The Most Beautiful Place You Never Heard Of

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.

Kyaikto town which is more than 3 hours drive from Yangon. Visitors who want to go up the mountain to visit Kyaiktiyo Pagoda have to come through here.
If you want cheap transport, there’s the public bus (overloaded pickup truck on the right). Otherwise, hire a car with driver, or take the long distance coaches from Yangon.
Stopping for some Burmese coffee at a village shop along the road. It’s something like Turkish coffee, thick with the coffee grains mixed in.
The steel bridge that crosses the Thanlyin River before reaching Hpa-An. The view from the bridge is actually very nice, but unfortunately cars are not allowed to stop on the bridge. Likewise, people are also not allowed to walk onto the bridge.
Hpa-An is characterized by karst scenery. Many of the limestone mountains have pagodas built on top of them, giving the feel of some exotic, magical land.
It was evening by the time we reached Hpa-An. There was only time for a light dinner along with an impromptu business meeting, and we had to find a hotel to stay for the night. This restaurant wasn’t too bad, providing al fresco dining with local food. It seems popular with the locals and the few tourists.

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.

We finally settled on this hotel. It looks good on the outside with decent rooms and breakfast was provided But wifi was lousy, which is the case in most of rural Myanmar. Location wise, this hotel is within a short walking distance to the Night Market and Khan Thar Yar Lake.

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.

Another interesting fact about the Karen ethnic minority is that a large proportion of them (15%) are Christians. This was a large Baptist church just beside our hotel.

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.

Night Market

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.

The daily night market that starts in the evening until roughly 9.00pm. Lucky for us it’s just a short walk from our hotel.
Vendors sell an assortment of Burmese street food. Although I felt that the hygiene level isn’t up to standard, the various local and Asian tourists were happily eating away.
Deep fried crickets. These seem to be a staple food in most of the Indochina countries in the rural communities.
The vendors were really friendly and didn’t mind me taking photos.
The Myanmar version of vegetable rice and the owner of the stall giving me the thumbs up.

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.

Waking up to catch the sunrise at Khan Thar Yar Lake. This small bridge crosses the lake and is popular with locals and visitors hoping to get a good view of the lake and surrounding mountains.
There’s a bridge that crosses the lake with a small pavilion in the center. But it looks like it’s poorly maintained and quite dirty after the previous night’s revelry by drunk visitors.
The sunrise here is stunning with the silhouette of Mt. Zwegabin in the distance, and reflected in the lake’s still waters. The Karens consider Mt. Zwegabin their holy mountain, and yes, you can climb to the top of Mt. Zwegabin.
I saw this frog statue in the playground beside the lake. I’m told that Hpa-An in Burmese translates to ‘Frog’s Vomit’. Legend has it that a Burmese king saw a frog eating a snake. The frog then vomited out the snake because it couldn’t swallow it. And so Hpa-An came about, because a frog decided to throw up his lunch.
A lottery pushcart vendor pushing his cart along the road near the lake. These lottery pushcarts seemed quite common here.

The Riverfront

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.

A row of shops and some hostels along the river front road. Most of the buildings are scruffy looking with some vacant lots. I guess that will change in the future.
Monasteries like this one dot the river side with their exotic pagodas perched on rocks beside the river banks.
Across the western bank of the Thanlwin River are more weird looking mountains. Again, I see pagodas built on top of them.
We also passed by this temple which lies on the northwest corner of the town. It looks like it has a good viewpoint of the river, but I decided not to go in, as it was a hassle to take off my shoes and socks.
Flower sellers outside the temple’s entrance. Worshipers buy these flowers to be placed on the altars inside the temple. The roses of different colours looks stunning.

Mount Zwegabin

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.

The karst limestone mountains of Hpa-An gives this town it’s beautiful and primordial landscapes. We just couldn’t help but stop along the road beside this sunflower plantation to take some postcard photos.
While not exactly in full bloom, this droopy sunflower still makes for a nice foreground subject with Mt. Zwegabin behind.

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.

Entry to Kyaut Ka Latt Pagoda is free for now. I don’t know if that will change in future when tourism starts to grow. It’s mostly local tourists here and the usual souvenir shops lined the path to the pagoda.
These cute monkey souvenirs made from coconut husks hang from a shop front.
The pagoda sits on a man made island surrounded by an artificial lake. You have to cross a bridge to get across.
Another temple sits on the shore of the artificial lake. The scenery here is awesome with Mt. Zwegabin forming the backdrop.
And here is Kyaut Ka Latt Pagoda with Mt. Zwegabin forming a nice reflection on the lake. I’m just wondering why the rock that the pagoda sits on has not toppled yet. It looks unbelievable.
A close up of the Jenga looking rock pinnacle and pagoda. You can set foot on the island, but you have to take off your shoes as the island is considered holy to the monks. Flocks of birds would occasionally take off and circle a few times before coming back to the pagoda to rest.
The artificial lake is a perfect circle and you can walk round it to get a good view of the pagoda. Well, we decided to stop hallway as wild dogs were sleeping along the path and started barking at us when we approached.

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.

A sandy path leads past these Buddhas towards the Bat Cave.
More Buddha statues and shrines along the cliff side as we walked further down the path.
Those stairs lead up to a small cave I’m told. Again, no shoes are allowed beyond the sign. I decided not to proceed further, as I was wearing business shoes and taking them off was a hassle. Plus, the ground was burning hot from the mid morning Sun.
The iron bridge that spans the Thanlwin River and serves as the gateway into Hpa-An from the main road.

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.

Map of Hpa-An

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