Like many of the weekend getaway spots that seem deceptively close to Yangon on a map, a trip to Hpa-an takes longer than you might want for a weekend getaway from the commercial capital. A visit to the Kayin State capital is better suited to a holiday weekend, when you can leave work early on Friday.
Bus tickets to Hpa-an can be bought at Aung San Stadium for journeys that depart from the Aung Mingalar highway bus station, on the city’s northern outskirts.
Options are limited compared to destinations such as Mandalay or Bagan, so do not expect the super-luxury vIP coaches.
Departure times are also limited, with buses leaving at about 8am for a journey taking about six hours, depending on stops. The night buses leave Yangon at 9 o’clock. Tickets cost about K6,000 each way.
Travelling by car is a far more comfortable and pricier option that offers the convenience of stops along the way. A popular detour is to Kyaiktiyo in Mon State to view the Golden Rock.
To reach the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, visitors are crammed into open trucks for a swerving, halting ride to the top. It is a bit like an amusement park adventure ride, until one realises that the sheer drops and gasping air brakes are not merely for effect.
Tickets to the top range from K2,500 to K3,000, a price that reassuringly includes life insurance. Walking to the top is also an option.
The view on the way up the mountain is spectacular but the peak is disappointingly less so. visitors are deposited at a thoroughfare lined with shops selling local medicines complete with exotic animal parts and cheap trinkets. Especially popular are toy guns fashioned out of bamboo and “I Heart Myanmar” T-shirts.
The natural environment has suffered from the crowds of pilgrims heading for the holy site who seem unconcerned about adding to the litter beside the route. The entry fee for foreigners at Golden Rock is K6,000. Finding a teashop with a view that doesn’t include mountains of garbage is a good way to enjoy the scenery.
Once back on the road you make your way from Mon State into neighbouring Kayin State.
The recently opened Hpa-an Lodge is a bit hard to find and might take a few calls to the front desk, but it’s worth perservering. Built against the base of soaring Mount Zwegabin, the Lodge has 18 single-roomed cottages and another two larger cottages with three bedrooms.
The cottages are simple and tastefully designed, with window walls at the front that provide fantastic views of Mt Zwegabin.
The main attraction of the hills around Hpa-an are caves housing Buddhist temples and towering Buddha images. To reach them, you have a few options. A daily tour departs in the early morning from the Soe Brothers Guesthouse in downtown Hpa-an, though that description make make the city seem larger than it is.
The day-long tour takes you to about eight caves, before dropping you back at the guesthouse, a backpacker favourite that is easy on the wallet, but likely hasn’t been upgraded since Myanmar was known as Burma.
Soe Brothers also rents motorbikes for exploring the surrounding areas and can arrange shared cars for those looking to continue their journey to the border with Thailand. It’s a bumpy, dusty ride along ASEAN Highway 1, but the use of the term “highway” is questionable.
Sadar cave is large enough for visitor to walk through before emerging on the far end, where a boat will take you back to your original starting point. Shoes are not allowed at the start of the walk through the cave because it contains a Buddhist temple, but you are recommended to bring them along and slip them on after you pass the temple. If you remain shoeless, be prepared for the unpleasant experience of walking on the faeces deposited by the huge colony of bats that roost on the ceiling of the cave.
This Article first appeared in the February 26, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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