Sawtooth mountains, serpentine rivers, grotto-filled caves, and golden stupas peppered throughout…Hpa-an has all the makings of a popular tourist destination, but it’s still flying under the radar. The locals are going about life as they always have and when they see a tourist they aren’t trying to squeeze a dollar out of him, they want to chat, take photos together, and share a cup of tea. We heard about this lovely town, two hours north of Mawlamyine, and though there isn’t much happening in the city itself, there is natural beauty and kindness everywhere you turn.
After checking into the Soe Brothers guest house, we rented a motorbike for 8,000 kyat ($8) and followed a hand-drawn “tourist” map in a thirty mile zigzag loop. Little Xs marked the best sites, all of which seemed to be mountains, caves, temples, or swimming holes. Fine by us. This plaster monk guardrail let us know were approaching the holy Kaw Ka Thawng cave.
For us, the cave was not the main attraction at Kaw Ka Thawng but its spring-fed pool and unique locals’ scene. Monks walked the edge while teenagers (fully clothed) swam around with floatie toys.
The next cave on the list was Saddar or as it translates, “Gates of Hell.” Despite the name, we paid the guy 2,000 kyat to get in and we quite enjoyed it. Walking through the darkness for fifteen minutes with our phone flashlight, we began to see the teeth-like stalagmites open up to lake. A few boatmen awaited our arrival and offered us a ride through the grottoes. Laying flat in the dug-out canoe, we slid under the mountain through the dark ponds and popped out of the back of the cave. Magic.
The limestone mountains, fields of sugar cane, rice paddies, and scenes on the side of the road were just as good as the attractions on the map. I’m not sure what’s more impressive, that the oxen are pulling this volume of hay or the dudes who were able to stack it this high…
Back in town we went to the main temple and popular hangout, Shweyinhmyaw Paya. It’s the best spot for sunset and viewing the temple-topped mountain across the way.
From the temple balcony, we couldn’t help but notice the bathing session below. Modestly wrapped in longyis, men gathered in this small section of the big river to soap down. For the record, our guesthouse had bucket showers; running water is not the standard in these parts.
We explored the waterfront and came across this awesome volleyball court. We have made a habit of photographing all the manifestations of soccer fields and volleyball courts around the world but this one with its bamboo poles and even bamboo lines, plus a fantastic view, was too good not to share.
We went to dinner at San Ma Tau and ordered chicken curry and these were the sides! Four types of fish paste, fried soy sesame with garlic, mango chutney, fried onion with shrimp, a mound of veggies, and a monster bowl of rice, followed by a free desert of coconut jaggery and tamarind balls. A dinner fit for a king, for $4 total.
The next morning the Soe Brothers owner motivated us to wake up for an epic sunrise. Walking 20 minutes down Thitsa Street, we arrived at Kan Thar Yar Lake. The pagoda-style bridge and majestic mountains were mirrored perfectly in the water of ever-changing colors.
Mike took a solid hour worth of photos while I enjoyed the peace with a yoga session on the bridge.
After meditating on the beauty of holy Mount Hpar Pu all morning, we had to climb it. To get there we went to the make-shift harbor below Shweyinhmyaw Paya, hopped on a boat across, and found the trail-head to this short but wonderful hike to the top.
Communities of monks live on the mountain and on top there is a golden stupa. As we hiked the thirty minutes up the steep rock with the aid of bamboo ladders and ropes, we caught glimpses of the daily monastic life—washing crimson robes, tending the garden, and taking strolls. We said our Myanmar language Hellos and How Are Yous and got nothing but warmth in return. Love this little monk!
We reached the stupa at the top and enjoyed some PB&J breakfast with these stellar views of Hpa-an. We were only people at the peak for over an hour and we wondered how soon it would take tourists to find this beautiful place.