Caves, temples and ceremonies in Hpa-An

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Visibly old, authentic and untouristed, the town of Hpa-An is cozy enough in itself to warrant spending a few days. There are no great attractions in the city, but watching cargo boats unload at the riverbank, checking out the pagodas, and tracking down local ceremonies could easily fill more time than a traveler would usually assign to such an obscure place, more commonly used as a stopover on the land route from Thailand. The main sights, however, are in the countryside, and there are plenty of them. This list barely scratches the surface, go and dig deeper - often literally, since the region is predominantly limestone and ridden with caves, some still natural, others filled with statuary and converted to Buddhist temples. And if you come in March, there is a bonus: Hpa-An is probably the best place in Myanmar to observe shinbyu ceremony - mass ordination of young boys in a monastery.

Hpa-An town

© Mark Levitin

Hpa-An town has so far escaped even the negligible, non-defacing modernization seen in larger Burmese cities, like Mandalay or Moulmein. It seems to have missed the fact we are in the 21st century now. Quaint, leafy, somewhat medieval, it is suffused with that backwater ambiance that attracts backpackers but often repels fancier vacationers. Sights as such are few, but it is nice and cozy to stroll around, and photographers, in particular, will find a perfect place to shoot street and generic travel frames. A photogenic traditional market convenes every morning in the town center, craftsmen work in their courtyards, and the riverside is especially lovely. One could visit Shweinmyaw pagoda by the river, walk along the bank watching barges and private boats from nearby villages unload goods, then hop onto a ferry to Hpan Pu mountain on the opposite side for great views and more stupas. In March, make sure to ask around for a chance to see shinbyu, a ceremony where little boys are paraded on the streets before getting ordained as Buddhist novices - a traditional Burmese replacement for school. Then again, even if you do not, you will almost definitely bump into one by accident.

Saddar Cave

© Mark Levitin

Just south of Hpa-An is a large limestone mountain, Mt. Zwegabin. Predictably, it comes equipped with all the usual karst features, from weird-shaped cliffs to caves and underground rivers. One cave, Saddar, combines it all and adds the usual Burmese flavor: inside, it is full of stupas and Buddha statues. Saddar Cave is an active temple, but it seems on ordinary days more people come here to gawk and enjoy than to pray. It is not too tacky for a cave temple and actually quite lovely, but the main attraction lies behind it. The cave is a thoroughfare, and exiting from the other end will take you to a small tourist boat jetty. From here, one can take a trip down a small river that actually starts with a subterranean section, as the river ducks under a hill to emerge on the other side. A short walk from the disembarkation point through stunning karst scenery completes the loop.

© Mark Levitin

Kyauk Kalat

© Mark Levitin

This is a unique example of architectural inventiveness bordering on madness. Some 20 km south of Hpa-An, a karst pillar sticks from the ground here like the finger of an ancient god, and a temple has been constructed atop, inside and around it. Some chambers are partly built, partly occupy natural caves. The long staircase hugs the vertical rock like a snake. A large pond surrounds the pagoda, providing very photogenic mirror reflections in still weather. Angry geese mingle with (and occasionally attack) domestic tourists, monks and worshipers. The place is especially lovely in twilight when garlands of light bulbs stand out on the background of dark Mt. Zwegabin in the distance. For an even better sight, try timing your visit with one of the Buddhist ceremonies, ideally the Festival of Lights (around November). Festooned with lanterns, Kyauk Kalat looks entirely otherworldly.

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