Sunday, August 20, 2017

Kayin State’s cheerful capital: A weekend in and around Hpa-an

Whether it be a weekend excursion from Yangon or just another stop on a bigger backpacking adventure, Hpa-an is a lovely self-contained destination that will not disappoint.

Hpa-an consists of lush green landscapes littered with limestone hills. Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar TimesHpa-an consists of lush green landscapes littered with limestone hills. Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar Times

A Spartan night in a monastery on Mt Zwegabin; a tuk-tuk tour of the sites; and a dramatic dusk bat exodus; all told, it is the perfect use of two nights and three days.

For pagoda-weary travelers the limestone caves and peaky landscapes will come as a welcome relief (although there are still plenty of pagodas).

Getting to Hpa-an
On Thursday night, a Myanmar colleague helped book me a last-minute seat on a Shwe Sin Setkyar bus. They told me to get to Aung Mingalar Bus Station by 7am the next morning.

I aimed to arrive at 6:30am; booked a taxi for 6am; rose at 5:30am. Gave myself a pat on the back for organisation.

We only trundled off at 8:25am – so much unnecessarily lost sleep!

After an oppressively hot journey with little scenery of note, I disembarked under the shadow of Hpa-an’s 15-minutes-fast clock tower at 2:15pm.

Swinging by Soe Brothers hostel, I was given the lay of the land by a venerable fellow with white bushy eyebrows.

For K2500 I was sped 13 kilometres east to the foot of Mt Zwegabin, which is covered with 1120 neatly arrayed seated Buddhas.

The journey, however, was equally exciting: From the breezy back of the motorbike I could really admire the impressive karst landscape. The earth jumps from being perfectly flat to sprouting jaggedly upward in a matter of meters.

The Thanlwin River gleams under the setting sun, as seen from the top of Mt Zwegabin. Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar TimesThe Thanlwin River gleams under the setting sun, as seen from the top of Mt Zwegabin. Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar Times

Mount Zwegabin and its monastery
My ascent began at 3pm. I had the firm intention of dawdling up to the 2000-foot summit, admiring the view on the way. The guidebooks reckon it takes two to four hours.

Instead, after fending off the challenge of a Dutchman on the lower slopes, I overtook a Myanmar family of four about half-way up. The race continued with overtakes and water breaks galore. At times, scrambled shortcuts were required.

After an hour and 20 minutes, my mad dash up the hill ended, and I collapsed at the feet of a still-sprightly nine-year-old child climber. Handily, there is a large water tank at the top.

The superb 360-degree panoramic views encompass the lower hills of the Eindu range, the southern plains, Hpa-an itself, the shimmering Thanlyin River and beyond.

For a K5000 donation, the monks provide a bed in a two-person windowless room and a yellow wristband.

The best spot for sunset viewing is a lower ledge which gets bathed in a blood-orange glow. Indeed, as it is so high, the hustle and bustle of the town and road are inaudible, and the few tourists who linger fall quiet. It’s perfect for reading, contemplating and watching the monkeys fiddle around.

A basic meal of rice, curry and tofu is served at 7pm. Unsurprisingly the rock-hard bed wasn’t conducive to deep sleep.

An oasis apparition at the end of Saddar cave marks the back entrance. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesAn oasis apparition at the end of Saddar cave marks the back entrance. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

Soe Brothers tour
Sadly another 5:30am rise to catch the sunrise was in vain; the clouds quashed those dreams, but I have been assured that it is majestic.

Instead I bombed down the hill in order to return to Soe Brothers to get on their last 8:30 tour. A full-day outing, priced at K30,000 per group, results in an extremely reasonable price of K5000 or K6000 each when shared between five or six people.

I was told Galaxy Motel and others run their own tours, but the Soe Brothers’ is the most popular.

It comprises seven stops: four caves, a “waterfall”, the aforementioned Buddha-filled garden, and a delicately balanced pagoda on a rocky column in a muddy man-made lake – which is just as bizarre to view as it is to describe.

Stops 1 and 4, the caves at Yathaypyan and Saddar, often called Saddan, are definitely the highlights.

Yathaypyan cave’s mouth is adorned with the usual array of Buddhist statues and plasterwork. But it is possible to walk the whole way through to peer out at the farmland on the other side.

Saddar cave takes the biscuit as the most interesting sight. K1000 gets you entry and a free mineral lump with healing properties.

According to the information provided, it combats cystitis when mixed with rice water and tackles hypertension with cold, boiled sugar water – a wonder it hasn’t been mined yet.

The entire length of the gloomy cavern can be traversed – you go barefoot, since it’s a holy site, but bring your footwear with you for the other end! Along the way in varying degrees of light you take in the beauty of drooping stalagmites and stalactites. Excitingly there is a thick column inside that you can childishly squeeze into, aka “caveception”.

The splendidly manicured entrance to Yathaypyan cave leads down to the water. Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar TimesThe splendidly manicured entrance to Yathaypyan cave leads down to the water. Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar Times

The cave culminates in a striking emerald lake. You can get a jump on a long boat that will float you under an arch to the other side, from where you follow a trail around the hill and back to the entrance.

The experience itself is serene.

Of the two other caves, one has a mildly interesting turtle and alligator carved into the floor, and the other has a high viewing platform and cheeky monkeys.

The “waterfall” is where you will take luncheon, and maybe a little swim. Despite a “no swimming ladies” sign, fully clad women do splash around.

The Kyauk Kalap Pagoda was somewhat underwhelming. Positioned atop a rocky pillar, it is certainly picturesque, but you can only climb partway up.

Bats!
Depending on how long your group takes at each site, the tour will return around 4-5pm. This enables you to jump straight aboard the Batcavemobile (forgive me) at 5pm.

On the riverbank thousands of bats fly out after dusk, departing to feed near Mawlamyine. The higher crag has some nice views east at Zwegabin and of the river, but make sure you are not still lounging up there, as the mass departure happens near ground level.

Naan, coffee and bean curry: What more could I need? Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar TimesNaan, coffee and bean curry: What more could I need? Photo: Ashok Manandhar / The Myanmar Times

Shining a torch upward at the bats helps illuminate them. While the sheer volume of bat is impressive, hunger will force you to leave before they have all departed.

It costs K10,000; but drops to a bargain K2500 each if four or more go.

Nightlife
San Ma Tau restaurant is famous for their plethora of side dishes; their Kayin spicy chicken and honeyed potatoes are good too. Like most restaurants they close quite early, but you can migrate to Lucky 1, which serves draught beer – including an 8.1 percent-strong stout – until at least midnight.

Soe Brothers hostel offers dorms, single rooms with and without air conditioning, and a few doubles. My US$7 room was pleasant enough, although the fan did not work. There are shared cold showers and toilets. Be warned, loo roll is not always fully stocked.

White (near the clock tower) does a tasty-for-K500 bean curry and naan for breakfast, and near the mosque there is a secret freezer containing Magnums and scoops of ice cream (go choc chip, not rainbow).

The monkeys are not shy: Beware of curiosity. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesThe monkeys are not shy: Beware of curiosity. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

Leaving
Buses leave for Yangon and other destinations regularly, just check at the hostel. Mine left at 9:30am, but because the clock tower is the second stop, you must remain vigilant.

The ferry to Mawlamyine, capital of Mon State, is an option for onward travel.

For the backpacking junkies Hpa-an frequently represents one last taste of Myanmar before leaving, so there is an infectious “school’s-out” atmosphere.

One of the most consistently popular stops on Myanmar’s tourist trail, there is much to like and little to hate, and thus it’s a fantastic place to spend a few spare days.