It’s true, in recent years there has been something of a tourism boom in Hpa-an, the capital town of Karen State. This can be attributed to its location along the road between Yangon and the Myaywaddy-Maesot border crossing. It’s also popular with all kinds of Yangonites looking for a breath of fresh air on a long weekend.
The landscape of Karen State is majestic. Expansive green flatlands dotted with striking karst mountains and glittering reflections from water-filled rice paddies as far as the eye can see. The main attractions in Hpa-an lie well outside the downtown area and along dusty dirt tracks where you may be held up by road blocks of grazing cattle.
Saddang, Kawkathoung and Kawgoon caves have a mystical allure inducing musings on by who, why and how thousands of Buddha images both small and sweeping were carved into the stone here. As well as the caves, Kyaukalap pagoda and the ‘bat cave’ are also well worth visiting but there is more than these well-known sights to delight a visitor to the locale. Here we outline some new or recently discovered things to do that you won’t find in a guide book or on Tripadvisor’s Top 10.
Hpa Pu Mountain
Standing across the river from downtown Hpa-an, Hpa Pu (sometimes spelled Hpan Pu) is a good deal more surmountable than Zwekabin Mountain.
Less of a mountain and more of a large hill, it is situated on the Salween (or Thanlwin) River on at a point where the river forks in three directions. The climb starts out on overgrown concrete steps which become a lot more rugged after passing the small monastery. The approach to the top of the hill can be very steep and depending on how many breaks you need it will take around forty minutes to get to a bamboo platform. At the time of research, the path after the bamboo platform was overgrown and to get to the true tip of the hill where to highest pagoda sits would require a vertical climb on a bamboo ladder so we settled for the lower bamboo platform.
The view from the top is impressive. The river flows steadily beneath the Thanlwin Bridge in the distance. The town of Hpa-an looks small and sleepy from above and Zwekabin Mountain is majestic and imposing just beyond. The slowly snaking river winds its way southwards bordered by small plots of crops growing in the fertile soil. The view from Hpa Pu is likely to change dramatically between the dry, cool and monsoon seasons.
To get to Hpa Pu village and mountain, take a small boat which runs from the jetty next to Shwe Yin Mya Pagoda to the other side of the river. It costs 500Ks per person and leaves as soon as the boat has five or more passengers. From the docking point, follow signs and helpful villagers to the base of the mountain.
Traditional Karen Village
This small village is home to 16 households of a subgroup of the Karen ethnicity ‘Telaku’ who maintain very traditional values and ways of life. Villagers stick to a vegetarian diet and never cut their hair, winding it instead into a bun at the top of the head which they wrap in colourful headbands. Families are strict about their children wearing only the traditional Telaku clothing which often means youngsters have to drop out of school when they reach middle school.
The pride of this Telaku village is the community hall which is a large and impressive triangular structure made entirely of natural materials found in the surrounding areas. Everything is bamboo and leaves and all are tied together with twine. Inside is a shrine to their god. All buildings in Telaku were built in a similar way until zinc roofing was recently introduced.
The village is situated to the east of Kawka Thaung Cave via some very scenic lanes through paddy fields and over rivers. The location can be found on Google Maps.
In the same direction as the Telaku village, further east of Kawka Thaung again is a religious site known as Buddha Gaya. There is an old and new element to the religious site – an older traditional golden pagoda at the top of a hill among leafy surrounds and the recently constructed giant Buddha head on the next hill.
Strikingly white and large and sitting at the top of a colourful set of steps, it is an impressive scene from near and far. The surroundings are interesting to explore a little with an elaborate, landscaped garden and fountains to one side and workshops to the other. The workshops are always busy with workers making moulds and shaping concrete and stone into various lavish columns other architectural pieces for the site.
Both of the sights in this area follow quiet and picturesque lanes through farmland, small forests and over bridges.
Buddha Gaya is located about 20 minutes off the Hpa-an- Kawkareik Highway taking a left before Kawka Thaung Cave. Its location can be found on Google Maps.