Hpa-an has been historically used as a stepping stone by travellers when crossing the border between Thailand and Myanmar, but there is so much more to it than that. While the capital of the Kayin state doesn’t look like much at first, it has so much to offer even the most casual of visitors.
As Myanmar starts to become more popular, it’s the perfect time to explore its lesser-known jewels, especially Hpa-an as it is only four hours drive from the Thai city of Mae Sot. For anyone interested in Buddhism, these sacred places offer an intriguing place to learn all about the tradition of this religion, it’s secrets embedded into the Hpa-an countryside.
Once you start to look beyond the dusty streets of Hpa-an town centre, you start to see how blessed it is with its geography. Situated between the Kan Thar Yar Lake and the Thanlyin River, Hpa-an is a place where Myanmar’s understated beauty is happy to reveal itself to you. Here are some of the best and most beautiful places to visit in Hpa-an, Myanmar
Climbing Mount Zwegabin is a wonderful pilgrimage to take for superb views of the fields and karsts around Hpa-an. The road that leads to it is surrounded by covered Buddha statues in Lumbini Garden, also known as the 1000 Buddhas gallery. The sweaty trek to the top takes about 3 hours and I recommend going early in the morning to beat the heat! It is worth it to get to the top as it is green as far as the eye can see, as the fields give way to the karsts that become fields again. For good luck, it is essential to bang the gong at the small temple at the peak, where young monks are trained by their elders. We were even asked for selfies, which shows that not many foreign tourists get to the top and it’s mainly used by pilgrims.
Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda
In the shadow of Mount Zwegabin is the precariously placed Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, surrounded by a man-made turquoise lake. The temple is precariously built on an unusual limestone rock formation that looks like it could collapse at any minute. The beauty of it is that it’s impossible to see where the stone ends and the pagoda begins as nature has truly taken over. There’s something for animal-lovers as the monks feed the fish, geese, and chickens who share the island and the lake with them.
Saddan Cave is one of the most beautiful Buddhist caves I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been privileged to see inside many in Southeast Asia. The inside is so huge that it’s possible to walk all the way through it, across bridges lit with pastel-colored orbs to a lake on the other side. On the walls are carvings of Buddha, set perfectly with gold leaf, only ever temporarily obscured when one of the resident bats flies past. On the 15-minute journey, it’s impossible to miss the impressive stalagmite formations, especially at the end, where one is over twice the height of a person!
In the lake at the end of Saddan Cave, there are metal bowls full of slightly battered turtles that they will ‘release’ back into the water for a fee. While the turtles are clearly unhappy, they’re recaught just after their release so it’s better not to support this inhuman practice that is believed to bring luck.
Kaw Gon Cave
The eye-catching feature that makes the Kaw Gon Cave complex stand out is the primary-colored carved Buddha figures that adorn the walls. The artwork was made when King Manuaha used to live here in hiding after losing a battle. His figures were hand-wrought from clay in the 7th-century and there are thousands of them lining the caves. Sadly, a nearby quarry caused vibrations that knocked some of them down as there used to be even more.
Ya Thay Pyan Cave
The third and final one of the impressive karst temples is the Ya Thay Pyan Cave. This cave is closer to Hpa-an than the rest and embedded right into the front and center of a karst formation. It is accessed via statue-lined steps and at the top, you can join the Buddhas looking out across the countryside. The adjacent lake can be used by boats to travel through the bottom of the cave or it’s possible to walk through to a walkway on the other side. It’s much darker than the other caves but it’s also quieter so you can enjoy the formations without the crowds of pilgrims.
Cycling along the Thanlyin River
The river is the beating heart of Hpa-an so the best way to see it is to hire a bike to survey the rice paddies, looming limestone structures as well as the various people who use it throughout the day. It’s a prime spot for fishing, trading, washing, feeding animals and traveling so all the action is here, yet you can take it in at your own pace.
Hpan Pu Mountain
If Mount Zwegabin seems too high, or if you just love to climb, then hike up the Hpan Pu Mountain to the Pha Bhu Taung Pagoda on the top. This steep yet short 30-minute climb is on the opposite side of the river to Hpa-an so it offers a wider view across the expansive peridot-colored paddies.
Night market and sunset at the lake
Kan Thar Yar Lake is a tranquil place to spend sunrise or sunset as the bridge across it allows interrupted views of the light falling behind the karsts. The temple and night market next to it makes it a prime spot for grabbing a delicious snack and people watching too. Hpa-an has loads of traditional dishes from salads to fried noodles so its the perfect place to try local food for a cheap price.
One place to avoid
There is a bat cave near Hpa-an where tourists can watch the bats emerge to feed at sunset. Unfortunately, people have taken to scaring the bats out using a stick that interferes with their natural behavior. Bats leaving caves is a phenomenon that you can see elsewhere in Southeast Asia so if you are traveling around, then I recommend seeing it in a place where the bats aren’t disturbed.
There are long-tailed macaques that live around the caves, and they venture out to eat offerings and create mischief. They may look cute but they have a nasty bite and can carry diseases so it’s better to avoid them as much as you can. Keep all food hidden as they will be tempted to snatch it from you!