Hpa-an may be the capital city of the Kayin state but the postcard-worthy town is much more rural than urban. The remote town is located in southeastern Myanmar about a 6-hour bus ride from Yangon. Hpa-an, pronounced Pah-ann, isn’t modern at all, but that’s part of the charm of the riverfront town. Dramatic limestone karst mountains encircle Hpa-an, many of which hold sacred importance to the native people here and are homes to ancient Buddhist caves and topped by Buddhist stupas. The stunning scenery in the countryside surrounding Hpa-an is a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Myanmar’s more prominent cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Workboats chug along the Than Lwin River as stark white herons sweep past beautiful lakes. Endless rice paddies share the land with massive mountains as ox tends to farmlands. There’s so much to beauty to discover in Hpa-an, here are 10 unique things to do in Hpa-an.
You’ll have no choice but to disconnect here as WiFi is hard to come by, even in hotels and restaurants. This is partially due to years of conflict between the indigenous Kayin tribes and the Burmese military junta which prevented tourists from visiting the area. There was a ceasefire in 2012 which decreased much fo the violence but there are still many tensions in some parts of the state. Hpa-An is very safe for travelers to visit and a recent influx of tourists has brought in more revenue and businesses to the capital of the Kayin state.
ENJOY THE SPECTACLE OF THE CHOCOLATE PAGODA
There are many incredible temples to visit in Hpa-an but after nearly a month in the Buddhist nation the impossible was happening and I was beginning to be templed-out. If you can only feign interest in one more Buddhist house of worship make it the extraordinary Kyaut Ka Latt pagoda (pronounced chocolate). From a distance, the pagoda seems to be suspended in the air. It sits atop a rock formation that protrudes into the sky. The unique Kyaut Ka Latt pagoda is on an island in the middle of an artificial lake that reflects the gilded structure and the scenic Mount Zwekabin in its serene surface. You’ll be given a blessing when you enter and are allowed to climb about halfway up the rock to pay a visit to a senior monk who is seated on the ground chanting and blessing local practitioners of Lord Buddha’s teachings. There are signs everywhere stating that this is a sacred practice and that it’s not appropriate to take a photo of the monk, please respect these!
EXPLORE THE FASCINATING SADAN CAVE
There are several caves to visit in Hpa-an but the most majestic and easiest to reach is the Sadan Cave. The gigantic cavernous system is scattered with impressive stalagmites and stalactites. It’s a sacred Buddhist site with many shrines and pagodas sprinkled throughout the darkness. As it is a place of worship shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the cave at all. It can get quite slippery with moisture and also copious guano (yes, bat poop) so be careful! Some parts of the cave are lit but other areas are completely dark as to not disturb the thousands of bats from 7 different species that live here. Be sure to bring a flashlight but always point it down towards the ground as to not disrupt the Sadan Cave ecosystem.
BOAT ACROSS THE LAKE OF ELEPHANT KING AND UNDER A MOUNTAIN
At the exit of Sadan cave is the picturesque Lake of Elephant King. Sadan was actually the name of the elephant king. Legend has it that the king lived here for thousands of years until he was killed by a hunter. The giant elephants were believed to be extremely intelligent and left their mark on the cave via large smooth spots where they sat and slept. It costs K1500 per person to be rowed back to the Sadan Cave entrance in a colorful wooden canoe. The lake, which seemingly has no exit, opens up to a narrow waterway that passes underneath a mountain that just barely fits the boats and passengers. I’m not tall and I was able to graze the rock surface above with my palm without much effort. After the boat ride, you’ll have to walk along a gravel road barefoot to get back to the entrance of the cave where you were made to leave your shoes. This can be a bit painful, you’ve been warned!
GO FOR A SWIM IN A NATURAL ROCK POOL
It hovered around 100 degrees the entire time I was in Hpa-an so I couldn’t help but resist taking a dip in one of the local natural watering holes. Tucked behind the Kaw Ka Thuang Cave is a lovely natural pool with chilly crystal clear water. The pool is surrounded by bungalow style restaurants overlooking endless rice field and protruding mountains in the distance. Here I tried an array of my favorite Burmese salads, as that tends to be the only vegan-friendly food in most remote areas of Myanmar, but luckily they’re lovely. All of the over-water cafes also have kayaks and paddle boards available for rent. You can float through the rice terraces if you prefer something more active than a soak in the ice cold rock pool. The pool opens out into these rice paddies so there are some little fish that will be swimming along with you!
ENJOY THE SUNSET FROM HPA MAE TAUNG
The small Hpar Mae Taung Buddhist pagoda has a small terrace near a golden pagoda that boasts incredible sunset views. There were no other foreigners at the temple so I got the unique chance to watch the day end with a few novice monks who had fun playing and posing for my camera. From the Hpar Mae Taung pagoda, you’ll be able to watch the sun dip behind the mountains and douse the Than Lwin River in vibrant hues.
DAZZLE AT THE VALLEY OF BUDDHAS
There are several Buddha gardens in Hpa-An where thousands of images of Lord Buddha are placed along the edges of hills and across fields. The most popular is the Lumbini Buddha Garden, which has a fee to enter. However, further down the road, you’ll come across an area that I’ve dubbed the valley of golden Buddhas. Here hundreds of sitting images of the Protection Buddha are scattered at the base of a cliff. In this depiction of Buddha the right hand is raised to represent protection, and a shield. The left hand of Buddha is resting palm up in the lap. Combined the imagery is meant to be an icon for overcoming fear, or being courageous. It’s free to roam the serene park and enjoy a few moments of silence among nature and the peaceful golden Buddha statues.
CLIMB UP TO THE TAUNG WINE PAGODA
I wish I could tell you that I was able to conquer the Taung Wine Pagoda which you can see is the tiny gold spec atop of the mountain the picture above. But the extreme heat, my bicycle accident, and asthmatic lungs made it impossible for me to reach the summit. To reach the base of the mountain we had to ride through red dirt roads until we found the entrance, which isn’t well marked on Google maps. However, the effort is well worth it, look at the views below from just halfway up!
SEE THE MOST AMAZING SUNSET FROM THE THAN LWIN BRIDGE
I witnessed the most epic sunset of my life from the edge of the Than Lwin Bridge where I was treated to a show of nature’s beauty as the sun dipped behind karst limestone mountains which reflected incredible colors off the cliffs and onto the Than Lwin River below. I swear this photo isn’t filtered and doesn’t even do the sunset any justice.
HAVE A MEAL WITH MEANING AT VERANDA CAFE
Finding vegan food in Hpa-an was challenging but luckily there were an array of options at the Veranda Youth Community Cafe. The social enterprise supports development for disadvantaged youth in the Kayin State. They aim to promote sustainability both socially and environmentally and have a great installation that dictates that amount of time various forms of waste take to break down such as baby diapers, credit cards, and flip-flops. Veranda serves traditional Burmese cuisine in a gorgeous outdoor garden. It’s the best spot in town for a cup of coffee–they grind and brew fresh beans daily harvested nearby in the Shan Highlands. They’re also one of the few places in town that has WiFi that kind of works. There’s a travel desk in the cafe where guests can book community-based excursions led by locals such as boat rides, kayaking, and student-guided community tours. They also have a few ethically made products for sale that have been handcrafted by women at the Ywaddy Center which provides training for 150 underprivileged women in the Kayin state.
BE AMAZED BY THE VIEWS OF ZWEGABIN MOUNTAIN
Go for a trek up the2,372-foot Zwegabin mountain which I heard can take around 7 hours there and back! There is a monastery and temple at the top where you can relax and enjoy the spectacular panoramic views of Hpa-an. Or, enjoy views from around Hpa-an like I did!
EVERYTHING ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE GOING TO HPA-AN
Most evenings I ate at roasted corn and fried tofu from the nightly market along the shore of the Kan Thar Yar lake. There are quite a few more things that can be done in Hpa-an, I didn’t make it to the west side of the Than Lwin River so I missed the Linno Cave and Yatae Pyan Cave. If you only have a day in Hpa-an it’s best to join a guided bicycle tour which is an eco-friendly and fit way to explore the landscape of Hpa-An and see everything the quaint area has to offer. Hpa-an requires a lot of exploring so be sure to get health insurance coverage from World Nomads so that you’ll be covered in case of any accidents. To reach the capital city of the Kayin state it’s easiest to fly to Yangon then catch a bus to Hpa-an. Check the best flight deals from around the world to Myanmar on Skyscanner.
In Hpa-an there are a variety of accommodation options, but most are quite basic. I stayed at both Angels Land and its sister property, Glory. The breakfast for both hotels is served on the top floor of Glory which has incredible views of the surrounding mountains. At Glory the WiFi is a bit stronger and faster than at Angels Land where it’s basically non-existent. The Hpa-an Lodge is a more upscale accommodation that’s further from the town center but closer to many of the natural sites to see and even has a swimming pool! Among backpackers the Little Hpa An Hostel is popular and budget travels that prefer a bit more comfort will like Gabanna Hotel.
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