As peace is finally a reality in Karen State, new destinations appear on the tourism map of Myanmar. At a distance of approximately 300 km from Yangon, the lovely town of Hpa-An can be reached by car in about 5 to 6 hours. The road is surprisingly good. First, as you leave Yangon, there is a stretch on the Yangon-Naypitaw-Mandalay highway and more than one time, we suddenly realized that we were speeding at 140km/hour. Then, near Kyaiktiyo, a smaller route through the Mon State towards Bago and here we really have to slow down as we pass through numerous small towns and villages. Beautiful countryside and fruit stands along the road make it a pleasant drive.
Getting close to Hpa-An, the capital of the Karen State, strange looking small mountains dot the landscape. Those are limestone mountains, similar to the famous Guilin landscape in Southern China or the famous Halong Bay in Vietnam and geologists call those karstic formations. They have been carved by water erosion and are full of caves, some of which can be visited.
Among the famous attractions in Hpa-An, first comes Mount Zwekabin, somehow a Sacred Mountain for the locals. It stands majestic over the city and gives its name to many a business here. Climbing the mountain to the deliciously pretty pagoda on top will take you 3 to 4 hours. Fortunately there is food and fresh drinks on the way.
Next on the list of must-see places in Hpa-An is the Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda. Situated a short ride out of town (12 km) the pagoda is set up on the shore of a small lake and when we went, being it a public holiday, the place was teeming with local visitors. The small pagoda hanging on top of this odd looking rock is the focal point where everyone wants a photo taken.
Back to town, at the foot of the famous Zwekabin mountain is Lumbini garden.Over 1000 identical statues of Seated Buddha adorn this peculiar park.
Then, in another direction(25 km away), deep in the mountainside is the celebrated Sadang Cave.
Huge stalagmites and stalactites all over the cave.
As you come out of the cave, you must take a small boat ride back to the main entrance.
The town is laid along the Than Lwin River and boat tours can be arranged to view the pleasant and quiet farmland and to visit a few small islands, a white sandy beach and more caves. Ideally, you will want to leave mid afternoon, around 4 pm to be able to catch the sunset. The quiet and peaceful excursion lasts 2 to 3 hours. Bring some snacks !
There are many more caves to be visited around Hpa-An and ideally, you will need 3 days to cover all the important sites.