Magical Myanmar part 1: Hpa-An and Mawlamyine

It was finally going to happen, I was going to Myanmar (Burma)! One of the countries highest on my wish list for a very long time and of which I heard many good stories. We spent about 3 weeks in this beautiful country and were amazed! It now ranks as one of my favourite countries in the world and below is part 1 of our adventure in this amazing country. I will post part 2 and 3 soon!

Chiang Mai to Myanmar overland

From Pai we travelled back to Chiang Mai for one day and night where I spent the afternoon finding a bus ticket to Mae Sot while Harry stayed in bed as he was dealing with a mild case of food poisoning. It wasn’t too easy to get the bus ticket but I managed to get it without having to go to the bus station or pay a lot extra to a travel agent.

So the next morning at 8am we got on the bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot. Luckily Harry was feeling a lot better and was fit to travel. The bus wasn’t in a very good condition and the ride was quite long, but the nice scenery towards the end made up for the 7 hours of uncomfortable seats and smelly A/C. In Mae Sot we had to take a songthaew (kind of a pick-up truck with seats in the back, a shared taxi) to the border.

At the border we got our Thai exit stamp and then walked to the other side of a bridge across the river that is the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Halfway the bridge, traffic has to change from driving on the left side (Thailand) to driving on the right side (Myanmar), which was funny to see and kind of doesn’t really make sense as the cars in Myanmar still have the steering wheel on the right. On the other side of the bridge we suddenly got stopped. We had no idea why, but then I heard music and saw officials all standing in a very serious position and realized they were playing the national anthem of Myanmar. After the anthem we could continue to the immigration office to get our entry stamp for Myanmar. We had arranged an e-visa and it went very smoothly, we were also the only people there together with a Swedish guy (Stefan) and an Israeli girl (Hagar).

Once all four of us were stamped into the country, we shared a taxi to the nearest town people had recommended to us, Hpa-An. There are supposed to be buses as well, but they only run earlier in the day and we crossed the border too late to get a bus and the town, Myawaddy, didn’t look attractive at all so we didn’t want to stay there. Before getting in the taxi we first needed to get Kyats (pronounce ‘tsjats’ ) the local currency, but there were plenty of ladies ready to change our Thai Baht to Kyats and for very reasonable rates. As I changed money many times at borders and this is always a bit dodgy, I made sure to not hand her the money until I had the Kyats and to count everything 3x over and checked all the bills but it all seemed to be legit.

The road from Myawaddy to Hpa-An used to be so narrow that traffic could only go from Myawaddy to Hpa-An every other day, as it was not possible for two vehicles to pass on the mountainous road. Now the road has been upgraded and is really good, but only for the bit in the mountains. As soon as we came to more flat terrain the road was narrow and quite bumpy. We made one stop where the driver got his car washed (which seems to be big business in Myanmar) and had a beer (completely normal apparently) before continuing to Hpa-An, the capital of the Karen state.

Hpa-An

In total the ride took about 3 hours and the driver dropped us at Soe Brothers 1, the guesthouse I had booked over the phone as internet bookings don’t really seem to exist in Myanmar. Unfortunately the phone lines are most of the times really bad too and there had been some miscommunication and the staff thought that when I phoned to re-confirm that we were arriving around 8pm, it was to cancel our night. So we had no room when we arrived but the receptionist felt really bad about it and started calling all other guesthouses and hotels in Hpa-An straight away but none of them had any rooms, even not very expensive ones. So… we had a small problem. Part of the problem as well is that in Myanmar, every guesthouse/hotel that wants to host foreigners has to have a special license. So even though there were quite a few other places to stay in Hpa-An, it would’ve been illegal for them to give us a room.

A little later, Hagar (who we shared the taxi with) walked in with a similar problem. She didn’t book in advance but normally this is not necessary anywhere in Asia especially not when travelling alone. But Hpa-An is gaining popularity rapidly and turns out that there are more tourists than hotel beds. So now there were 3 people that needed a place to sleep and had nowhere to go. One hotel called back that they had two rooms for Hagar and us that were normally not being rented out but we could stay there for the night if we wanted. It was the worst room I’ve ever seen, especially for 10 USD, but we had somewhere to stay for the night. We went for dinner and when we got back to the horror hotel, there was a Dutch girl (Elske) waiting in the reception who also had come from Mae Sot that day and also had nowhere to stay. So she shared the room with Hagar.

The room in the horror hotel. Great first night in Myanmar 😉 

The next morning we went straight back to Soe Brothers 1 and as people checked out we got a room there. Very basic, especially for the price, but this is everywhere in Myanmar. The prices for accommodation are much higher than other places in Asia but the standard much lower. A case of double the money, half the standard. We knew this though, so we were prepared and had low expectations. We went for breakfast and an amazing little bakery and with Elske, who we met the night before at the horror hotel, we walked around town a bit. There is not too much to see in Hpa-An itself but we took a boat across the river where we climbed up a hill to get some pretty amazing views of the area. As we walked down and back to the river, we bumped into Stefan (the Swedish guy we shared the taxi with), who had been exploring the caves around Hpa-An on a motorbike. That was our plan for the following day so he gave us some tips.

In the boat crossing the river with the hill we climbed in the background. 

Pretty amazing view from the top of the hill.

Next to the Soe Brothers 1 was a motorbike rental place that allowed us to rent the bikes for the whole day and return them the next morning early as we were planning to climb Mt. Zwegabin and stay there overnight at the monastery. Elske joined us and the three of us set off to our first stop, the Saddan (or Sadan) cave. The drive to the cave was so much fun and beautiful! We didn’t really see any other travellers, had the roads practically to ourselves and lots of young children ran out of their houses in their cute school uniforms to waive at us and shout ‘mingalabar’ (hello). It was also a great way to see the Burmese countryside.

Driving to the Saddan Cave. 

Beautiful surroundings and not another person in sight.

At the cave we were in for a big surprise. As we entered the cave was full of Buddhas and walking through the cave we came to the other side where there was a small lake. It was just so beautiful, coming out of the dark cave and see the lake and the view! At the lake, boatmen were waiting to take us for a small fee underneath an enormous rock/cave and through rice paddies on the other side back to the entrance of the Saddan cave. It was amazing and completely unexpected!

Big reclining Buddha inside the Saddan Cave.

The small lake you see as you walk through the cave and come out the other side.

 

The boat ride under the big rock/cave. Unbelievable! 

And then you come out on the other side and are in the rice paddies! Really?! Wow!

From the Saddan cave we drove towards Mt. Zwegabin and passed a place called Yae Ta Khon, which turned out to be some swimming pools with restaurants and mountains around it, the perfect place for lunch. In one of the pools women were not allowed to swim as monks swim in it as well. In the other pool women can swim but only if you are covered up. Elske and I both didn’t really feel like being completely soaked and then have to get back on our bikes and climb up Mt. Zwegabin so just dipped our toes and left the swimming to Harry.

Harry going for a swim and Elske just dipping her toes.

Continuing the drive through the countryside we reached Lumbini Buddha Garden. A big field full of Buddha statues with a road going through the middle that takes you to the start of the hike up to Mt. Zwegabin. A bizarre sight and it just seemed so random to us. We drove through the Buddha Park and asked someone for parking for our motorbikes. For a small fee, we could park them inside a garage so they would be safe overnight. There were also some shops here where we could buy some water before starting the climb up the mountain.

Lumbini Buddha Garden with Mt. Zwegabin in the background.

It was very hot (well above 30 degrees) and the way up was mainly in the sun and a lot of steps. After about 5 minutes I was already completely dripping with sweat and exhausted. Only 2 hours to go to the top… I’m not an athlete but I have never really struggled on any hike even if it is described as moderate to difficult but I think what made Mt. Zwegabin hard was the extreme heat, the sun and the never ending steps. What made the climb a little better were the young monks and nuns that were on their way down and all wanted pictures and selfies with us. Finally we reached the top and were welcomed by a monk who lives in the monastery that stands on top of the mountain. We paid a small fee (5000 Kyats, January 2017) and that allowed us to stay in the monastery for the night. And I’m not sure how it happened, but we were the last to arrive but got the only two private rooms that they have. The rest of the people who made the hike up and arrived earlier were all assigned a mattress in the dorm.

Thankfully, there were showers at the monastery and I never in my life appreciated an ice cold shower more. I felt all refreshed after this shower and walked to the edge of the mountain and monastery to wait for the spectacle we eventually all climbed up this mountain for: the amazing sunset! I have seen many sunsets all over the world but this one was really one of the best ones ever!

Best sunset ever!

After sunset we all had dinner and went to bed early as one there is nothing really to do, secondly everyone was tired from climbing up and third, we were all going to wake up very early to see the sunrise the next morning. And wow, this sunrise! Never have I seen anything like it in my life. It was really the most beautiful sunrise ever and a magical place to witness it.

After the best sunset ever we got treated to an even better sunrise!

The walk down was easy and quick and we picked up our bikes and drove back to Hpa-An to hand in our motorbikes.

Mawlamyine

In the afternoon we hopped on a boat to Mawlamyine (don’t try to pronounce it, it’s impossible) down the Thanlin River together with Elske and Stefan. The boat was small and wooden and we were seated two-by-two on plastic garden chairs. Our bags were all piled up near the engine but it worked and we didn’t sink. The views were pretty and about 3 hours later we reached Mawlamyine. It’s apparently the sixth largest city of Myanmar but it felt like really quite a small colonial town.

Two-by-two on our way to Mawlamyine.

The luggage compartment and captain’s seat.

This time we had a bit more luck with accommodation and we got a room in a simple guesthouse but with really nice staff, which is no surprise as literally every person we’ve met so far in Myanmar has been so friendly, curious, honest and all smiles. We dropped off our bags and walked around town a little bit. There are a few things to do near Mawlamyine but a lot of them are involving Buddha statues and we’ve seen quite a lot of Buddhas lately so we decide to only stay one night.

The next morning we explore Mawlamyine a bit more. We walk to a viewpoint and on our way we pass the local market, which was really fun and impressive to see. The loads people carry on their backs or bicycles is just incredible. And again everyone is smiling and saying ‘mingalabar’ to us. We also pass the colonial prison that was built in 1908 and still in use. Obviously we can’t go inside and also from the outside it’s hard to take pictures, as there are high walls all around the prison so the prisoners can’t escape. From the viewpoint at a temple on a hill we can see the prison and all the rest of this really green city.

Market in Mawlamyine.

Not sure how but this person just casually cycled away after the load was secured. 

View over Mawlamyine and the colonial prison from the viewpoint

On a motorbike taxi after we bought our bus ticket. Helmets are soooo 2016.My

In the evening we said goodbye to Stefan and Elske and we took a night bus to Kalaw, a hill town in the Shan State of Myanmar. We’ve only spent a few days so far in Myanmar but absolutely love it and are so excited to see the rest of the country! More to come soon!

This lady and her cute puppy is a representation of all people and dogs in Myanmar! The friendliest people on earth!

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Magical Myanmar part 1: Hpa-An and Mawlamyine

  1. Lieve mirjam en Harry,
    Wat een prachtig verhaal,mooie foto’s en super om te lezen en te bekijken. Alsof we er bij zijn. Fijn dat je hoge verwachtingen die je had va Myanmar goed uitpakken. Benieuwd naar part 2
    Dikke kus António en mama

  2. Really good descriptions of what you are doing, really gives us an impression of the accommodation challenges. Also gives a good impression of the good things and what makes it all worthwhile.. Thanks, Chantale

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