Last updated on June 11, 2023
Ana and I planned out much of our travels in Burma around the ability to meet up with friends in the country and based on timing issues, we had four extra days and needed to stick close to Yangon, Burma’s capital city. Based on the recommendation of fellow travelers, Ana and I pointed our noses toward Hpa-an, a small and sleepy town about seven hours southwest of Yangon (Rangoon for those who prefer the alternate spelling).
Should You Visit Hpa-An?
Hpa-An hit on each of my anticipations: small, rural, markets, people and countryside hikes. I wish I could write this post with a sentiment that shouts out, “Wow, look at this place, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring you’ll be jealous I’m here!”
That would sell people on the town and probably convince a few people to steer their backpacks and wheelie suitcases in that direction.
And I do often visit places with the “wow-factor.” Saying adieu to the temples of Bagan at sunset, sitting on a soft green lawn as the Taj Mahal changed colors in the sunlight, breathing deeply the scent of dense forest around Tikal’s Mayan ruins…these are all such locations. My hike through the Annapurna range in Nepal was feat I had long dreamed about and if I had a bucket-list, that would have been high on it.
But the tiny town of Hpa-An, Burma?
Well, I can’t sell you on Hpa-An as an adventure junkie location, and this petite town may never find its way into a glossy travel brochure. Instead, the town is sweet and light; it’s a place with friendly faces and days spent chatting with my niece on long hikes through rice paddies and painted caves.
The Case for Visiting Rural Myanmar
Small towns are windows into a country’s soul; this is the case in every country I’ve ever visited, my own included. People are more accessible in small towns, it’s easy to walk through the tiny neighborhoods, the cadence of life slows down and locals have the time and inclination for a friendly wave, even a spot of conversation if they speak English.
Mornings are my personal time during this trip through Southeast Asia with my niece Ana. I spend time reflecting, writing, and planning, usually over a quiet coffee. In Hpa-An, with no internet in the hotel (sometimes that is a real blessing) and a hankering for fresh coffee (as opposed to the instant variety offered freely in the hotel), I headed out at sunrise to visit the busy morning market visible out the window of my guesthouse.
Morning air is fresher than any other time in the day. The nighttime breezes clear out the scents and sounds. Sunrise wipes the slate clean and shoppers and vendors at the dawn market in Hpa-An buzzed with delighted chatter.
Locals truck, bicycle, and walk in fresh vegetables from the countryside and by dawn the veggies and fruits are stacked and ready for purchase. Women wield their cleavers and freshly dice up the day’s meat supply for the town.
And being the lone tourist around, a grin split my face while juicy fresh watermelon dripped from my hand as I watched the locals in Hpa-An greet the morning with smiles, enthusiasm, and the rhythms of long-established routine that plays out like an exquisitely timed ballet.
Hours later, one of the helpful owners of the Soe Brothers Guesthouse dropped Ana and me off at a wooden hut plopped near a field deep in the countryside with a grinning old woman selling bits and bots of soda and snacks to anyone making a pilgrimage to the cave shrines.
He gave us clear instructions on getting back to town, a good call on his part because for the rest of the day, the only clear English we spoke was to each other! With a jaunty wave and a “see ya later,” Ana and I were left with a hand-drawn map in our hands showing a path through rice paddies to various caves and temples awash with paintings and Buddha statues, and a nearby swimming hole popular with the locals.
I handed the reins over to Ana; at 11 she’s quite old enough to lead us around our map to the various spots and it’s more fun for her if she has some control, particularly on a day of exploring paths, caves, temples, nooks, and crannies.
We found the Kawkathaung and Ruby caves filled to overflowing with Buddhas. Paintings and signs carved into the rock. Small statues filled naturally formed rock crevices.
We found a small artificial pool of clear water diverted from the surrounding rice paddies, and floating restaurants popular with local teens who arrived three to a motor-bike and they flowed into the inlet with the giggling enthusiasm, jostling and joking common to just about any gathering of 16 to 20 year-olds the world over.
We opted to dip our feet instead of swimming because we would have had to swim fully clothed… and not because I forgot to pack swimsuits, but rather because jumping around in a western-style bathing suit would have prompted jaws dropping, uncomfortable stares and basically would have been a great big taboo in modest Myanmar. Local women swim in their longyi skirts and maintain a lot of skin coverage!
And by sitting on the edge with some of the teens, they were able to pepper us with questions spoken in an enthusiastic version of English, augmented with charades, and the ensuing antics as we attempted to communicate left us all in giggles.
Beautiful expanses of bridges panned the flooded rice paddies, and huge grins split the faces of locals when as we got ourselves lost in the small dirt streets weaving through villages.
As the day ended, Ana spied a staircase near the wooden hut that began our adventures. Like modern-day explorers, she set off with enthusiasm and a breakneck pace up the winding stone staircase.
At the top, we looked out from a crumbling temple.
We sat and chatted about our day, our plans, and life as we watched late afternoon sunlight spill over the hills and valleys around Hpa-An. For Ana, I thought maybe she would be disappointed by the slow pace and small adventures. She surprised me though, because she felt the day was a win all around because she was able to 1) sleep in, 2) help plan/navigate throughout the day, 3) see some things without time pressures and rushing, and 4) she was back to the hotel early enough to read her book (she was reading the first Hunger Games book and, understandably, addicted). Some days, we’d wake up early, have a full day of sightseeing, other days of marathon 12 hour bus rides. So, I get it. She wanted a casual day, with some sightseeing but framed by downtime and sleep, and Hpa-An was the perfect spot for all of these things.
So, without a lot of fanfare we walked back down those well-worn stone steps, followed the dirt path back to the main road, and hailed a passing truck willing to drop us in town.
It’s not the most remarkable of days. But it stands out in my memory for its simplicity. The company couldn’t have been better, and it’s one of those days I really only discovered once I slowed down and savored cadence of life in each new town.
Best Things to Do in Hpa-An
Explore the Bat Cave (Kawt Ka Taung Cave)
Hidden within the depths of Kawt Ka Taung Cave lies a captivating spectacle—an immense colony of bats. As the sun begins to set, thousands of bats take flight, creating a mesmerizing dance in the evening sky. Even if you don’t see this natural phenomenon, there are many interesting details in the cave.
To reach the Bat Cave, hire a local guide or take a short taxi ride from Hpa-An, which is approximately 8 kilometers away.
Visit Kyauk Kalap
Just a stone’s throw from Hpa-an, Kyauk Kalap is a sight that seems straight out of a fairytale. This pagoda stands gracefully atop a tall limestone rock in the center of a serene lake, defying gravity and offering a picture-perfect setting. Visitors are drawn to the peaceful ambiance and breathtaking views that make Kyauk Kalap a must-visit destination.
To reach Kyauk Kalap, take a short taxi ride from Hpa-an, which is around 10 kilometers away.
Take a Boat Ride along the Thanlwin River
Embarking on a leisurely boat ride along the meandering Thanlwin River is an enchanting way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty that surrounds Hpa-an. The journey presents panoramic views of rolling hills, verdant landscapes, and riverside villages, allowing travelers to connect with the region’s idyllic countryside. Boat rides can be arranged from the Hpa-an Jetty or through local tour agencies.
Climb Mount Zwegabin
The hike to the summit of Mount Zwegabin is a bucket-list experience in Hpa-an. Scaling this majestic peak rewards you with sweeping vistas of the town below, mist-covered valleys, and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. The journey also offers an opportunity to visit monasteries along the way, adding a spiritual touch to the adventure. The starting point for the hike is located at the base of Mount Zwegabin, which can be reached by a short taxi ride from Hpa-an.
Explore Saddan Cave
Step into the mysterious world of Saddan Cave. This expansive limestone cave system beckons with its grand chambers, stalactites, and stalagmites that evoke a sense of wonder. Venture deep into the darkness, guided by the glow of your flashlight, and discover hidden underground rivers and awe-inspiring rock formations. Access the cave by hiring a boat from Hpa-an Jetty or taking a taxi to the cave entrance.
Discover the Lumbini Garden
Seek tranquility and spiritual solace in the serene surroundings of Lumbini Garden. This meticulously maintained park features lush gardens adorned with countless Buddha statues, each exuding a sense of serenity and enlightenment. Stroll along the paths, find a quiet spot for meditation, or simply bask in the serene ambiance. Lumbini Garden is a short distance from Hpa-an and can be reached by taxi.
Visit Kawgun Cave
Step back in time as you enter the ancient realm of Kawgun Cave, where history and art intertwine. The cave’s walls and ceilings are adorned with thousands of intricate carvings and Buddha images, representing centuries of devotion and craftsmanship. Exploring the cave is like walking through a living museum, where you can marvel at the rich cultural heritage of the region.
Kawgun Cave is accessible via a short taxi ride from Hpa-an.
Hpa-An Travel Guide
Where to stay
Hpa-An is about five hours south of Yangon, and budget travelers can’t go wrong with the Soe Brothers Guesthouse (it’s one of the few guesthouses in town, so it was easy to get dropped directly here!). If you’re looking for something budget but a bit nicer, opt for Keinnara Hpa-An.
How to get to Hpa-An
Buses run to Hpa-An from Yangon (perhaps seven hours on a good day), to get to Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, you ride in the back of a truck for a very optimistic five to seven hours. I’ve heard lovely things about the boat to and from Mawlamyine.
You can also organize transport and tours that take in Hpa-An and Kyaiktiyo through Viator.
What to do
Book your tours through the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. They speak great English and can organize tours to Mount Zwegabin, any of the surrounding caves, and everything there is to do in town.
Even if you stay at a hotel outside of town, book your activities through Soe Brothers. The morning market is great and a great place to grab a street-food breakfast if you eat meat (vegetarians are better off at the restaurant/shop just near the Soe Brothers).
What to read
I used the Lonely Planet Myanmar throughout our month in the country and it was, at times, the only way I could figure out English language information on logistics. If you plan to explore off-the-path, having a guidebook is invaluable when figuring out whether a train, bus, or pickup truck is your best transport option. You should also bring one of the fascinating books about Myanmar to read as you travel there—it will lend you insight into the culture and people.
Southeast Asia Backpacking Guide
A download on everything I learned while backpacking the region. From Thai beaches to remote towns in Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and more—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.