If you cross the border from Thailand to Myanmar at the at Mae Sot/Mayawaddy border, the scruffy town of Hpa An is the first traveller hang-out you’ll come across. We arrived late one night after a four-hour drive from the border and it was dark and pouring with rain as we attempted to find a decent place to stay for the night. After checking into a miserable looking hotel with purple walls, wading through the puddled streets to find a restaurant, passed stray dogs lurking in dark corners, I didn’t get a very good first impression of Hpa An.
When we woke up in the morning and it was still raining with mist covering the mountains, I started to wonder (prematurely) what all the fuss about this town was. Our friends had told us that it was their favourite place in Myanmar – but why? I thought. When the sky began to clear a few hours later and we hired a motorbike to explore the surrounding countryside, it all became clear – this place was reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
No dinosaurs... but we did see a massive snake crossing the road just minutes outside of the town and some of the most amazing scenery that I’ve seen in Southeast Asia!
Where to stay in Hpa An?
If you’ve just come across the border from Thailand, you’re in for a shock here at your first destination in Myanmar. Hotels are much more expensive and lower quality than you’ll find in Thailand, and you’ll have to put up with some quirky features like sinks (with no exit pipe for the water) that wash your feet at the same time as your hands, sporadic electricity and lime green walls matched with silk pink curtains.
We did a tour of some of the hotels in town here’s what we found:
Soe Brothers Guesthouse: Clearly a backpacker favourite, with travellers on every floor playing the ukulele, reading the Lonely Planet or checking travel info on their phones, Soe Brothers Guesthouse has cheap rooms with a friendly, social vibe. $10 USD / night for a private fan room with a shared bathroom. $14 USD / night for AC room with a fan.
The brothers also have another guest house, Soe Brothers II Guesthouse, which is a bit more upmarket than their first popular venture.
L'il Hpa An Hostel: Unfortunately (for us), this charming little place that’s just opened, wasn’t able to accept foreign guests yet as their licence hasn’t been approved. L'il (Little) Hpa An Hostel looks like it will become the trendiest place in town once it’s open!
Galaxy Motel: More expensive than Soe Brothers at $20 USD / night, the rooms are marginally better and more spacious. A free breakfast and a very friendly owner make up for the shabbiness.
Hotel Glory: We stayed at this hotel for $25 USD / night (35,000 Kyat) which is the best value for money place that we found in town, with free breakfast and more upmarket rooms with small balconies and nice views from the rooms on the higher floors.
Hotel Gabana: The swishest place in town with rooms starting at $50 USD (70,000 Kyat). Maybe you can't afford to stay here, but they do a good café latte and a coconut cake for 2,000 Kyat!
Things to do in Hpa An
- Hire a motorbike
You can hire a scooter at Good Luck Motorbike Rent on Thit Sar Street. Automatic (6,000 Kyat), semi-automatic (5,000 Kyat). Make sure you give the bike a short test drive before driving out into the countryside as some bikes are a bit ‘quirky’ let’s say. (And remember – you’re driving on the right-hand side of the road here!)
- Climb Mount Zwegabin
The challenging climb to the top of this mountain takes around two hours up concrete steps, passing by some rather pesky monkeys along the way. (Warning – keep food well wrapped up if you take it with you!) There’s a monastery at the top which used to allow foreigners to stay the night, though we’re not currently sure if this arrangement is still allowed. (Please comment below and let us know if you managed to do this!) There are two ways to climb the mountain, from the east or the west side. The western ascent (which is the easiest and most gradual) begins in the pleasant ‘Lumbini Garden’ (Buddha Forest), which is home to row upon row of over a thousand Buddha statues.
There are two ways to climb the mountain, from the east or the west side. The western ascent (which is the easiest and most gradual) begins in the pleasant ‘Lumbini Garden’ (Buddha Forest), which is home to row upon row of over a thousand Buddha statues.
According to local news and a photo exhibition at the base of the mountain, there are plans to build a cable car up Mount Zwegabin, which is currently being held back due to financial restraints. At the moment, the completion date is set for 2018. In the meantime, there’s a strange kids version which you can take in a straight line along the flat ground at the base of the mountain.
- Visit Saddan Cave – (1000 Kyat entrance fee)
On the way to the old capital of the British Empire, Mawlamyine, you’ll find a sign post pointing off to the right leading down a dirt track. You’ll need to follow it for quite some time (the dirt orange road is particularly bumpy in the rainy season!) before you find another sign post directing you to the cave. If it’s a religious day, however, you’ll probably hear the cave before you see it, due to loud music being blasted from the mountain for visitors. The cave itself is very impressive with an enormous chamber, huge stalagmites and stalactites, and a beautiful opening at the far end of the cave which leads to a secret lake.
From here, you can take a boat back to the start of the cave for 2,000 Kyat. What spoilt the experience for me, however, is that because the cave is a holy Buddhist site, you are not allowed to wear shoes anywhere in the cave. Noticing the sign at the entrance to the cave showing the various creatures that could be found here, which included scorpions and deadly spiders, I couldn’t take my eyes of the wet, muddy ground where I was walking and failed to appreciate the natural beauty of my surroundings!
- Other caves
If you’re into caves, there are plenty in this area to keep you satisfied. Kawgun Cave is home to thousands of clay Buddhas as well as wall carvings which date back to the 7th Century. Nearby Yathaypyan Cave also houses ancient wall carvings and a few pagodas. So called ‘Bat Cave’ is famous for, you guessed it – chickens! Just before sunset, thousands of bats fly out of the cave to feed and come back in the morning. It is believed that they fly all the way to Mawlamyine to feed – maybe they don’t like the food in Hpa An?
- Get the boat or ride a motorbike to Mawlamyine (Moulmein)
Spend a day in this sleepy riverside city with its old churches and crumbling colonial mansions, a reminder of the time when Mawlamyine was the capital of the British Empire, 1826 – 1852. The city provides the setting of George Orwell’s 1936 memoir, Shooting an Elephant, after a young Orwell spent five years here conjuring his hatred for imperialism. The city is also the backdrop in the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, Mandalay. The journey to Mawlamyine is scenic and interesting as you pass by dramatic karst mountains, rice fields, two large suspension bridges and wooden houses on stilts above swamps. By motorbike, it’s about an hour and a half to reach Mawlamyine, or you can take a pleasant boat ride on the Than Lwin River which takes 3-4 hours.
Food and Drink in Hpa An
What we found quite strange was the sheer quantity of Thai restaurants in Hpa An! We’d just come from Thailand and were eager to try the local food of Kayin Province, but were disappointed that so many local restaurants advertised ‘Thai food and cocktels!' However, we did find a few exceptions…
Night market by the lake:
Every night (while we were in Hpa an at least), a night market congregates around the lake where you can get local street food, fruit, fried snacks and drinks. By far the best food we had in all of Hpa An we had at a small stall near the bridge that was run by two local young men. We ate our fill for 4,500 Kyat for two people – a huge plate of rice, a selection of delicious curried meats, tofu and fish, as well as the traditional Burmese plate of veggies (cucumber, okra, kaffir lime leaves, egg plant) and tea. It was a really lovely experience and we would highly recommend that you go find them!
San Ma Thu Restaurant – A veritable buffet of Burmese delights at this ‘choose before you sit down’ restaurant. We chose (because we weren’t allowed to sit down and so couldn’t nosy at other people’s plates) far too much! One curry each is enough as you’re given a soup, a plate of veggies and rice with every one curry, as well as tea and local sweets, which were a very nice touch.
Getting to Hpa An
From Mae Sot:
From the Mae Sot / Mayawaddy border, it’s around a four-hour drive to Hpa An. Private taxis wait at the border for foreigners and when there’s enough to fill the car (we set off with four people), the journey will begin. We paid 10,000 Kyat each (around $7.50 USD) and the car was much more swish than we'd have imagined!
How to cross the border for travel in Myanmar:
If you want to travel deeper into Myanmar from the border at Mayawaddy (rather than just make a visa run) you will need a visa. You can apply for a 28-day visa to Myanmar online here (the cost is $50 USD) and you must print out the visa acceptance letter and take it with you to the border. The Mae Sot/Mayawaddy border has only been open since 2015, and at the moment it’s one of the simplest border crossings in SE Asia. We read on the acceptance letter that you will need ‘proof of funds’ for your travel in Myanmar, as well as an onward flight ticket. The Immigration Officials asked us for neither, though we can’t say that this would happen every time!
From Yangon – A direct bus from Yangon to Hpa An takes around 8 hours and will cost 5,000 Kyat. The buses are very comfortable and you'll stop half way for a decent Burmese style lunch. Or, if you prefer to take the train, it’s a five-hour train journey to Kyaikto, where you can choose to make an overnight stop to visit the Golden Rock or continue another 2 hours by bus to Hpa An.
Where to go next?
Kyaikto, Myanmar – Two hours’ bus journey away is the town of Kyaikto, home to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (the Golden Rock) one of the iconic images of Myanmar.
Mae Sot, Thailand – This border town in Thailand has been nicknamed ‘Little Burma’ due to the high number of Burmese refugees and migrant workers living in the town. Home to great food and a multi-cultural vibe that’s unusual to Thailand, Mae Sot makes an interesting overnight stop before you continue your journey into Thailand.