After taking the slow boat from Mawlamyine, we finally arrived in Hpa-An and walked to our guesthouse called the Soe Brothers II Guesthouse. It was a bit pricey, but there aren’t many lodging choices in Hpa-An, so I would recommend booking ahead of time for a place to stay. I would recommend booking one night, then staying the second night at the monastery at the top of the mountain, then booking the third night in town again. We were playing it safe with food because I was still getting over stomach problems, so we found a western restaurant where we ate both lunch and dinner.
Since there were no motorbikes available for rent that day, we decided to just walk around town. The main area of town was a long walk away, so we did not go there. Instead we headed down to the lake area because it looked nice and there was supposed to be a museum there. Well, there was a museum, but it looked like it never really opened. So, we wandered closer to the water and ate a couple of smoothies while watching locals go out in little swan paddle boats. Eventually, I got Nate to go out with me in one, but what we failed to realize is that they are made for people much smaller than us. Nate could barely fit and when he tried to paddle he cramped up. So, needless to say, it was not the experience I thought it would be.
Cramped in our tiny swan boat
The following day, we rented a motorbike and had a jam packed day. Hpa-An is famous for temples that are made inside of caves. Our first stop was Kaw Ka Thaung Cave. I am glad this was our first temple because although it was a cool stop, if we had seen it after other temples we would have been a bit disappointed. Outside of the cave was a bit more interesting than inside. There was a whole line of monks statues offering bowls to Buddha. Close by, there was also a community pool where lots of kids were playing. It was really nice to see them splashing each other and squealing in excitement.
Our second stop was a cave called Sadden Cave. This was one of my favorite caves. The entrance is very large and you see many different types of Buddha statues including a lying down Buddha with neon lights. There was a bunch of peacocks running around the cave since the peacock is a sacred animal for Buddhists.
We were told that we could hike through the cave so we starting hiking back into the cave. There was not as much light and since the cave was a sacred temple as well we had to do all of the hiking in bare feet. To add to this, there were many bats on the ceiling so guaranteed we were walking through a lot of bat poop. The cave was very beautiful and at one point we came to a bridge that I could have sworn was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. I was a bit scared that it would fall apart as we crossed, but it ended up ok.
Indiana Jones Bridge
On the other side of the cave we reached a lake where they had boats for hire. We found two other girls and shared a boat with them. It was really nice because they paddled us across the lake and under another little cave. Then, we rode up a small canal on the side of the cave through rice fields. It was really relaxing. Then, we had to get out and hike back around, so I am glad that we brought our shoes with us.
Our third stop was called Kyauk Ka Lat. It was very beautiful because it was a pagoda that was poised on the top of a gigantic rock structure. They were carving a moat around it, so you needed to cross a bridge to get there. Once we arrived, I didn’t go close to the temple because I wasn’t feeling well because it was really hot and I didn’t want to put on my temple clothes. Nate took a quick look and then we left because we were running out of time before sunset.
Our next stop was called Yathayeyan Cave. The first thing that we noticed was that there were monkeys running around outside of the cave. People fed them corn so they were all fighting over half ears of corn. They were really adorable and some were really small. After watching the monkeys, we climbed the stairs into the cave. Again there was many buddha statues outside of the cave leading up the stairs and the inside was ornately decorated with Buddha images. One of my favorite things thought was the view out into the valley. This was another cave that you could hike through to the back on a series of small staircases. The back was really interesting because it had a different view, but also because of the rock structures were very beautiful.
View looking into and out of Yathayeyan Cave
Hiking around Yathayeyan Cave
The next cave was my favorite cave and it was also the oldest cave called Kawgun Cave. There was very elaborately decorated Buddha images everywhere, but what made it so impressive were all the Buddha carvings on the walls. It looked like they had put some sort of plaster and then carved tiny buddha images to the walls and ceilings of the cave. I am not even sure how they could get up so high! There was also a beautiful colored painting on one rock that I loved!
This cave also had the option the climb a lot of stairs to a viewpoint. I was still a bit sick, so this was an effort, but totally worth it. We had a 360 degree view of the valley and surrounding area. We saw a lot of the temples we had already seen, the river, and even some mountains in the distance. It was stunning.
Our final stop for the day was called the Bat Cave. We arrived around 5:30 because we were told that the bats fly our around 5:45. You cannot hike into this cave, but the idea is to stand outside and wait for sunset when thousands of bats fly out of the cave. We had to wait until around 6:15 for the bats to come out, but it was worth it! I couldn’t believe how many bats came out. We watched for about 15 minutes and the bats were still coming out when we left. It was a steady stream of bats that you could see in the distance. They were almost like birds in that they all flew together and made different patterns in the sky. Looking back at the video as well, there was a little boy banging on a pot and every time he did this you could see the bats jump up as a group. It was a sight I had never seen before. We returned and had some dinner in the night market and then headed to bed.
The following day we woke up early because we were going to do a climb up to the top of Mount Zwegabin to a monastery and we wanted to do it while it was still cool. We arrived around 9:00 in the morning and arrived at what they called Lumbini Garden at the base of the mountain. This was a garden where they had at least 100 sitting buddhas all facing in different directions.
Then, we started out trek up the stairs. There were so many stairs!! I will still not 100% so this was a bit of a rough hike for me. This was a sort of Mecca type hike for the locals and we saw many of them dressed up really nicely hiking to the top. The hike was very beautiful as much of it was through the woods. Part of the way up we made it to a monastery where we found a lot of puppies and I was in heaven. It took us about 1.5 hours to make it to the top and we were rewarded with a giant gold pagoda and an amazing view.
There were a lot of people at the top and it even included a restaurant. We were asking them how they got everything to the top of the mountain and they explained that they had carried everything to the top including the refrigerator, which I could not believe. We were happy we made it up by 11am because this is when they fed the monkeys and we got to see many monkey eating leftover rice including a mom with a tiny baby. Here, we also had a huge amout of locals want to take their picture with us. Traveling around Myanmar as a white person is like being a celebrity. Our entire time in Hpa-An we took loads of photos with many of the locals.
After looking around the top and having a bite to eat we decided to hike back down. We wish we had known earlier that you could spend the night for free at the monastery because if we had known we would have down this our second night instead of paying for accommodation. It took us about an hour to get down the mountain and I was relived and tired when we reached the bottom.
After the hike we had one last stop in Hpa-An and this was at Bayin Nyi Cave. It was a distance out of town going the opposite direction of all of the other caves. If I was strapped for time, I would not recommend this cave because we saw many other caves that were more impressive the day before. In the reviews of the cave it equated it to Disney World and I felt that this we pretty accurate. There was a lake and around it and up into the cave was a mess of colors and Buddha images. Additionally, we had heard that there were male and female baths at the site. Well, they were more like algae filled pools, but we thing that locals bathed in them. We saw men hike up their skirts and tie them into almost like a diaper and jump in. The women’s pool was behind a wall and if you wanted to get in you had to go in your clothes fully covered. Nate and I opted not to do this.
So we proceeded to the cave, but were almost stopped by a band of monkeys. We inched by, but they surrounded and snarled at this other little boy on the way down the stairs. When we made it in the cave it was not much different than the other caves we had entered. I would say it was just ok and not worth the time of money to get there.
Finally, we returned back to town and had a shower. Then, we headed back out to the night market for dinner again before we had to return the motorbike. The following morning we woke up early to catch a bus to Kyaikto. We were heading here for one night so that we could stop and see the Golden Rock. This is a really sacred spot for locals and thousand come here every day to touch and worship this rock that is perched on the side of a cliff, but has never fallen. They have covered the rock in gold leaf and at the top there is also a monastery and a ton of shops. Yet, this whole experience for us turned into a bit of a mess and I would not say it was worth it.
Our bad luck started right as we got off the bus. We hopped on a couple motorbike taxis to go to Kinpun, which was the city right at the base of the mountain and where we thought our hotel was located. Our drivers looked at the address and then drove us 1 minute down the road and dropped us off. We were so confused! The address told us it was in Kinpun, but the receptionist and the pictures told us it was the place. This left us in a bit of a predicament because we now needed to find a way to Kinpun. No one at the guesthouse spoke much English, but finally we conveyed that we needed to rent a motorbike. What they gave us was hilarious. It was this broken down motorbike with a kick start and they had no helmets. The problem was that we had no other options and they said we could rent it for $3 so we took it.
We drove to Kinpun and tried to drive up the mountain, but they would not let us. So, we had to park the motorbike at another hotel and get on these massive trucks to head up the mountain. They jammed everyone in these tiny rows and we had to wait about 30 minutes for who knows what. Then, we started our journey up. It was like a roller coaster ride. They were driving so fast up the mountain and around the bends that I was actually afraid for my life. We had two people puking next to us. At various points we had to sit still on the side of the road and wait for other trucks to come down.
Finally, we made it to the top and it was like a zoo of people. It seems that a lot of people bring food and blankets and just camp out at the top. We had to pay more fees because we were foreigners and I had to pay another fee for a scarf because they did not allow me to wear leggings. Finally, we made it to the golden rock! I was further annoyed though because they only let men get close it it. In general, the rock was nothing special, but the interesting part was to see how all of the locals worshipped the rock and the huge event surrounding the rock.
We headed back down on one of the last trucks and reversed our whole course. They need to find a way to make the trucks more efficient because it takes forever to get up and down. When we returned the motorbike the guy tried to tell us it was $3/hour and that we owed $15 and we told him that that was not communicated and that motorbike was not worth that. We only found one option of a restaurant for dinner. This was fine, but later we realized that this food had made us sick, Nate more so than I. The following morning we tried to shower to find out that we had no water. We asked to use another shower, but instead they just brought us a bucket of water and a cup. Additionally, there was drilling work going on the entire time we were there, bugs in the rooms, and you could feel every spring in the bed. If you head to the Golden Rock, avoid the Shwe Hinn That Motel.
Once we left the hotel, we walked to the train station to catch a train to Bago. Our plan was to train to Bago and then take a bus up to Inle Lake. Well, plans are meant to be changed. At the train station, Nate got very sick. We waited there for a couple of hours and then caught the 3 hour train to Bago. At this point, we knew we could not then get on a night bus, so we found a place to stay the night in Bago called the Emperor Hotel. Bago was a pretty nothing town and was also hard to find places to eat. We ended up getting food from a supermarket and eating in our room. I would not recommend this stop, but we needed it for Nate to recover. We just felt like we were being ripped off my everyone in those two days in Kyaikto and Bago and at that moment Myanmar left a bad taste in our mouth. We were excited to head up north.