Our definitive guide to Hpa-an
When we think about Hpa-an, images of caves, winding rivers and limestone mountains come to mind. A visit here makes a welcome break from the city of Yangon and it also makes a sensible pitstop for those travelling to/from neighbouring Thailand.
WHAT TO DO
Nº 1 - CLIMB MOUNT ZWEGABIN AT SUNRISE
On one side, a series of steep steps from Lumbini Garden, on the other, a shaded, sloping path. It’s up to you which to hike up, but whatever you choose, make sure you reach the monastery for sunrise as you’ll be treated to an awesome view and it will keep out of the blazing sun. The monastery serves food from 10am, should you set out later than us (around 6.00am). If you’re pacing it like we did (we had a bus to catch) you can get up and down in 3 hours.
How to get there
One cost-effective and easy way to get there is to organise transport with your accommodation. We clubbed together with a group at Galaxy Motel and hired a tuktuk to take us there and pick us up a couple of hours later, for K4000 / $3 per person. Otherwise, you can hire a moped and ask your accommodation to give you directions. There is no fee to climb Mount Zwegabin.
Nº 2 - HIKE HPAN PU AT SUNSET
Head behind Shweyinhmyaw pagoda to find the ‘jetty’, an area where small motor boats will be waiting to take you across the Thanlwin River to the other side for a small fee (K500 / $0.40). Check the time of the last boat before you alight. From there, head right towards the village and follow the path until you notice some steps to your left. This walk should take around 15 minutes, but the local people should be glad to point you in the right direction if you're not sure. Make the short climb up Hpan Pu for a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside in time for sunset - just make sure you start making your way back before it gets too dark!
Nº 3 - VISIT SADDAR CAVE (AND THE REST...)
A huge cavern gives way to muddy pathways, complete with the famous led-lights, buddhas and pagodas most natural wonders now host. Once you pass through the cave, however, you will be greeted with a pretty lake surrounded by greenery. If you visit in the dry season, the lake will be low enough for you to pay a boatman to take you through a second cave to the neighbouring lake. You can walk back to the entrance from here, with lovely views of cornfields and surrounding mountains.
You will most likely visit this cave on a day tour, which will also stop at Kaw Ka Thawng Cave, Kawgun Cave, Kyauk Kalap, Yathaypyan Cave, however we found Saddar the most impressive of all the stops.
Day tours can be organised with your accommodation. Galaxy Motel's tour visits heaps of stops and lasts 10-12 hours, costing a mere K5000 / $3.75.
Nº 4 - WATCH THE BATS
At dusk each day, hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of Bayin Nyi Caves, or the aptly-named 'Bat Caves'. If your cycling or riding a motorbike there, ask your guesthouse to write down for you “bat cave” in Burmese so you can ask directions, otherwise you can take a tuk-tuk for around K2500 / $1.80 per person.
WHERE TO EAT
Nº 1 - LUCKY 1 ($)
Serving beer on draught and a no-frills selection of Chinese and Burmese meals, this is a sound cheap-and-cheerful option.
Two meals with beers will set you back around K5500 / $4.
Nº 2 - KHIT THIT($)
Just opposite Lucky, this restaurant serves a similar menu with slightly homelier surroundings. Another good spot to chill with a beer.
Dinner for two with alcohol will come to around K5500 / $4.
Nº 3 - SAN MA TAU ($)
Unfortunately, Lonely Planet let us down this time. One of their favourite restaurants in the entire country served us lukewarm, bland curries which no amount of side dishes could make up for (not even the twenty, yes twenty, we received). We’re including this to set expectations if you choose to visit!
Dinner for two with alcohol will come to around K4000 / $3.
Nº 4 - VERANDA ($)
We heard about this place prior to arriving in Hpa-an but chose not to eat here, as it’s a drive outside of town. We wish we had, as plenty of travellers said it was delicious.
WHERE TO STAY
WE STAYED AT... Galaxy Motel ($$)
The excellent breakfast and friendly owner make up for the tired rooms and dated carpet at this street-corner hotel. Kimmy can book tours and onward travel for you and is happy to give you a full run-down of the local area and what you can do here.
We paid K27,000 / $20 per night for our double room with ensuite, including breakfast.
THE BACKPACKER FAVOURITE... Soe Brothers Guesthouse ($)
Most backpackers flock to Soe Brothers Guesthouse due to the experienced staff and sociable vibe. We found out that the cave tour they run has fewer stops than Galaxy’s, is more expensive and takes more people, so even if you do end up staying here, head over to Galaxy to book your day tour.
Beds start from K11,000 / $8 per night.
You can catch the bus to Hpa-an from Yangon (around K9500 / $7); if you're coming from anywhere north of that you'll likely have to change buses in the city depot. If you’re coming from Mawlamyine the most scenic option is to take the boat. It’s easy to arrange a day or so in advance from one of the many travel agents that sit along the road by the river, and it will set you back around K10,000 / $7.50.