Destination: Hpa’an, Myanmar
Number of days spent: 2 days
Where we stayed: Seo Brothers Guest House - $14 with private bathroom (definitely overpriced for what you get (no breakfast, somewhat grimy rooms & bucket showers with hot & cold water)…as I said when I came down from looking at the room “it ain’t the Ritz,” they replied, “but it ain’t the shits”. In their defense they do offer unlimited coffee & tea and they provide excellent maps of the towns & surrounding areas. They will go out of your way to help you around town to make the most out of your stay.
Best Restaurant: The tea party sized Mohinga (Burmese fish noodle soup, K350 – $.35) stand along the main road was excellent. if you have not grown tired of greasy food yet, the Indian stand (from Soe Brother’s walk one block to the left, turn and 4 blocks straight ahead on the left) had some tasty deep fried treats as well.
Best of: Celebrating the full moon festival by riding the man powered Ferris Wheel with thousands of local villagers
Worst of: Walking across Buddha’s bat poo covered caves in the dark and barefoot.
Most memorable: After making a series of wrong turns in making our way to Kyauk Kalap, we could see it directly across the dried up rice patty in front of us. Undeterred, we set off across the field on the motorbike. Bumping, cursing, and burning in the hot sun we crossed dried up irrigation ditches, passed cows grazing and met the ire of a few farmers as they watched us take out a corner of a sunflower patch. Finally after crossing the ‘3 logs bridge’ we made it to the real road.
Useful Tip: Sometimes it’s better to take a tour rather than doing it on your own. The Soe Brother’s run a day trip out covering the main sites for roughly the same cost as renting your own motorbike. They don’t get lost (there is a definite lack of signage in the area), provide some useful info, and it’s in a shade covered tuk-tuk – all enough to have us recommend them their tour over the do it yourself variety we normally love.
Hpa’an might not make many a tourist’s itinerary, but for those who do venture out here, it’s well worth a couple of days. The town itself has little to show in way of ‘major’ sites. The caves and pagodas in the surrounding countryside, however, make up for the town’s lack of sites. It’s also one of the few places in Kayin state that foreigners are allowed to travel. For years, the Karen’s have been fighting for independence and most of the state is comprised of this large ethnic group. Much like other attempts to end the military’s tight grip on control of the nation they too have had little success.
Mounting our noble two wheeled steed, complete with custom stickers, after market grips and the much required upgrade to purple velvet seat cover, we set off in search of pagodas and caves. After bouncing our way across the afore mentioned fields, we made it to Kyauk Kalap. From the middle of a small man-made lake a single rock formation juts up. Atop the rock sits a small shrine and at the base an equally small monastery. The place was packed with pilgrims and we received a fair amount of odd looks & hand shakes. A couple of the older folks, perhaps making a pilgrimage from a village that never sees westerners, reached out and touched, one might say petted, our arms with extreme curiosity.
After leaving the rock, we headed in the right direction this time, out to Saddar cave, or ‘hell cave’. Along the way, at the base of Zwegabin Mountain, we came across where the festival was being held. After taking a quick peak at the hundreds of Buddha guiding the way, we hopped back on the motorbike and zoomed off to the caves. While the path is somewhat straightforward, we managed to somehow miss a turn and ended up taking the longer, less used, path up to the caves. Mixing deep sand with washed out ruts in the road, the going was rough. At one point, the bag sitting in the front basket flipped out and somersaulted in the air, landing in the sand. After picking up and quickly assessing, we figured no harm no foul – only later realizing that one of the headlamps somehow managed to fall out of one of the side pockets – just in time to go in the dark caves.
After shaking off the overly helpful ‘monk’, who was also the only one in the place walking with his shoes on, we made our way though the cave, one with the now lonely headlamp, and the other with a pen light (thanks to Keith’s handy x-mas gift). Every so often there was a misstep and a little squishing was felt beneath the feet – nothing like a little bat poo. After wandering through the cave for a few minutes, a dim light grew larger in the distance. Exiting out the far end of the cave revealed a small pond with ducks and an oddly placed fisherman. We rested underneath a tree for a moment, enjoying the last of our granola bars from home and watching the ducks splash around. It didn’t take long before our peace was disturbed by a couple of groups of teenagers wanting to pose with us. As we have found out, plan on being asked to have your photo taken by many locals, particularly if you have blonde and curly hair! Just beyond another field lies yet another cave, apparently nicer then the one we had just passed through. Virtually exhausted from the heat, sun and dust – we gave up on that notion and made our way back out of the cave. Sometimes the body just has its limits. Ours had been reached and we still had to return to town – over an hour’s ride away.
We eventually made it back to town, all the while swearing off motorbikes when it’s this hot and having little to no protection. We sat on the balcony of the guesthouse resting, relaxing, drinking tea and waiting for nightfall – festival time!
For this particular auspicious full moon, pilgrims from all over the country climb Zwegabin mountain in the middle of the night single file. After completing the religious trek, they then return to the base where draft beer, concerts and revelry await their return. We, of course, skipped the 4 hour plus return trek and headed straight for the fun. Clambering into the back of an over filled pickup truck, we made the half hour journey out of town and joined in. The festival was quite large considering the population density of the surrounding countryside. It was as if everyone was there. Noodle stands dished out various squiggly delights. Purveyors of anything from ice cream to fish soup to grilled bird on a stick set up all hoping to make a few bucks. Intermingled with all the food were countless games. The dice game from Inle made an appearance – only this time they were smaller and many more. Other games were more difficult to understand. There were several versions of the ‘cup’ game but with a twist. The twist was that everyone watching knew where the ball (or color, symbol, etc.) was – including the two men playing – and yet the bets continued. When the men turned their heads to get money out to bet, the woman would switch the cups – obvious to everyone watching. The only thing we could figure was that the two men were in on the take and all three were waiting for a sucker to lay down money. In a land where the WWF (yes no matter how poor – satellite TV with American wrestling is a must) is thought to be ‘real’, nothing surprises me anymore.
Probably the most interesting part of the festival was their version of the Ferris Wheel. No motors or engines and the only electricity supplied is to run the lights – these wheels are 100% manual powered. Once on board, you spin around waiting for the rest of the carriages to be loaded. While waiting, I was fortunate enough to be splashed with a bit of good luck betel nut juice compliments of a fellow passenger above me. When I complained to the operator in hopes that he would say something to the man, all I received was a napkin. After loading up the wheel full of passengers – which takes a while, the magic begins to happen. A crew of 6 or so men, youthful and spry, clamber up the sides of the contraption. Upon reaching the top, they make a couple of quick motions, and one by one they jump on the front of the carriages. The wheel begins to turn from the momentum until it’s in full spin. The momentum is enough for the wheel to make about 4-5 complete turns before it slows to a stop. Not bad considering it’s just a couple of 90lb kids generating the energy.
After enjoying the festival we returned to the guesthouse and got ready for our early morning departure back one last time to the city of Yangon!