The way to Hpa-an

The way to Hpa-an

When we were planning our trip to South East Asia we didn’t even realize that we would end up in Myanmar – the plan was to go to China instead. But that’s what travelling is about – changing plans, staying longer somewhere where you didn’t want to stay in the first place or skipping some attractions. So instead of China we ended up in Myanmar – and it was the best decision ever! I think it was the best time to go as there are still not that many tourists and it is unspoiled in many places.

We decided to cross the border overland between Mae Sot and Myawaddy. The closest border from Chiang Mai is Mae Sai – Tachileik, but because of the unstable situation in the north of Burma, tourists are not allowed to go by public transport to other locations in Myanmar and they have to book a flight from Kengtung instead.

You have to have a visa before crossing the border – we applied online while being in Chiang Mai through https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/ and had it ready after two days, it cost 50 dollars per person. It is also very easy to get from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot. We took a Green Bus and it took around 6 hours.

Crossing the border in Mae Sot is very easy and not problematic at all. First you are giving your passport and visa to a person outside and then invited into a room with two people who look very serious but after a minute they are cracking jokes and you all can’t stop laughing. After that lovely 15 minutes, where you don’t even feel like you just entered a country that is still in many ways controlled by the army, we were taken to a little travel agency, where we booked our seats in a shared taxi and heard a few stories from a very helpful and happy man. From the first moment we entered this country we felt so welcome and so happy!  Quick time change (yes, we were surprised too, but it is a 30 minute difference) and there we are –  in the shared taxi with 8 other people, even though the car had only 5 seats – I love how Asian people have such a great ability to organize the space! 🙂 First thing that surprised us was that people drive on the right hand side of the road but the steering wheel is also on the right hand side. That means that the person beside the driver often has the role as co-driver and has to help while overtaking. While Burma was an English colony and 22 years after that the cars were driving on the left hand side. One day General Ne Win decided to move the traffic to the right. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer told the General that it would bring good luck for the country if people will start driving on the right side. Another popular theory is that Ne Win had a dream that the country should switch directions so he woke up and…he changed it. Maybe he just didn’t think back then that until this time Burmese will still continue importing cars mostly from Japan! 🙂

Is it hell or is it heaven? Love from the (not)first sight

After 4 hours and five stops – to cool down the car’s engine, for a bigger meal, for a little chat and of course washing the car, we arrived in Hpa-an. I have to admit – it wasn’t the love from the first sight. It is a chaotic, busy town and maybe at the beginning you might think that there is nothing to like it about. It is one of those places that you need a little bit more time to find a charm and then fall in love with it. Sometimes it’s difficult to see a beauty when you can’t find an accommodation while being hungry and tired, but that is a part of travelling – it’s not always colorful and magic. We found out very soon that the standards of accommodation are way lower comparing to other countries in SEA and the prices are higher than Thailand or Vietnam. And yes – we were a bit spoiled after our nice room with a shower and balcony for 10 dollars in Chiang Mai! 🙂 You learn quickly how to get past it because you realize how amazing Myanmar is – the local people that you meet on the way are the most generous and friendly ever.

We decided to stay in Soe Brothers 1 – maybe not the cleanest but the cheapest option (13 dollars for a double bed, shared bathroom). What’s great about this place is the atmosphere and interesting people that you meet here. It is owned by two helpful and friendly brothers and there is a young boy to help them too. We called him Loco as he is a crazy, little boy, but an interesting and entertaining one for sure!

After a bad start it was time to explore Hpa-an. The next day we decided to walk around the nearby lake. And that was the moment we fell in love with this place. Only after 15 minutes a young girl approached us and invited to the Community Centre where kids come to read, learn English and they have theatre performances. We had such amazing moments there. After leaving the Community Centre we noticed that there was a group of teenagers collecting rubbish around the lake so we decided to join them – such a good cause! It is a huge problem all around South East Asia – you can see rubbish everywhere and it doesn’t bother anybody. We were also approached by a woman with three kids – she really wanted to take a photo with us. As we realized later, Burmese people love taking a pictures with tourists – some sort of hobby I guess. It is easy to feel like a celebrity in Myanmar! 🙂

After a busy and active morning it was time to eat something. When I’m hungry I’m getting quite angry, Kevin knows that already so we had to find something quick. 🙂 While wandering around the surroundings of Hpa-an, we found a local market where you can find everything – from fresh fruits and veggies to spices, local sweets, cosmetics and clothes. Just beside the market there is a Thai restaurant. Usually we eat local food but we missed a little bit of Pad Thai. The food was delicious and the staff very friendly and they told us a little bit more about Hpa-an. My favourite kind of lunch time – eating delicious noodles, drinking cold beer and watching local people and their life. There is a Soe Brothers 2 nearby – a new, more modern version. There are bathrooms in the rooms, windows would even open and some of the lucky ones can enjoy their time on the private balconies. We decided to stay in Soe Brothers 1, not only because it was half the price, but also because we preferred the atmosphere and vibe there.

When writing about the food, I have to mention the local restaurant, San Ma Tau. It is situated approximately a 15 minute walk from town and it has one of the best Burmese curries we have ever ate! The other place that I would highly recommend is Veranda Youth Community Cafe. It is not just an ordinary cafe. It is supported by the Ministry of Czech Republic and it is providing a space for local people and visitors to share and exchange knowledge and experience, while promoting local products, environmental protection and awareness and practicing responsible consumption. Did I mention about their delicious vegetarian food and the best coffee in Hpa-an? If you want to find out more or get involved, check out their website: http://verandacafe.weebly.com/

The evening is always a time to socialize with people from the hostel and listen to interesting stories. Usually we were meeting with other travelers in the Lucky 1 Restaurant. It is a lovely atmosphere there, not to mention cheap food and drinks. Don’t expect that in Burma you will be able to party all night long. All of the restaurants and bars are closed after 11pm and there is not a living soul on the streets. Also, don’t be surprise about often power-cuts, it’s very common in Burma. At this time at night is a good moment to meet other backpackers on one of the balconies in Soe Brothers, drink beer, listen to interesting stories and get some inspirations. I really liked the story of Kamila, a 21 year old Polish student, who woke up one morning and decided to go to Asia hitchhiking. She took a 1 year break from college, went to Holland to work on a strawberry farm and after 2 months she started her journey to Asia. I love that kind of people – open minded, brave and who are eager to discover new places. Another person that we met on one of the balconies in Soe Brothers and who inspired me was Martin. This 23 year old German guy is a big dreamer; he didn’t have his Smartphone or maps through all of his trip in Asia. He followed his heart and intuition instead. I guess his intuition suggested for him to follow us and he became our greatest companion while travelling in Myanmar. 🙂 It is amazing how travelling can bring people closer together. Sometimes you might know people for a long time back home and even then don’t get that connection. While travelling one day is enough to feel like you know that person for a long time.

Stairway to heaven – climbing Mount Zwegabin

There is so much to do around Hpa-an and a good option is to rent a motorbike. I would highly recommend Saddan Cave. It is so big that they managed to put here a dozen statues of Buddha and a couple of pagodas. Another cave worth exploring is Kaw Ka Taung Cave which has a spring-fed swimming pool. Perfect for water lovers and anyone who wants to cool down on hot days.

For us, hiker lovers, the biggest attraction was climbing Zwegabin Mountain which has a monastery on the top. We went by tuk-tuk with a group of people from the hostel and it took around 30 minutes. The biggest touristic attraction is to climb it early in the morning, when it’s not too hot and to see the sunrise. We came to the conclusion a while ago that we are not early birds and even if in the evening we have very ambitious plans to wake up at the crack of dawn, when the alarm goes off at 4am, the best option is just to turn on the other side. 🙂

We decided to start climbing after 3pm, hoping that it won’t be that hot. We were a little bit too optimistic! There is not much shade on the way up but there are many steps instead so it wasn’t an easy climb. After 2 hours we made it to the top. We took off our shoes, covered our shoulders and knees and entered the monastery. There is a vegan canteen run by the monks so we decided to eat something. The sunset was magic – one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. Going down in the darkness was a bit challenging but exciting at the same time. There is no lighting on the path so make sure to take a torch.

It was our last night and the day after it was time to say goodbye to Hpa-an. We spent our evening playing and fooling around with the very energetic little daughter of the owner of Lucky 1 restaurant. The rest of the evening was all about drinking Burmese whiskey, listening to Icelandic music and sharing our stories on the dorms balcony in Soe Brothers.

“You can become blind by seeing every each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle.” P.Coelho

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