Kayin State in the southeastern part of Myanmar is a mountainous region renowned for its myriad of limestone caves and beautiful sceneries. Its capital city is Hpa-an, located on the eastern bank of the Thanlwin River and approximately 270km from Yangon. It is easily accessible and a six-hour drive from Yangon. Buses depart daily. It is also possible to access Hpa-an by road from Mae Sot in Thailand, which is some 150km away. Actually, Hpa-an will become an important stop on the East-West Economic Corridor, which connects the Andaman Sea of the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea port-city of Da Nang in Viet Nam.
So far, construction goes on to build a modern highway from the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy to circumvent the difficult old road across the Dawna Bum mountain range to reach Hpa-an and then continue across the Thanlwin River to Tha Ton in Mon State and further into Yangon. That means Hpa-an will become very busy in the future and it will be important to protect the town accordingly.
About half of Hpa-an’s population is Kayin (Karen people), a quarter is Burmese, and the rest comprises small numbers of Mon people, Indian Muslims, and Chinese. Places of interest are the large main market on Thitsa Road, the centrally located mosque, two Buddhist pagodas, namely the Thit Hta Man Aung Pagoda on Bogyoke Road and the Shwe Yin Hmyaw Pagoda on the riverside. A characteristic clock tower marks the town center, from where a road leads south to the scenic Kan Thar Yar Lake. Not to be missed is the the two-storey Kayin State Museum, which preserves the Kayin history, religion and material culture such as costumes, musical instruments and artifacts of daily life. A Baptist church, hospital, fire brigade and the post office is nearby.
Accommodation is still very basic and the popular guesthouses are called the Golden Sky, Thanlwin Oo, and Soe Brothers, all located near the market. But it is from these guesthouses that tourists can rent a tour to the steep limestone hills outside – riddled with caves, which are the major sights when visiting Hpa-an. A day tour in a small truck or motorbike riksha costs some 5,000Kyat per person. On a typical itinerary there are the following sights to visit:
- Bayin Nyi Cave is situated some 12 miles out of town on the western side of the Thanlwin River and towards Tha Ton. The cave is approximately 20m in length with an ancient pagoda and Buddha statues inside. Outside on the hillside there is a natural hot and cold spring.
- Kaw Goon Cave is about 6 miles out of town and on the western side of the Thanlwin River. It is famous for its Mon cultural style clay Buddha images and numerous terracotta votive tablets in its interior walls, dating back to the 7th-13th centuries.
- Kyauk Ka Lat Mountain with a very scenic lake monastery on the eastern side of the Thanlwin River and in full view of Mount Zwekabin further east.
- Mount Zwekabin is located some 7 miles south of Hpa-an as the key landmark of Kayin State with its peak of 2372 feet (722m) above sea level. It is a three-hour hike to the summit, where one could enjoy breathtaking views of the idyllic surroundings. A garden of 1,000 Buddha images is in front of the mountain, which will also get a cable car. A waterfall village is nearby.
- Sadan Cave is about 20 miles south of town and difficult to reach. Guarded by two white elephants, the cave is 107 meters in length. Stalactites and stalagmites can be found everywhere.
- Kaw Ka Thaung Cave, some 7 miles outside Hpa-an, is a kind of meditation cave. There is a row of 108 monks outside the cave entrance, while on the back side of the cave, there are small swimming pools.
In the evening, when coming back to town, tourists normally visit the good Lucky Restaurant in a side street of downtown Hpa-an. If to hire a taxi to go from Hpa-an via Kawkareik to Myawaddy at the Myanmar-Thai border, there is an agent near the clock tower to sell a ticket for 10,000Kyat per person. But the ride is only on alternative days possible.
Myawaddy is the link from Myanmar to Mae Sot in Thailand via the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, which passes over the Moei River. The whole area will be developed for tourism and cross-border trade is busy all day long. Mae Sot has an airport, but is at the moment only served from Bangkok.
Written by : Reinhard Hohler