Despite the country has opened up considerably during the last few years, entering Myanmar overland is still quite an adventure.
The Friendship Bridge connects the South-West part of the country with Thailand. Every day, thousands of locals and very few travelers cross the border here, embarking in a 7-hour journey from Mae Sot to Myawaddy. The dense traffic crawls up and down a mountain pass, on a dirt road where the traffic is one-way every other day. A desperate trip made in an infinite convoy of vehicles of all sorts and age, usually with a load twice their size. A compact mess that moves at 20 km/hour and stops each time a truck takes a break to cool down its tires and engine (locals has set up roadside business of water cane cooling, as in the best Asian entrepreneurship tradition).
Once on the other side, the quiet and almost untouched beauty of Hpa-An countryside is almost stunning. Here you can go temple hopping, cave exploring or simply cycling around the rice fields dotted with massive lime stones formations.
What to do in Hpa-An
Hpa-An is a recent addition of the Myanmar backpacker trail. This sleepy village at the crossroad between Yangon and the Golden Rock started to attract travelers in 2013, when the government opened the overland crossing with Thailand. It’s a rural community surrounded by rice fields. Here time flows lazily, as the waters of the mighty Myawaddy.
Roam through golden rice fields and cave temples
Rent a bike or join a day-tour to explore the golden rice fields and the massive limestone formations of the area. Tours are usually organised by the local guesthouses and will take you around small villages and cave temples. The Buddha-filled caves are sacred pilgrimage sites for Burmese, who come here to pray. Kawgun Cave is decorated with thousands of statues and carvings dating back to the 7th century, while Yathaypyan Cave, aka “the bat cave”, will welcome you with its squeaking bat sounds. If you come herein the late afternoon, you can witness the show of thousands of bats flying out at sunset.
The secret lake of Saddan Cave
At the end of a bumpy dirt track, you will find the hidden gem of Saddan Cave. After a short guided trek through huge chambers and infinite stalactites and stalagmites, you will reach a beautiful opening that discloses the spectacular view of a hidden lake amidst the rice fields. From here, you can take a boat back to the start of the cave for 2000 Kyat ($1.5) cruising through fields and rushes.
Hike your way to the top of Mount Zwegabin
If you’re feeling sportive, you can hike on the top of the Mount Zwegabin: the highest rock formation of the area. It’s a challenging 2-hour climb on rocky steps, mostly under the sun. The trail is also populated by a family of particularly perky monkeys: watch your food closely! You can hike from two sides of the mountain, but it’s better to choose the western one. The trek is smoother on this side and the trail head is the charming Lumbini Garden: home of more the a thousand Buddha statues.
Where to sleep
Soe Brothers Guest House
This is the most established guest house in Hpa-An, being the first so-called backpackers allowed to accept foreign tourists. Despite being a backpackers’ all-time favorite, the building never really underwent any renovations. A dirt cheap choice for those who don’t mind tiny –and a bit lacklustre — rooms with a good old bucket shower in exchange for the warmth of the Lonely Planet tribe.
L’il Hpa-An Hostel
This brand new guest house is a long-time needed fancier option for backpackers. With clean and airy rooms and a charming common garden, it is surely worth the extra dollars. They also offer a rare threat when backpacking in Asia: a (clean) common kitchen.
How to get here: Hpa-An, Myanmar
You need to purchase a visa in advance from the closest Myanmar embassy or online here. The bumpy ride for Mae Sot can last from 5 to 7 hours. You will need to rent a shared car at the border for around 10,000 kyat ($7) per seat. Remember that the car won’t leave until it is full.
From Yangon, you can take a direct aircon bus for 5000 kyats (around $4).
Where to go next
From Hpa-An, you can continue your trip to the famous pilgrimage site of The Golden Rock or to the newly opened to tourism southern beaches.
About the author: Sabrina Trevisan is a freelance web editor and copywriter based, for now, in Milan. After studying in Paris, she decided to move to the southern hemisphere to work and travel extensively through Australia, South East Asia and India. Now back in Milan, she plans to return fully nomad soon. Her personal career goal is to be able to work with Italian customers from the Pacific Ocean shores.
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