Our next stop after Mawlamyine was Hpa-An (pronounced Pa Ahn), a town surrounded by karst mountains and caves. We opted to take a boat from Mawlamyine to Hpa-An, admiring the scenery which became nicer and filled with small karst mountains the closer we got to Hpa-An. When we arrived in town we were greeted by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us to our accommodation, the Galaxy Motel, for 1,000 kyatt each (75 cents US). The same problem we had seen in Mawlamyine and heard about in Myawaddy persisted in Hpa-An, travelers without reservations were being turned away as we arrived.
We signed up for the main tour offered in town after checking in, which takes you to eight different attractions around Hpa-An, six of which are caves, all for 5,000 kyatt ($3.50) per person if you go by tuk tuk (maximum eight people). That tour starts at 8:30am every day and we arrived in the afternoon, so we ventured over to Lucky Restaurant for lunch. Lucky is the only place in town with draft beer, and they charge a reasonable 750 kyatt for roughly 300ml of Myanmar Beer, or 950 for 300ml of Black Shield Stout (8.1% ABV).
Hpan Pu Mountain
A short boat ride across the river, a relatively small karst mountain, Hpan Pu Mountain, is a popular place for travelers to visit and hike up. Having been told that the sunset from the lookout point was nice, and also not to climb to the very top as it’s dangerous, we headed to the dock just before 5pm to get a ride over. The ten minute boat ride set us back 1,000 kyatt pp each way. Walking from the dock into the small village, we turned right at the first major intersection and walked toward the mountain. If you continue to walk around the mountain, keeping it on your left and the water to your right, you’ll run into a long set of steps that takes you to the viewpoint on the mountain.
The hike only took 20 minutes or so to reach the viewpoint, and had nice views of Hpa-An and the river on the way up. After reaching the viewpoint we noticed that the path continued upward, so I decided to continue on to the top of the mountain. A few hundred meters after the viewpoint I ran into the first obstacle, which helped reinforce the lady from our guesthouse’s opinion that climbing to the top is unsafe – an old makeshift ladder, made from dried branches and held together by plastic ties. I carefully climbed the ladder, taking care to put my weight on the outside of each rung since the middle probably would’ve snapped. Happily past the first ladder, a second and third, each of similar quality, confronted me. While these ladders were made of wood and much nicer, they looked like they were a few decades old and had multiple broken rungs.
Having luckily made it up the three ladders without them breaking, I reached the top to find a similar view to the viewpoint, but in all directions. It was nice reaching the top, but felt pretty unsafe, especially since if any of the ladders had broken, there was a high likelihood of falling down the mountain. Heading back down just as the sun set, we were back in Hpa-An before dark, happy with the short hike.
Sights Around Hpa-An
The next morning as 8:30am rolled around, a large tuk tuk pulled up outside of our guesthouse and eight of us piled in. We visited our first cave, Kaw Kathaung, which had been turned into a Buddhist temple. Later we learned that this is typical in Hpa-An and Myanmar to some degree, there are tons of Buddhist cave temples. This particular one had hundreds of monk statues lined up down the road, all waiting for a donation it appeared. Women had to cover their legs past the knee as is typical in temples, and no spaghetti straps were allowed.
Saddar Cave, which is one of the highlights of the trip, was up next. We weren’t familiar with the cave and after walking for a while into it, we were surprised to see a bridge inside and that it continued on quiet a way. A half hour after entering the cave, we came to the opposite side, only to find a bridge leading to another cave! This one was much smaller, and only took five minutes to reach the end. Between the two caves is a lagoon where you can hire a boat driver to take you back to the beginning of the cave, near the parking lot. We spent the 3,000 kyatt each and were paddled through a small cave, and around the mountain to the beginning. Bringing our shoes with us instead of leaving them at the cave entrance would have been preferred (the cave is also a temple, so no shoes can be worn) since there’s a bit of a walk on a dirt path back to the beginning of the temple.
For lunch we would stop at the water temple, a village centered around a large swimming pool where locals gathered to eat and drink (some of them drank way too much!). Swimming there didn’t look overly appealing since the pool didn’t seem to have much of a filtration system and a few very drunk locals made a few of the girls feel less than comfortable. While Saddar Cave was a lot nicer than expected, the water temple was much less so.
On our way to the next major stop, we dropped by a place with 1,000 Buddha statues. At first when we were told the name of the area was 1,000 Buddhas we didn’t quite believe it, but after walking through rows among rows of statues, I believe there are easily 1,000 images of Buddha there.
One of the iconic images of Hpa-an is Kyauk Kalat, a pagoda sitting on top of a karst column that looks like it will fall over with a strong enough breeze. Our tuk tuk dropped us outside of a temple next to a pond, and just past it sat the precariously perched pagoda. There are ladders to the top of the pagoda and people were filing up a stairway at the base, so up we went to try to reach the top! Unfortunately before reaching any ladders, a monk blocked out way, and peacefully showed that we would not be heading further.
Yathebyan Cave was next on our list, and it featured a large Buddha statue outside, and a long cave within. Wandering down the passageway we reached the opposite end to find a beautiful cave mouth with a nice view. While it wasn’t nearly as long as Saddar Cave, the structure of it was just as beautiful.
Kawgun Cave was our final cave that we would enter and explore for the day. The cave’s mouth is adorned with colorful carvings on every surface, and Buddha statues throughout. While lacking in natural beauty, the cave is beautiful and unique because of the way it’s been decorated.
Our final stop for the day was the one we were least excited about, and seemingly the one another couple on our trip was most excited for, the Bat Cave. We have seen other bat caves, the last time was on Sumatra, and were impressed, but we were feeling a bit caved out and didn’t know what to expect at this one. Sunset was fast approaching and we were told we needed to hurry to be there in time, which seemed odd to me as natural lighting doesn’t matter much inside of caves. We approached the cave to find dozens of tourists, more than we had seen in Hpa-an so far, sitting with their cameras ready outside of a small cave mouth. As the sun set, suddenly hundreds of bats began to fly from the cave!
A few locals began beating drums and shouting, encouraging the bats to come out for the evening. The trickle of a few hundred bats turned to thousands pouring out across the sky. For 15 minutes bats continuously streamed from the Bat Cave, making solid black highways in the sky. I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many bats in one place, or such a dramatic showing of them. The best spot to sit seemed to be almost directly under where they’d fly, near the drummers that sat on the ground, or at the pagoda on the right as you approach.
Hpa-an ended up being a very interesting place to visit, full of interesting sights and the amazing Bat Cave! Our next stop was going to be one of the most revered sights by Buddhists in Myanmar, the Golden Rock!