It’s a very pleasant two and a half (or four) hour boat trip up the Thanlwin River from Mawlemyine to Hpa An. Until recently there was public boat service but improved roads and increased access to private transport in the form of motorcycles has put paid to that. These days if you want to make the trip by boat you need to book yourself onto one of the tourist boats run out of Breeze guesthouse in Mawlemyine. At Soe Brothers’ guesthouse in Hpa An you can book the – less popular – trip in the opposite direction.
The boats live in and start out from Mawlemyine and it’s an 8am start on a pick-up to get to the jetty. The boat from Hpa An leaves at about mid-day, but naturally only if it has come up from Mawlemyine already that morning. Not enough punters at the Mawlemyine end means no boat no matter how many punters at the Hpa An end, at least until Breeze and the Soe Brothers Guesthouse in Hpa An get a bit better co-ordinated. It’s a passenger number dependent K10,000 to make the trip up-river, maybe less going the other way.
Accommodation tip : Breeze and Soe Brothers have never needed to be very well co-ordinated as they need to be now because their guests always used to take the – not daily – public boat and tourist numbers were never such that there was ever much of a problem finding a room in either town. That’s no longer the case; 1100 foreigners stayed at Breeze last ‘season’, 2000 0r more will stay this year. While I was in Hpa An. Soe Brothers could have filled another ten rooms on most days and were having to send potential customers away to their (more expensive) competitors. On one day the only place in town with rooms available for foreigners was the (not very) Grand Hill Hotel that charges $55. The basic advice is this. When you arrive in Mawlemyine book a room in Hpa An. And vice versa. Better still do both well before.
That’s not to say Soe Brothers is the best place you will stay in Myanmar from the accommodation point of view but it is one of the best if you take some time to get to know the very friendly and fun staff, old and young. The rooms are OK if a bit lacking in modern amenity and could be cleaner. Some are dark and some are very hot. There seem to be bed-bugs in some of them. But they do come as cheap as $6 going up to $25. Everyone who stays there seems to like the place. The other options in town are Parami at $40, said also not to be very clean, and Golden Sky which is a bit cheaper than Parami. I can’t comment on either as I could not see the rooms as both were fully booked for days (see above).
There is good reason for people to be in such a good mood when they are in Hpa An. The colourful town itself is a very pleasant place to be with its wonderful sunsets, seen best from the riverside pagoda I think.
But the main attraction is the surrounding countryside, a motor-cycle or tuk-tuk accessible pleasure garden come Buddhist disneyland of caves and swimming pools, of limestone hills that leap upto 800 metres straight up out of the paddy fields. You can sleep in a monastery all the way up there if you can manage the 3666 steps. Twice.
The prime spot is Saddar Cave which is a walk-through number. Slightly stronger shoes are a good idea and you can pay the monk to turn the lights on if you want to be more sure of where you are walking than you can be with a torch. The cave is nice enough in itself with a couple of particularly pretty spots before you emerge at a small lake on the other side of the hill you have just walked through. What then follows is one of the best ten minutes I’ve had on any trip anywhere and almost everyone says it’s a real highlight too, a magical moment that I’m not going to describe because I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise for you.
I also liked Yathaypyan cave very much. Again it’s a walk through but this time you’re climbing slightly to emerge at a viewpoint (two actually if you explore a bit) high-ish above the farmland and water-filled fields below. I saw some eagles from here. At Lumpini Gardens and at the turn-off to Sadder cave the Buddhas standing in the field had me laughing – in awe of someone thinking of doing this, yet alone doing it.
At Kyauk Ka Taung the swimming pool is clever. A low wall separates the spring-fed pool from the paddy fields. A small gap in the wall allows a constant stream of clean spring water into the grey paddy fields without any of that grey water running back into the swimming pool. The water is clear whenever not full of weekending kids or students cavorting. There are plenty of small fish to attest to the cleanliness of the water. Luba (Russia) didn’t get to swim because ladies need to stay covered up so come prepared.
There are three small restaurants selling Thai food (many Hpa An residents have spent time in Thailand) and of special interest a white rice ‘wine’ that tastes a bit of bubble gum and has a slight fizz. A big beer bottle full is only 500 Kyat (40p) and it has a fast-action which fades reasonably quickly too. Locals warn that the first time you drink it you will be going to the toilet a lot the next day. But only the first time, so try it more than once. I did, and Nina (Holland) and I bought some for the Christmas party I organised at Soe Brothers (Organised? I wrote ‘Christmas Party 6.30pm Tomorrow’ on the notice board). Everyone came, everyone loved the bubble-gum-fizzy-rice-wine. Nicola and Aurelia (France) brought a firework. Fun was had. I’m back in the party business.
There is one side-trip that not many visitors to Hpa An make. I went to have a look at the cement works on the south side of the river. A whole hill is being exploded and dug up and ferried away by conveyor to what turns out to be two factories. The road there passed through the nearest village which, like so many in the Hpa An area, seems relatively pretty well-to-do and comes complete with concrete roads throughout – natch. They even have speed humps here.
Once beyond the village everything starts to be covered with cement or blown-up mountain dust and I started to think that however well-off the village I would not want to be raising kids there. But there are plenty of kids at the monastery that’s even closer to the factories than the village. Geraldine (France) and I were offered lunch there and the young boys joined us at the table for a game of cards.
At a rush you could see much of what makes Hpa An so worth visiting and be away in a couple of days but that would be to fail to take the time to take it all in. Four days would be better. I was there a week. But however long you spend out in the countryside around Hpa An you cannot fail to fall in love with the place. But see it soon if you can because I predict big things will happen in Hpa An.
It’s already a well-off part of the country, that’s obvious from some of the houses that you see in the town’s surprisingly extensive suburbs and in surrounding villages. It’s obvious from some of the cars being driven around town. I’m sure there are other ways it’s obvious to a better trained eye than mine. That wealth is in large part due to the proximity of Hpa An to Thailand.
[This para updated since time of writing] The mountain border crossing at Myawaddy / Mae Sot is only about 3 hours away now, on a good, new road. It was in poor condition and so narrow that traffic alternated between ‘up’ days and ‘down’ days. Even so in a four hour period in 2013 2000 vehicles were counted passing one point on the road. Now the road is improved and the border open fully Hpa An is only 10 hours – or less – from Bangkok. A Bangkok-Yangon bus is promised. It is becoming a tourist gateway-town on the road from Bangkok to Yangon via the Golden Rock at Kyaityo. See it soon.
With so much that is wonderful to see it will be an obvious place for a first stop-over in Myanmar. Hpa An will change beyond what the locals I talked to say they can imagine. They know change is coming but do not have the experience to picture its impact as those of us who have been lucky enough to travel more freely can. Right now there are half a dozen restaurants, downtown shuts up shop at about 9.30, there is only one (new) place to buy a (can of) beer after that and it’s a twenty minute walk away up by the lake.
Leave it ten years after the border opens up before you visit and I predict you will be visiting somewhere more like Yangshuo in China, Siem Riep in Cambodia, even – ouch! – Vang Vieng in Laos than the Hpa An you can see today. If you knew any of those places before they are as they are now, then that’s what you will find in Hpa An now.
Hpa An is in Kayin state. There has long been trouble between Kayin separatists and the Myanmar government. Villages have been burnt to prevent villagers supporting insurgent groups and rape by soldiers is said to have been common-place (is it not always common-place wherever armies wage war?). Over the border in Thailand are refugee camps that are home to maybe 90,000 Myanmar citizens. Many went there seeking access to a ‘third country’ but this has not been possible for those who arrived after 2006.
One young guy I met, a teacher of English in Hpa An, spent some years first as a refugee and then working in the camps as a teacher and interpreter. He said that very many of those there are not Kayin locals, who tend to build another village and continue to farm their land if their village is destroyed. They are people from Mandalay and Yangon who claim to be from Kayin villages and describe imaginary atrocities to justify their sought-for refugee status.
One of my friends says that he is Rakhaine and Myanmar, not Bamar (Burmese) just as another of my friends is Welsh and British, not English. The Kayin people whom I met are also not Bamar but almost to a man and woman do not consider themselves to be Myanmar. For them Myanmar is embodied by the army that repressed them and continues to repress some of them and they want no part of it. These people are Kayin. Full stop.