April 9-11, 2014: We’d been talking about a return trip to Myanmar for more than a year. It’s one of our favourite countries in Asia, despite the political situation. Chris worked here quite a bit between 2004 and 2008 and we spent three incredible weeks travelling around on our honeymoon in 2005. We were curious to see what’s changed since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and the government has relaxed some restrictions. And Chris was really looking forward to seeing some of the guys he used to work with.
We picked April for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to go for Burmese New Year and the Thingyan Water Festival. Plus, our friends Andy and Jenny would be there at the same time, so it would give us a chance to connect up.
Our itinerary would include three days in the eastern part of the country near Hpa An (a new area for us), two days in Yangon for the start of the water festival, four days at Inle Lake (a repeat visit to an old favourite) and two final days in Yangon.
Because of the Thingyan festival, many businesses close down completely for seven to ten days or more, including most of the bus lines. So that meant we’d have limited time to explore the Hpa An area before catching the last bus back to Yangon ahead of the shut down.
We arrived at the Yangon bus terminal at seven in the morning. How this place manages to function amazed me. Dozens of private bus lines, each with their own office and row of busses parked in front. Taxis and people milling everywhere. It was totally chaotic, but somehow it works. We already had our tickets, thanks to our friend Thanda, so the first step was finding our bus. Then it was just a matter of waiting until departure at eight, when the doors opened and everyone filed on board. Seats were pre-assigned although a few people had to sit in the aisle.
We arrived in Hpa An mid afternoon after a six-hour, 270 kilometre drive through the rice and watermelon growing lowlands. April is the tail end of the dry season and it’s hot, hot, hot. Hpa An itself is a pleasant, laid back market town located on the Thanlyin River, surrounded by spectacular karst mountains that literally pop out of the flat surroundings. It’s also the capital of the Kayin state bordering Thailand.
We wandered down to the jetty along the river where we found a shady spot near the pagoda to enjoy a cold drink before catching a tuk tuk to our hotel, located about four kilometres out of town.
Hotel Zwe Kabin was big and beautiful but rather devoid of personality and mostly empty. At least the buffet breakfasts were good and the views across the rice fields to Mount Zwegabin were incredible.
On our other days in town we explored the colourful market, Kan Than Yar lake, the waterfront along the Thanlyin river and a couple of good, if basic restaurants. But the main reason to visit the Hpa An area? You’ll just have to wait until the next post. It might take a while though…there are so many photos to sort through. It’s not hard to go a little camera crazy in this beautiful, colourful and fascinating country.