Hpa-An is a perfect limestone ridge protruding through the splendid green rice paddies, encompassing the town right outside Kayin State Capital and providing a sudden show of magnificence to the scenery. The town itself doesn't really have a lot of show apart from its ever-busy markets and the beautiful Shwe yinh myaw Paya which boast of providing an excellent view of the Thanlyin River that just slides through it. The main fascination in all these is the chance you get to see the countryside, where you get to play around caves, swim in spring-sustained pools and climb through the jungle-wrapped Mount Zwegabin and KyaukKalat Pagoda, resting on a steep edge of a rock, will blow away the minds of even those suffering from overexposure of pagoda, as well as the opportunity to explore the various Kayin villages. Lots of people come over with the intention of staying only a couple of days but end up staying for much longer, and when you finally decide to head back home or somewhere else, you also get the option of riding with a riverboat down the Thanlyin through to Mawlamyine. Schedule your visit to fall in the December/January period, and you stand a chance of witnessing the breath-taking Kayin New Year celebrations, where Hpa-An gets to organize dance and kickboxing competitions.
Shwe yinh myaw Paya
To get a perfect view of the distinctive silhouette of Mount Hpar-Pu's and the Thanlyin River, head straight to the little Shwe yinh myaw Paya at dusk and see the sun set over this beautiful riverbank. The pagoda also hosts a gigantic statue of a green frog (frogs are significantly symbolic for the Kayin) and a naga – referring to the history behind the name Hpa-An, meaning “Frog Vomit.” The Kayin legend talks about a naga that swallowed a frog which was carrying a gem inside its mouth and because of this gem, the naga was mysteriously stopped from swallowing the frog, making it to vomit the frog onto the Thanlyin river banks which is where Hpa-An is located today - automatically giving the name to Myanmar's very memorable but least poetic town.
The limestone ridge which is closest to downtown Hpa-An, Mount Hpar-Pu, is just a short boat trip distance right across the Thalwin River coming from Shwe yinh myaw Paya. The moment you arrive at the opposite side of the bank, it's only a short walk across the vegetable fields to a small village which has got signposts showing the way and written in English. The directions point to the road that leads to the bottom end of Hpar-Pu, just before turning right to face the river. Continue along this road to the tail end up the mountain steps –this might take an intense twenty-minute climb for you to get to the top. However, due to the landslide which happened during the 2013 rainy season which swept off a sizeable portion of the hill, climbing to the topmost part of the hill is no longer safe, but you can still get high up enough to get an excellent view of the river and out facing Mount Zwegabin.
When viewed from certain angles, the bulk of Mount Zwegabin limestone emanates from the surface like a huge molar tooth. Even though when viewed from downtown Hpa-An, it may appear very steep, still, there are two lovely pathways to the get to the top of the 725m-high mountain, making it a worthwhile half-day hiking experience.
Most people will prefer to climb the less direct western side of the mountain which has a better viewing, following the trail which starts from Lumbini Garden, located 3km east of Kyauk Kalat Pagoda, where about 1100 Buddha statues have been meticulously lined in visually attractive rows. From this point, climbing up this steep and winding path to the top takes about two hours, while having enough supply of water and drinks available en route and sufficient supply of macaques to accompany you. The path leading to the eastern section of the mountain is a more straightforward path, with numerous staircases that lead to a tiny restaurant right at the tail end of the mountain, from where the distance to the Myawaddy road is a straight, flat 1km walk. However you choose to go across the mountain, it's best for you to arrange for a vehicle to pick you up at the other end so as not to wait for too long.
For those who choose to spend the night at the monastery on the mountain top, seeing the sun rise in the morning might just be the major highlight of your trip to Hpa-An. As at the time of writing this, sleeping on mats in a simple dormitory is still not possible (donation expected), but the immigration department of Hpa-An is constantly clamping down on this practice – before you decide to dash to the top of the mountain, you may want to check out the Soe Brothers Guesthouse down below.
Evenly placed on an awkwardly shaped limestone peak with frangipani trees springing forth from little cracks within the rock, Kyauk Kalat Pagoda, situated 7km south of Hpa-An, is definitely the most interesting sight to behold in this area. Located on an island right in the middle of an artificial lake, this area is a section of a functional monastery and a vegetarian, shoe-free zone that shuts down during lunchtime for an hour each day so that the monks can peacefully meditate. The renowned monk U Winaya was formally a newcomer monk in this monastery during the 1920s before he established a monastery at Thamanya, which is 40km south-east of Hpa-An.
Saddan Cave is located 28km south of Hpa-An in a not so easy to find spot right at the southern end of the rough limestone ridge, the most bizarre of all of this region's caverns. A full golden zedi sits right inside the entrance of the cave but the collection of Buddhist statues quickly leads to rock formations that are natural - with stalactites protruding from the top of the caves like molten wax and stalagmites that are mushroom-like surfacing from the cave floors. Bats are commonly found in this irregularly lit main cavern (so make sure you have a good torch with you), and a walk through the cave barefoot takes about fifteen minutes. At the other end, the path emerges next to a crystal clear forest pool, which you can navigate (between November and February only) with a short boat trip back to the entrance. Remember that this whole complex is beyond limits during the rainy season. The cave gets its name from a complicated Jataka story about an earlier incarnation of Buddha's, where he was known as the elephant king Saddan – you can look out for the elephant statues right on the edge of the entrance.
Kawgun Cave situated 12km southwest of Hpa-An in a village known as Kawgun has got its walls canvassed in rippling mosaics of terracotta votive tablets, with noticeable fragments of ancient stucco reliefs in its gaps, has been utilised by nearby Mon Buddhists as far back as the seventh century, with every new generation scraping off some of the ancient to create room for new ones. While the walls of this shallow cave might still be a beautiful sight to behold, work going on at a nearby cement factory has caused tremors that have destroyed most of the ancient statues, leaving behind only a couple of late Bagan-style carving sandstone tablets and the more recent Buddha statuary intact.
Located 12km south-west of Hpa-An near Kawgun village, the small Yathepyan Cave is packed with more recent and some worn out reliefs and also has fantastic views of Mount Zwegabin. Its most prominent feature is the presence of a hole found on the roof of the cavern, with a pagoda directly beneath it covered in bird droppings. In the time of King Anawrahta's eleventh-century campaign in Lower Burma, a loner found solace there with a golden statue of Buddha. Being a freshly converted Theravada Buddhist, Anawrahta tried to possess the statue by wrestling it from the hermit, who suddenly flew out through the roof of the cave carrying the statue underneath his arm away to safety, hence, the hole which you see present there today.
Kawka Thaung Cave and around
Located 10km south-east of Hpa-An, Kawka Thaung Cave is a small distance east of the road to Mae Sot. The cave itself is shallow and its singular chamber which narrows down to an uncomfortably small space where monks meditate, and also has a shrine that contains some little pieces of a bone relic. The section after the cave will most likely catch your gaze for a much longer period - a light emitting row of monk statues will lead the path to second Buddhist cave (locked most times), a weird-looking nat shrine and a hole that is filled with cool, crystal clear spring water, with tea houses all around.
Lakkana village situated in the midst of impressively green rice fields right across a slender concrete bridge is located near Kawka Thaung Cave. It is a beautiful, serene small place, where you get to see the cute village lanes till whenever you’re satisfied and you can also drink toddy. In the far off countryside, you'll also find unusually small hamlets where the usual Kayin life goes on with little or no change.
The Thamanya Sayadaw: U Winaya
Even after so many years of his death, U Winaya, sayadaw of Thamanya Monastery, is still one of Myanmar's most abhorred religious personality – with his pictures plastered all over taxis everywhere in the country. A spiritual counsellor and an avid backer of Aung San SuuKyi, U Winaya was well known for his charitable deeds. Through the decades of endless fights between the government forces and the Karen National Liberation Army, the region that surrounds the Thamanya Monastery was a safe haven for peace until 2003 when the abbot passed away at the age of 93.
Surprisingly, U Winaya's tomb was broken into in 2008 and his body became missing. About a fortnight later, a call came through to the monastery telling them that abbot's body had been cremated, with the remains placed just outside a small zedi close to the edge of the monastery grounds. A lot of people believed that this violation was part of a plot inspired by yadaya to assist the government in winning a vital referendum to reform the constitution which held a few weeks after that day. Yadaya is a special Burmese exercise whereby actions are taken based on an astrologer’s advice so as to prevent the occurrence of bad things in the future - a ritual that top military government generals in Myanmar's army have been known to practice for so many years.