April 10, 2014: While Hpa An is a pleasant place to visit, the real draw is in the region around the city. To see the highlights, you could rent a motorbike and try and find all the spots yourself. Or for about $30 you can take a tuk tuk tour and let somebody else do the driving for you.
We booked a tuk tuk tour at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse in town. They even picked us up from our hotel on the way to the first stop of the day. We ended up sharing the tuk tuk with a Korean couple and Walt, a young fellow from Belgium. (Did I mention the $30 is split by the number of people on the tour? In this case it worked out to $6 a head. What a bargain!)
Ya-The-Byan Cave: After crossing the Thanlyin River from Hpa An, we reached our first stop, the Ya-The-Byan Cave. This natural limestone cave is located in one of the many karst mountains that seem to just pop out of the surrounding rice fields. While most of the Buddha statues and images inside the cave were created in the 17th Century, some date as far back as the 13th Century. After wandering through the cave a fair distance, you come out another opening high up the side of the mountain with incredible views over the rice fields below. Then you have to retrace your steps back to the entrance.
Kaw-gon Cave: Nearby, is a much smaller limestone cave with Buddha statues and carvings also dating to the 13th Century, but many newer ones as well. This one has an entrance fee and lots of monkeys hanging about waiting for treats.
Kyaut Ka Latt Monastery: This is my pick for the highlight of the day. This monastery is located on a pinnacle surrounded by a lake with stunning mountain views in the background. If that isn’t enough excitement for you, buy some popcorn to feed the ducks in the lake.
At the Base of Mount Zwegabin: Seemingly lost and forgotten and partially overgrown at the base of Mount Zwegabin is a field of sitting Buddhas. Row upon row upon row of them. You could climb to the monastery at the top of the mountain for stunning views over the countryside. We didn’t as it was two and a half hours up and too hot to move a muscle.
Nearby we stopped for lunch at a swimming hole favoured by local children. The sign said waterfall, but didn’t see any evidence of one. Then again, it is the dry season.
Saddar Cave: Another highlight in a day filled with highlights, Saddar Cave is an enormous cavern complete with bats and incredible rock formations. At this one, you can walk through to a small lake at the far side. Don’t forget to carry your shoes through the cave with you. (Normally, you have to remove your footwear on entry to any Buddhist temple.) And bring a flashlight. From here you can take a short ride in a dug-out canoe through a water cave. You get dropped off on the other side at a trail head that winds back around the outside of the mountain along the edge of rice paddies with more spectacular mountain views in the distance, and the odd pig up close and personal. On the way to and from the caves we were doused with water by village children who were starting the new year’s water festivities a few days early.
Kaw Ka Thaung Cave: Our final stop of the day, this small cave was flanked by 150 monk statues lining the road and led to another swimming hole popular with Kayin locals. We stopped here for a cold drink and then took a quick detour to walk across a narrow concrete bridge over the rice paddies to La Kha Na Village. It seems they ran out of money before they finished building the bridge, and forgot to add the railings.
From there it was just a short drive back to Hpa An. Another jam-packed day full of yet more unique sights, dramatic vistas and smiling people! Hpa An and the surrounding area get two enthusiastic thumbs up from us.
Tomorrow, we’re heading south to the town of Mudon before catching the late night bus back to Yangon. Stay tuned for another unusual Myanmar highlight.
P.S. I can hear you thinking that we might have posted way too many photos this time. I agree. But then again, between the two of us we took nearly 800 pictures on this one day alone. What you see here is less than 6% of them. Believe me, it was really hard to narrow it down even that much. This country is just so photogenic. We hope this selection gives you a good sense of the day.