As you approach Hpa-an, mountains of rock rise up from the plains. It makes me think a little of Ha Long Bay but with rice paddies instead of water. However these mountains also host a hoard of caves filled with shrines as well as statues and carvings of thousands of tiny buddhas.
We arrived from the Golden Rock via minivan and quickly found a number of guesthouses. We stayed at Than Kwin Pyar which has only double rooms at 15,000 kyat. Ours had aircon, our own bathroom and fast WiFi in the reception.
We took a quick look around the market and booked our tour. Later at sunset we walked down the road to Shweyinmyaw pagoda. Here you can get a ferry across the Thanlwyn river to hike Hpa-Pu. It takes about an hour up, but we didn’t do it in the end.
We found ourselves eating a few times at a little restaurant down the road from the guesthouse before the mosque. All meals under 1,000 kyat plus 500 kyat for chicken. The old man who owned the place was amusing and seemed to love the Discovery channel and Western TV.
The other place we frequented was an ice cream shop just next door called Shwe Da Gan. Their 500 kyat ice cream is actually quite good and they also do breakfast and the best sugar free yogurt I expect to find in Asia for a while.
We booked a day tour with Soe Brothers guesthouse for 5,000 kyats. It was all by tauk tauk which is a great way to get around. It does all the main tourist sites such as the Kawtgone cave, Kyaukalat lake monastery, Lonepanyi (the 1000 Buddha field), Saddan cave and Lat-ka-na village which has apparently featured in many Burmese movies.
The caves had thousands of tiny buddhas carved into the limestone and some were actually quite extensive caves. Kk, the first one that you get to go in had the most interesting carvings in my mind, but the Saddan cave was easily the biggest cave (taking 10 minutes or so to walk through) and the buddhas were painted gold.
At the end of the Saddan cave some fisherman will paddle you back towards the entry for 1,000 kyats. They seem to lure fish into the reeds and then surround them in nets. You can see the fish trying to jump out and they actually get pretty high. You do have to walk 5-10 minutes after the boat ride though past rice fields back to the entrance.
The last stop of the day was at a small pool which I think was after Kawt-ka-thaung. Lots of kids swam in the pool and it was refreshing to take a dip. Just don’t fall on your ass like I did as it’s really slippery.
The interesting part though was the series of caves near the pool. Take a head torch and go inside, but then climb up to the right. It’s pitch black, but inside is a cave with crystal clear waters and quite a few fish. It seems it’s a popular watering hole as there was a little boat, some candles and some empties.
On the last day I had hoped to hire a scooter and go see the sunrise at Kyaukkalat, but unfortunately there was no night watchman at the Galaxy guesthouse early enough to hire it even though the guy said there would be… But everything was foggy and hazy in the morning which seems to be the pattern here so maybe it was for the best.
We found a better breakfast at Shwe Htan Maung down past the bus station and clock tower. They did a good banana plata and something called bomboy toast which seemed a little like French toast with condensed milk instead.
Bus prices to Mawlamyine were 1,000 kyats every hour, but in the end we opted for a boat ride down the river for 8,500 kyats from Galaxy guesthouse. You get a nice view on the way out of Hpa-an, but it still took about 3.5 hours.