the most comfortable bed you have slept in for a long time. The nearby and also brand new My Hpa An Residence offers very nice cottages placed in the middle of a rubber plantation; giving you an excellent opportunity to be close to nature and the chef does a great job for your meals. The Keinnara Lodge Hpa An has been around for a few years now and offers comfortable bungalow style rooms in a well-manicured garden. All these hotels are offering views to Zwekabin Mountain and are about 10 minutes’ drive from Hpa-An town. In town there are a few cheaper budget options like hotel Gabbana.
How to get there
The quickest way to travel to Kayin state from Yangon is by private car or by bus. It is an approximate 6 hours drive. Also you can combine the route with a train ride till Thaton and onwards by car. If you’re coming from Mawlamyine, it’s fantastic to take a boat over the Thanlwin river and if you’re coming from the Thai border it’s easy to get to Hpa-An by car (about 3,5 hours). Once heading there, I do recommend arranging some sightseeing with a car and guide as the area is spread out and the best sights of Kayin state are the villages, caves, and mountains. Curiously enough, Hpa-An has an airport that has only been used twice since it opened over 50 years ago and the nearby Mawlamyine airport only has one flight to Yangon (every Monday).
It’s encouraging to see how a region developed and improved a lot in a short period of time and I hope more regions in Myanmar do open up and develop equally well in the near future. Kayin state can be used as a good example and I am looking forward for every Myanmore reader to discover it.
Edwin Briels is MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has been working over 15 years in travel in Myanmar and will share his experiences travelling in Myanmar in a monthly column.
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