With the Thanlwin River flowing like a ribbon through the lush land and towering karst mountains outlining the landscape all around, Hpa-An was like no other place in Myanmar. The only thing I knew about this laidback town was the presence of numerous hidden caves where thousands of Buddha eyes watched over Hpa-An.
The town itself didn’t have much to offer but what immediately caught my attention was the murmur of everyday life; the hum of the prayer coming through the speakers of the mosque, the traces in the dust left behind by pedestrians and vehicles, the kids smiling timidly from behind chipped doors and the rhapsody of sounds coming from the market. Like many towns in Myanmar, Hpa-An, too, was still very quintessentially Burmese. As with all travelers venturing to this part of Myanmar, we were in Hpa-An to follow the circuit highlighting the Buddha caves that are carved in the surrounding countryside.
WHERE WE LAY OUR HEADS
Accommodation in town is scarce and reflects the age and state of Hpa-An – that is to say old, worn and needing some maintenance (but, unfortunately, lacking the understated charm of the town). There are some recently-built luxury hotels/cabins along the road to Hpa-An and though some offer a wonderful view of Mount Zwegabin there isn’t much else in terms of amenities. Which is why we chose to stay in town (well, that and our budget) at the Golden Sky Guesthouse.
The modernish red and yellow exterior was nothing less than deceiving; as soon as we stepped inside the reception area, it was clear this guesthouse wouldn’t live up to its name. Our room was furnished in a mishmash of old furniture, the two beds complete with a funky mix of printed flowered sheets had sunken mattresses and the tired curtains hung limply. But, it was sufficiently clean, hot-water was included, there was a great terrace on the second floor with wonderful views of the river and at night the glittering stupa acted like a beacon guiding us back to the guesthouse. So all in all, it was decent for our short stay of 3 nights.
WHERE WE GOT OUR FOOD FIX
After asking around, everyone we spoke to directed us to the same restaurant: San Ma Tau – a local institution frequented mainly by locals and the occasional Westerners such as ourselves. The restaurant is a typical Burmese-style eatery where you choose from a variety of mini-dishes accompanied by herbs, salads and curries (and candy) all included in the price. Since we don’t eat meat, we chose all-vegetable dishes. My favorite dish was khayan thee hnut, a delicious, soft-melted eggplant curry – yummy!.
The food here was made fresh daily and was delicious! Plus, the owner was an extremely friendly and attentive woman who made sure her guests were satisfied and her employees (all girls) never missed a beat. As when eating everywhere in Myanmar, it was very affordable. Our bill came out to 2900 kyats (that’s less than $3) for two people including a big bottle of water.
The restaurant is about a 15 minute walk from the center of town; your feet might hold a grudge but your taste buds will be pleased!
HOW TO VISIT THE CAVES
There are seven caves in total but we only visited four of them plus a small pagoda. We chose to take our time by splitting our site-seeing in two days. Visiting the caves will have you make a sort of loop around the outskirts of Hpa-An, through adjacent towns and scattered villages, and back to the main center of Hpa-An.
The caves are very distanced from each other and are quite recessed from the main road making motorized transportation essential. In my opinion, the best option is to rent a motorbike (6000 kyats/day) giving you utmost freedom to visit the caves at your leisure and to take in the awesome views along the way. The next best thing would be to hire a tuk-tuk driver and possibly split the cost with other travelers. Either way, expect bumpy rides along dusty, unpaved roads on the way to each cave.
There’s only one place in town to rent motorbikes (located just down the road from the clock tower). The owner and his wife were super friendly (and spoke very good English); he even gave us a detailed (but not always clear) map of all the caves which was tremendously helpful.
KAWCOON CAVE (ENTRANCE FEE 3000 KYATS / $2.20)
Dating back to the 7th century, Kawcoon Cave is the most impressive of all the caves in Hpa-An. Upon arriving, we were greeted by a row of Buddhas draped in gold sitting in the lotus position. As I walked past their somber gaze, I cranked my neck every which way to try to grasp the thousands of clay Buddha images that were plastered all over the interior of the limestone cave. It was unbelievable – I had never seen anything like this before!
With my bare feet cooled by the tiles (shoes must be left at the entrance), I followed the path leading to the inside of the cave where even more Buddha images adorned the scraggly walls and even more Buddha statues of different sizes and postures were scattered all around. I took my time exploring the cave contemplating all its intricate details, all created in the name of Buddha.
YA-THE-BYAN CAVE (FREE)
As per the inscription at the entrance of the cave, “Studies show that the Buddha images and statues and the many votive tablets were donated by devoted pilgrims in the 17th century.” Ya-The-Byan was smaller and less ornate than Kawcoon Cave in terms of votive tablets but it was bigger and deeper.
Feeling like we were thrown back to prehistoric times, we walked among stalagmites jutting awkwardly from the ground and stalactites hanging like icicles from the ceiling of the cave. As we made our way deeper into the cave, up and down stairs made of stone, we encountered a few bats fluttering around, letting out their signature high-pitched screeches as if to warn of our unwanted presence.
However, what made this cave so appealing was how it was perched high above offering stunning views of Hpa-An’s verdant countryside!
Oh and the monkeys! The monkeys that congregated outside the front of the cave were a fun surprise though some of them were quite aggressive when I was handing out some food.
KAW KA THAUNG CAVE (FREE)
This was the smallest of the caves with vibrant, newly painted Buddha artifacts set just outside the entrance. As with all the sacred caves, shoes had to be removed before entering but the floor was fully tiled giving the impression we had just walked into someone’s living room.
Inside, of course, were several Buddha images carved out of solid white marble and votive tablets newly painted in the most vibrant scarlet and gold. Though Kaw Ka Thaung cave was small there was still a lot to see, my darting eyes were barely able to spot everything!
It didn’t take long to visit Kaw Ka Thaung cave and as soon as we stepped out, I remembered the long row of monks in their red robes holding alms bowls. My curiosity had already been piqued and I just had to follow their welcoming gaze. And I was so glad we did! Just a short walk from the cave was a crystal-clear watering hole; the fresh, clean water flowed from the mountains above.
Locals from the nearby villages came here to escape the heat and to frolic in the crystalline natural pool; I couldn’t help but join in by soaking my feet in the cool water – it was so refreshing! The children’s laughter bounced off the water and trailed off into the leafy trees. It was such a wonderful way to end our visit to Kaw Ka Thaung cave!
SADAN CAVE (FREE)
Given its sheer size, Sadan Cave is the mother-lode of caves in Hpa-An! It’s one of the biggest and longest caves in Myanmar but it conceals its enormity quite well from the outside. Sadan Cave is the furthest from the main road with a long and winding dusty trail leading up to it. I don’t know if there was a special occasion or if it’s always like this, but this was the only cave temple with vendors out front selling water and snacks.
We took off our shoes and left them at the bottom of the steps alongside others awaiting the return of their owners. Once at the top of the stairs, we entered the cave and were left mouths agape not knowing which direction to go in. That’s when I realized how big this cave actually was!
Sadan Cave was the most well-adapted of all the caves. Dangling light bulbs and stairs outlined with rails clearly indicated where to go. And some of the Buddha statues were adorned in flashing neon lights – this one looked like a disco Buddha!
This was the only cave where we saw designs such as an elephant, a frog and a semblance of a temple made using some of the small clay Buddha images.
After walking through the cave temple observing all the Buddha images, we walked the long way to the other side of the cave; it took us about 45 minutes to cross the whole cave. Taking precaution with every step, the clammy stone ground was sometimes slippery and usually wet from condensation Finally we arrived at the opening at the end of the cave where there was a small lake. We had two choices: either go back the same dark and musty way through the cave or take a boat ride which took us back to the main entrance – or so we thought. We did ask but we soon found out our inquiry had been lost in translation.
The boat ride (which cost 1500 kyats/each) turned out to only be about 10 minutes taking us through a cave tunnel and to another bank on the other side – far from the main entrance. We then had to get out and walk another 20 minutes in the open fields under the treacherously hot sun, passing a few grazing buffaloes on the way.
The problem wasn’t so much the heat but rather that we were barefoot and couldn’t walk as fast as we would’ve liked. Adding to that the fact that the dry, cracked ground was very hot (ouch, ouch, ouch!) and covered in rocks, pebbles, tree roots and twigs. Nobody told us to bring our shoes and not wanting to be disrespectful, we had left them at the entrance of the cave not knowing we would need them afterwards – oops!
If you want to save your feet from an unwanted, painful foot massage, don’t make the same mistake we did – bring your shoes! Although you won’t be allowed to wear them in the sacred cave (if you do you might attract a few disapproving glares from the monks), at least you’ll have them if you choose to take the boat ride.
KYAUK KA LAT PAGODA
On our first day of cave-chasing, we visited Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda located close to Ya-The-Byan Cave. The pagoda is precariously perched on top of a rock formation and like many sacred monuments in Myanmar, it’s covered in gold leaf. From the top of the pagoda, views of the beautiful landscape stretching as far as the eye can see were laid out before us like a painted canvas.
We climbed the winding stairs up to the pagoda where a wise, elderly monk sat on the floor and blessed visitors by chanting Buddhist prayers in Burmese. While visiting it’s important to remember that this is a sacred site used for meditation; keeping silent as much as possible (whispering is okay) is a sign of respect (as is removing your shoes).
And finally, I thought I’d share one of my favorite travel photos from our time in Hpa-An. The sunlight was just perfect reflecting the pretty pink robes of the young Buddhist nuns in the making. We met them on the way to the pagoda and I kindly asked (gestured) if I could take their picture. As you can see, they were very proud to have their picture taken!
We only visited four of the cave temples and I’m tempted to say it was enough but in truth, I found each cave to be different with each having a different setting. Part of the fun was riding around on our rented motorbike and coming across stunning scenery, getting slightly lost allowing us to see and experience Hpa-An in our very own unique way.
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Have you visited the Buddha caves in Hpa-An? Did you have a favorite one?