Though Hpa-an is officially the capital of Kayin (or Karen) State it has the feel of a country town and indeed is a relatively remote settlement, with a total population of around 50,000. But it's the market centre and transport hub for the surrounding region and what it lacks in size it makes up for in bustle and this vibrant, friendly little outpost is well worth a visit.
The market is great, the waterfront area picturesque, there's a couple of half decent places to stay and eat and a handful of fascinating sites to visit within easy reach of town. The population is as you'd expect: a mixture of ethnic Karen and Burmese with Sino-Burmese traders and foreign visitors still something of a rarity.
Hpa-An is tucked away in the centre of some spectacular limestone ranges not far from the Thai border but is only a five-hour or so drive from Yangon and a mere hour on a decent road to Mawlamyine. Furthermore, with the opening of the Thai/Burmese border at nearby Myawaddy, the town has suddenly become less remote and we expect tourist traffic to increase in the near future. If you're in this part of the country don't miss it -- this is a great little town and to which its well worth dedicating a couple of days.
As with the accommodation Hpa-An's eating choices are rather limited. There are plenty of coffee shops and noodle places near the market but for something more consistent the best bet is the excellent San Ma Tau Restaurant on Bogyoke Street. A little way out of the centre -- a 15 minute walk or a taxi ride it is well worth making the effort to get there. The Burmese curry house's claim to fame -- and it is something of a local institution -- is that your curry selection comes with no less than 10 free side dishes including vegetables, dips and chutneys. For a 2,500 kyat curry that's a great deal. Open all day but don't leave it too late in the evening or there won't be much left!
Hpa-an has one of the most picturesque settings of any Burmese state capital lying along the south bank of the Thandwin or Salween River and with limestone outcrops surrounding the town on all sides. Opposite town, across the river is Hpan Pu Mountain, and to the south is the spectacular Zwegabin, sacred mountain of the Karen people and which features on the state flag.
The town centre is set back slightly from the riverfront and comprises a compact network of narrow old streets around the central market area. Three main routes lead out of town: highway 58 heads south to the bridge and continues westwards to Thaton and Yangon; keeping straight on at the bridge will eventually lead you to Mawlamyine and highway 58 going east runs to Myawaddy and the Thai border. Most of the town's newer buildings lie on these arterial routes including the town's newer accommodation options, some of which can be a fair distance from the centre.
The riverfront is sedate compared to those of other river port towns such as Mawlamyine or Pathein; there's a couple of temples from where you could add a foreground stupa to your sunset over the river photos, a small park area where locals gather in the evenings for football games and a slightly half-hearted attempt at a promenade along the Salween which is crying out for a bar... could someone please set a nice one up? Then Hpa-An would be just about perfect.
By Mark Ord