I’ve always felt that Myanmar is a photogenic country with lots of opportunities for fantastic photos, not to mention it’s rich culture and history. For most tourists, Yangon and the northern regions of Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake make the usual circuit of places to visit for a first time traveler to Myanmar. However, the country’s southern region is often left out by visitors.
Many reasons contribute to this, mainly the poor transportation infrastructure that plagues most of the country. While Yangon and Mandalay are well connected with a highway and international airports, most of the country is only accessible by roads, some of which are in a state of disrepair. Economic sanctions during military rule, as well as, the long running civil war between the military government and ethnic minorities have also contributed to the lack of development in the out lying regions.
As in most underdeveloped countries, it’s in these less accessible regions that you’ll find hidden gems off the beaten paths. Hpa-An (pronounced as Pah-Ang) is the state capital of Kayin State (formerly known as Karen State). Home of the Karen ethnic minorities, they were fighting a civil war with the military government until 2015 when they signed a ceasefire agreement with the new civilian government. It’s only recently that this region has become relatively safe for travellers.
So I found myself spending the night in Hpa-An due to an unforeseen development that derailed my plans to proceed further south to Mawlamyine. But I guess Hpa-An is a more photogenic town compared to Mawlamyine, as I soon found out.
To get to Hpa-An, it’s a 6-7 hours drive from Yangon. Along the way, I passed by Kyaikto, which is the gateway to the popular Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, where you can see a huge boulder precariously balanced at the edge of a cliff.
Being relatively new to tourism, the hotels in in Hpa-An aren’t exactly what you would expect like in Yangon. Even then, there are several decent enough 3 star hotels. So it was a hurried search on Google Maps, TripAdvisor and several online hotel booking sites to find a place to stay. Followed by driving to these hotel locations to scope out how they look in reality.
Hotels in Hpa-An run from backpacker hostels to local 3 star type of hotels offering basic services to travelers. From what I see, most of the visitors are locals, some Asian tourists and even fewer Westerners. I guess more upmarket hotels will be built, as I could see many signs of construction going on as the region gears up to promote tourism.
The next morning we did a quick tour of Hpa-An before returning to Yangon to prepare for another day of meetings. So I only had time to do a quick photo stop at some of the attractions here.
There is a small night market on the vacant land beside Kan Thar Yar Lake which is in the center of Hpa-An town. They sell mainly food and is a good place to sample the local street food.
Kan Thar Yar Lake
This is a small lake that is located more or less in the center of town. It’s the center of activities throughout the whole day. In the night, there is the Night Market with lovers and tourists walking along the bridge that crosses the lake. In the morning, joggers and people practicing yoga gather along the bridge and shores of the lake to exercise.
Hpa-An is situated along the Thanlwin River. There is a riverfront promenade which was under rejuvenation works when I was there. It’s not much to look at now due to the construction that is going on, but it should be nice and presentable in the future.
This is the most prominent landmark that can been seen from almost all of Hpa-An. It’s shape is so unique and reminds me of scenes from Jurassic World.
There was no time to climb Mt. Zwegabin this trip. To do that would take about 4 hours to hike up and down. Most people do the hike early in the morning to watch sunrise from the summit because the heat and humidity here is terrible, and early morning is a cooler time to make the hike. The summit is 722m above sea level, so be prepared for some serious uphill hiking.
Kyaut Ka Latt Pagoda
In the southern part of Hpa-An there is a very unique pagoda. Seeing this pagoda reminds me of the game Jenga, where players remove and place wooden blocks on a wooden tower until it topples. At some stage, the wooden tower looks unbalanced and ready to topple. Well, when you see this pagoda, it’s something like that. And I wonder why it hasn’t toppled already.
The Bat Cave
Our last stop before heading back to Yangon was the Bat Cave. No, this isn’t Batman’s secret cave, but it’s a temple that hosts millions of bats. It’s located on the west bank of the Thanlwin River just near the iron bridge that crosses into Hpa-An. We had to drive through a small village to get to it. There is a sort of fee collection of 1,000 kyats for foreigners to enter temple grounds.
So we didn’t see any bats since it was mid morning when we visited. But I read that in the evenings, millions of bats emerge from the small fissures and cracks in the cliffs and fly southwards to hunt for food. It’s a sight to behold and here is a YouTube video (not mine) of how it looks like.
So this is my short commentary of Hpa-An. A place that I’ve never heard of until now. I think it deserves a second visit to appreciate more of what it offers, and I will be back. There are more attractions like caves and a natural swimming pool which I didn’t have time to visit.