Smiling monks, a breath-taking view in 2,500 ft and hardly any tourists. This is Hpa-An in Myanmar – an idyllic town where we luckily stopped during our travels through Myanmar.
Before leaving for Myanmar we read a handful of blog posts, saw incredible pictures and researched a few travel experiences. Most of them mainly cover the temples of Bagan. But Myanmar has a lot more to offer. You will find places with landscapes that remember of Vietnam or China and other beautiful sceneries, the often-forgotten Hpa-An has to offer.
In the following you will find out why Hpa-An was one of our highlights during our time in Myanmar.
The town of Hpa-An
Hpa-An is the capital of state Karen and is located 200 miles east from Yangon. One distinctive characteristic of the small city with 75,000 inhabitants is its location: Surrounded by rice fields, high mountains and hidden caves. Also, not far from Hpa-An you will find the biggest lying Buddha statue of the world, the Win Sein Taw Ya. It is just a 1.5-hour drive away from Hpa-An and almost as long as a football field.
There are two possibilities how to get to Hpa-An. You can either take a taxi or choose the more economical alternative, which is going by bus. We chose the bus but will describe both options in the following.
Take a bus to Hpa-An
It is easy to reach Hpa-An, pronounced Pah-Ann, by bus. Arrived in Yangon you ideally spend one night in the capital after arriving and then take a bus in the next morning heading east.
Tip 1: All long-distance busses depart at Aung Mingala Highway Station, which is even further north than the airport. To get there it can take up to 1.5 hours with an Uber or taxi, as Yangon’s traffic is crazy.
Tip 2: We booked the bus directly in our hostel, which made the purchase fast and easy. Just ask at the reception of your hotel or hostel, many of them sell tickets to various destinations in Myanmar, Hpa-An being one of them. Booking one day prior departure was no problem in our case.
Arrived at the bus station we first looked for the name of our bus company that was also written on the tickets and waited for two hours (we were told to be there two hours before departure, which was way too early) and watched the scene. A hectic crowd of locals buying tickets, selling books, sun glasses, snacks and much more. Now, you arrived in Asia!
A tiny side note: Please don’t fear the red splashes on the streets and sidewalks. This is spit but no blood. A thing to get used to and we, frankly, have been a bit disgusted by almost everybody spitting on the floor. The background here is that people, mainly men, chew betel nuts. These addictive nuts accelerate the spit production and people need spit it out. Everywhere. The WHO warns for the use of betel nuts as it is highly addictive and does harm to your mouth, your stomach and digestion. Locals in contrast see it as a cheaper and healthier alternative to smoking, which is not the case. Another bad side effect of the betel nuts is that you hardly see any white teeth when people smile at you. The red color of the nuts also color the teeth in an unhealthy looking red and brown. This, certainly is not a nice picture but it will certainly not stop you from having a good time in Myanmar.
Now that you know, let’s continue with the bus ride!
After buying some snacks – there is nothing worse than a hungry bus ride – we left Yangon around 1pm. On the way to Hpa-An we stopped a couple of times shortly and drove through small villages and pitch dark streets later that day. When the bus stopped to offer fellow travelers to go to the toilet, we soon felt that we are not in Singapore anymore. The toilets for example certainly do not have western standards. But who’d expect that in Myanmar! Roughly six hours later we arrived in Hpa-An.
Tip 3: Approach the bus driver shortly before arriving and tell him where you stay. Best case scenario: You get dropped off right in front of your hotel.
Costs for the comfortable drive: $5 per person.
We shortly considered leaving Hpa-An with the plane that would have saved us a couple of long hours in a “bus”. This thought didn’t last very long as the lovely owner form our hostel told us that the airport would be closed. As the taxi was way too expensive, we decided in favor of the bus.
The town Hpa-An itself is not incredibly picturesque but we felt comfortable right from the start. Why exactly? Hard to tell, but the small city has a kind of relaxed vibe, even though the scooters and cars are everything else but very quiet. As well as that the Burmese town is certainly shaped by its impressive surroundings. At booking.com* you will find a lot of options to stay.
We decided just two days in advance to go to Hpa-An. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of options and stayed three nights in the River View Motel, which turned out to be ok, not great but not bad at all!
Stay in Hpa-An: River View Motel
The River View Motel* is directly located at the main road of Hpa-An, the Kan Nar Street. Here we paid roughly $30 for a double room with a private bathroom. Not the cheapest place, but still affordable.
The staff was extremely helpful and the reception open 24h, which can be helpful if you arrive late. At the River View Motel breakfast is included. But an Asian one! Both of us don’t really like Mi Goreng (fried noodles) in the early morning, but well! However, the dinner was delicious! Recommended: Fried Rice with chicken and pineapple.
Also good to know: They also offer a laundry (paid by piece and way overpriced but at least you get fresh clothes) and scooter rental, which was with $3 cheap in contrast.
In general, we had a positive impression of the River View Motel but the fact that the booked “big bus” ended up being a mini van was certainly the opposite. More on that you will find later in our Hpa-An tips.
More places to stay in Hpa-An
We just heart great things about the following accommodations. Depending on your budget, three different options:
As described, Hpa-An didn’t welcome as the most beautiful town but we enjoyed our stay a lot. Beside the small heart of the town, in that you just find an old clock tower, a couple of Warungs, Cafés and few ATM’s, there is not much to see. But the area around is insane, promised! We explored our neighborhood with a scooter and got to know Myanmar from its authentic side with beautiful nature and lovely locals.
With over 1,000 Buddha statues the Lumbini Garden is a small attraction. Don’t expect a real “garden” but more a park that is also the gate to our absolute favorite – Mount Zwegabin. Here you can combine a visit and take a couple of great pictures.
The mount Zwegabin (sometime also written “Zwekabin”) was our personal favorite during our trip through Myanmar. To the parking area (which is located in the Lumbini Gardens) you roughly drive 25-30 minutes from the city center of Hpa-An.
Ideally you start the ascent in the dark to witness a sunrise on the summit in 2.500 ft. Who could imagine a more beautiful sunrise?
Preparations for the ascent
3:45 and the alarm was screaming. Ended our night in a cruel way. Water in our sleepy faces but we knew that it is worth it and we will get rewarded. We grabbed a flashlight, enough water and a rain jacket, jumped on the scooter and drove through the pitch-dark heading towards Mount Zwegabin. Roughly 30 minutes later we arrived at the entrance and got welcomed by an equally sleepy but very friendly night guard.
Having paid 4,000 Kyat | $3 entrance and writing our names on a list, we drove until we reached an area that could be a parking area. We made eye contact with two smiling monks – obviously very happy about our visit – and they pointed in the direction of the path we need to follow.
Mount Zwegabin Pro Tip: You will find no lights on the way up, it’s pitch dark. Without a flashlight, you would be in the dark! The flashlight of your mobile works as well, but a flashlight does a significantly better job.
In contrast to the Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, the path hill up is narrow and gets constantly smaller. Sometimes you step up concrete stairs, sometimes roots help you the way up. Here and there you need to climb a tiny bit, everything in the dark but never scary or dangerous.
Our shirts slowly became wet. After a few more minutes they have been soaked but we got closer and closer to the summit. Always when you finally thought you made it, you turn left or right and see more stairs and more stairs. Three water bottles were empty and the sky became slowly dark blue. In the end, after 1.5 hours hiking hill up, we reached the monarchy on top of Mount Zwegabin.
On top, we and one other tourist got welcomed by some happy and equally tired locals. They have been so happy that two Germans make their way to Hpa-An and then even up Mount Zwegabin during the night and gestured that they would love to take a photo with us. Of course, we agreed. Then more people came, more monks joined the group and literally everybody wanted to have a picture with one of us on their phone.
Now, it was time to enjoy the color play. The sky became orange, the sun illuminated the picturesque valley in magical colors, more mountains in the background appeared and the first monkeys woke up.
The nightly fog slowly vanished and at 6:37am the sun climbed the sky up and the light showed where we are positioned. We found ourselves in a magical lake of clouds, surrounded by other mountains. Incredible!
Tips for the ascent
Two or three things might be handy to know before you walk up Mount Zwegabin.
Mount Zwegabin Tip 1
Prior to your trip, you should check the weather forecast as well as the time of the sunrise. Respectively you need to plan your ascent. Nothing is more annoying than noticing after three quarter of the way up, that you won’t make it before sunrise.
Mount Zwegabin Tip 2
Even though there are one or two vendors on the way up, bring enough water! One big bottle per person is the minimum. You will sweat, no matter how fit you are!
Depending on your pace you will be back home at around 10:00 with a huge hunger and the urge to take a refreshing shower. So better bring a couple of bananas and a small towel as well!
Mount Zwegabin Tip 3
In case you didn’t bring a flash light, ask at the reception of your hostel if it would be possible to borrow one. The two of us had one flash light and one mobile which, in fairness, wasn’t ideal setup.
The Kyauk Ka Lat Pagode
The Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda is another small highlight. It is an incredible stupa-topped limestone pinnacle, set on a tiny isle with a small monarchy on it. All in all, a great location to take pictures when the sun sets. Ideally you can combine the visit here with a hike in the late afternoon.
Tip: As it is a holy place, please pay respect and cover shoulders and knees.
The Saddan Cave, closed during rainy season, is one of the biggest caves in Myanmar and ideally reached with the scooter. The cave is located 13 miles southeast and inhabits an uncountable number of Buddha statues and Pagodas. In 15 minutes, you can cross the cave and ask a boat driver in the end to bring you back to your starting point.
Entrance for the Cave: 1000 Kyat | 70 Cent
Costs fort the boat trip: 3000 Kyat | $2
If this is not enough, you can also do a day trip to the lying Buddha statue in Mawlamyine or visit the Golden Rock, also known as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda or visit one of the many caves around that area such as the famous bat cave. Just jump on the scooter, there is so much to explore.
Hpa- An is small, yes, but there are a couple of hidden gems in respect to food.
Thai Village Restaurant
A 5-star cashew chicken rating from our side! The Thai Village is located on the opposite of the river and a bit tricky to find. Leave the town, after the bridge take the first left. Then either ask or check Maps.me! The way to the restaurant is very special, as you will pass small villages, and tiny huts where farmers live. Welcome to real Myanmar!
San Ma Tau
This truly local restaurant can be found on the main street of Hpa-An and surprised us positively. We didn’t have a clue what we’ve ordered, received white steam rice and many silver pots with different sauces, vegetables, chicken and other undefinable dishes. We tried (almost) everything and really liked most of it! If you are in Hpa-An, you need to stop by.
River View Motel
Our above-mentioned chicken rice with pineapple was very yummy here!
Coffee lovers you should check out Veranda Youth Community Café as well as the New Day Bakery and the Café Famous. Worth trying!
Finally, here a few handy things to know before heading to Hpa-An.
Learn Burmese: Locals in Myanmar are often not used to tourists. That makes it hard to come along with English. To order in Burmese, ask for the way or a simple „Gooday“ makes your life easier!
Know the bus companies: In Yangon’s hectic bus station many different bus companies leave. So, write the name of yours down and look for the same name once you arrived.
Double check the location of your accommodation: Not rarely you find your accommodation somewhere different than shown on Google Maps or Maps.me. So, better double check!
Rent a scooter Explore the landscape and dive in real Myanmar on your scooter. Many areas around Hpa-An, such as the area around the Thai Village, tell a lot about the country.
No minivan: Don’t take mini vans. We unfortunately got a minivan even thought we were promised a “big bus”. In the end, we have been squeezed in the tiny van with 14 locals, not thinking of leg room. In the first four hours, the car stopped so often that we drove a little less than 40 miles. All in all, horrible 15 hours!
Be an early riser for Mount Zwegabin: Start early enough to catch the sunrise. It normally takes longer than you might think. It took us 1.5 hours, so better calculate 2 hours to the to be on the safe side. It also makes sense to check out where to start the hike the day before, so you know where to go, park and kick off. Pack a sweat shirt and a light jacket.
We hope we could bring across that Hpa-An is worth a stop! Also, hopefully you enjoy all recommendations as much as we did and have a great time in Myanmar. If any open questions or remarks, please leave a comment. We are happy to hear from you.
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➳ Of course, Hpa-An is only one of many great stops in Myanmar. Here you get a holistic picture of a Myanmar travel route.
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