You can normally set your clock by Yangon’s seasons. The calendar year begins with the onset of hot season, which gradually builds in intensity until the welcome relief of rains in early May. It’s a full five months before the rains end and in November when the “cold” season gets underway – it might rarely drop below 20 degrees Celsius, but wooly hats and jackets are a common site on Yangon’s streets – before the cycle begins afresh in January.
So, traveling on an overnight bus in early April, I was surprised to awake from a whisky-induced sleep to find rain violently throwing itself against the window, broken up by occasional flashes of lightning. Fortunately, by the time we had reached the pleasant mountainside town of Hpa An by early morning, the storm had cleared and the rising sun presented a picturesque town that was surrounded on all sides by dramatic limestone cliffs – something of a rarity in otherwise flat Lower Myanmar. Despite being the capital of Karen State, Hpa An, which sits on the eastern bank of the usually tranquil Thanlyin River, has an easygoing feel.
Just 60 kilometres downstream, the British made Mawlamyine its capital of then-Lower Burma in the mid-19th century, yet the British seemed to bypass Hpa An entirely, despite almost certainly using the river as an important trading route. Much of the architecture therefore remains traditionally Burmese with mostly one or two-storey buildings occupying the vibrant downtown area, with one exception being an attractive red mosque that sits at the top-end of the main street. The market area is also incredibly lively with the usual vegetables, meats and household goods for sale and the best time to visit is in the early morning.
There is a strong mixture of people too. About town, it is common to see the blue, white and red flag of the fiercely-proud Karen flying and the faces are a mixture of Karen, Burmese and Chinese. While the riverside area is a pleasant spot to take in the sunset and mountains that sit on the western bank (the latter of which can be accessed via bridge), Hpa An’s main draw is the sights that it houses in its outskirts.
It is therefore advisable to organize your own form of transport. For a whole day, tuk-tuk drivers can be hired for upwards of MMK25,000 and are generally well-versed in the best places to visit. For those wanting a touch more adventure and independence, motorbikes can be hired for around MMK12,000 a day.
We chose the latter and, putting our faith in a map drawn by someone who felt that main roads and key landmarks aren’t much of a necessity, it was a full 30 minutes before we navigated our way out of the main town and began trundling eastwards to find what suburban Hpa An had to offer.
Hpa An’s sights can generally be classified into caves and mountains. Of the caves, those worthy of visit are Kaw Ka Thawng, Yathaypan and Kawgun, but the highlight is the Saddar Cave, which is set into a small mountain about 20 kilometres from town.
Visitors to the cave can have the generators turned on to partially light the tunnel or torches can be borrowed from stalls outside the cave’s entrance for about MMK500. Once inside, you climb a few rocky steps and suddenly find yourself plunged into darkness. The air quickly changes once inside the cave and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of bats squawk and scream in the crevices of the rock above you, giving an eerie but excellent experience.
Eventually, light appears ahead of you and after descending some rocky steps you come to a pleasant lake where boatmen are casually laying around, enjoying the pleasant surroundings. It’s also worth spending some time strolling around the area here before taking the MMK1,000 boat across the lake, that goes around the lake, under a narrow cave and out the otherside to a muddy bank in the shadow of the mountain that you have just made your way through. From here, it’s an enjoyable 20-minute traverse around the site of the mountain to return to the starting point.
On the way back to town from Saddar Cave is the impressive Kyauk Kalap pagoda, which sits atop a thin slither of rock set on a man-made lake. This spot is particularly popular for sunset, with good reason, offering great views of the surrounding countryside, not least to the impressive Mount Zwegabin. There is also a functioning monastery here, and is closed between 12pm and 1pm to allow the monks to meditate.
The highlight of any trip to Hpa An is the impressive Mount Zwegabin, which you can see from wherever you are in town. The uniquely-shaped mountain is important to the Karen people, it is apparently home to nat spirits and other souls, and it is common for villagers to make the gruelling hike up on a regular basis to clean and look after the monastery and pagoda at the top. For visitors wanting to make the climb, there are steps the hard way (some in varying states of disrepair), but it’s a relatively tough climb, particularly when the weather gets warmer. For those wanting to make the climb, it’s best to start as early as possible. Along the way there are plenty of opportunities to stock up on drinks and snacks and, once there, the views are unparalleled and there is a canteen that serves well deserved, and delicious, food.
There are daily buses departing from Yangon’s Aung Mingalar Bus Station – which is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Yangon. Buses to Hpa An take about six hours and usually leave between 7 and 9pm, arriving early in the morning.