Hpa-An, is the biggest and most populated capital city of Kayin State in Myanmar. According to 2014 census data, the population of Hpa Ann is 421,575 and has a tropical monsoon climate. There is a winter dry season (November– April) and a summer-wet season (May–October). Torrential rain falls from June to August, with an average of 110 cm (43 in) falling in August alone. The town of Hpa-an is almost devoid of tourists. It is a busy trade and commerce center inhibited mainly by Kayin people, a large number of them Christians (Baptists). Perhaps that has something to do with the eight-hour bus ride from the former capital of Yangon. The roads are a lot better now, taking less than five hours by a private car to reach there.
There are several places to go around and see in Hpa An. One of the incredible places is the tallest of the chain of the Limestone Mountains (725 meters, 2372ft tall), Mount Zwegabin. It rises over 4,000 feet above the valley floor, providing a stunning panorama view of Hpa-an down below. It is about 7 miles south of Hpa-An town. Mount Zwekabin is one of the most sacred mountains in the country and there is a pagoda that sits right on top. It is visited each day by hundreds of Buddhists pilgrims and tourists who make the arduous three to four hour trek.
There are two ways to climb Zwegabin: from the east or the west. The eastern side is quite steep. Lumbini Garden, on the western side, is the more popular place to start the ascent and is home to over 1100 Buddha statues in seated meditation arranged in photogenic rows. It was breath-taking to see the crisp white figures contrast against the lush green forest.
Travelers climb Mount Zwegabin for a change of pace from a frantic travel schedule and for some ridiculously beautiful scenery. They would not have expected that some staircases would be so steep. The climb is almost vertical in some areas. The majority of the hike though comprised of tiny steps ever ascending. Of striking beauty, brick steps lead to the summit, where climbers are rewarded by panoramic views of the horizon.
To hike Mount Zwegabin to the summit; it takes approximately two hot and sweaty hours to climb up. But the travelers should not miss out the beautiful sunset and the experience of sleeping at a Kayin monastery night at the top of the mountain in one of the lesser-visited provinces of Myanmar. It is said that encased in the pagoda at the top is a strand of Buddha’s hair. The monastery has several stupas, temples and other essential objects, structures and installations. There is even a kneeled white elephant, holding a column with holy figures. As in other Buddhist monasteries and temples there are a gallery of saints and a grate protects it. There is a monkey-feeding event every day around 11am and the compound will provide a lunch service for those who arrive before noon.
The travelers can spend the whole day contemplating the residents’ lives. The residents lived their usual day: a bit of praying, some funny music in between, a bit of eating, a bit of cleaning, a bit of this and a bit of that. The woman, teenage girls and young boys are taking care of household chores. Villagers come to improve their karma and help monks with anything they need: fix something, built something or bring some food and money to donate. The visitors can sleep in monastery at night. There is no official pricing but visitors are expected to provide a donation for the monastery prior to departure.
Though the actual monastery was nothing out of the ordinary (gold stuppa, zodiac symbols, pagoda, etc.), the fact that it was on the highest point as far as the eye could see, providing spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, made the climb worth it. And, the monkeys adventure, the creaky wooden floors of Mount Zwegabin monastery’s quiet rooms, the washrooms with a view and the jaw-dropping sunset and amazing sunrise all make up a great adventure trip from Hpa-An.