Though Hpa-an is officially the capital of Kayin (or Karen) State, it has the distinct feel of a country town. Until recent road upgrades were completed, Hpa-an was a rather remote, somewhat forgotten settlement. With the completion in early 2016 of a new highway linking Hpa-an to the Thai border at Mae Sot and Yangon plus the improved border crossing facilities at Myawaddy, things are changing rapidly.
Traditionally a market centre and transport hub for the surrounding region, these days well-heeled local visitors from farther north are profiting from its new accessibility as Thais flock over the border on their holiday weekends. As a convenient land crossing between Thailand and Burma, Khao San Road and Chiang Mai tour agents now offer ‘direct’ tickets to Yangon, passing through Myawaddy and Hpa-an, and many of the more adventurous seem to be breaking up the journey with a stop in this picturesque region.
Hpa-an has been described as scruffy -- perhaps ramshackle would be more polite -- but compared to neighbouring state capitals it does lack say the wide streets and stately architecture of Mawlamyine and is almost the antithesis of tidy, orderly Dawei. What passes for downtown Hpa-an still displays far more wood and corrugated iron than concrete, but the narrow, winding and cluttered lanes do give it charm in spades.
The small town itself doesn’t possess too many sights to see -- once you’ve done a sunset at Shweyinhmyaw Pagoda, walked around Kan Thar Yar Lake and checked out the morning market you’ve about done it -- but it is a very pleasant town to hang out in. With a delightful riverside location on the banks of the Salween, a laidback charm and some of the country’s most picturesque landscapes within easy striking distance, Hpa-an looks set to become a popular first stop for overland visitors on their way to the more traditional tourist destinations further north. Using Hpa-an as a base you can head further afield to see Saddar, Kaw Kathaung, Kawgun and Bayin Nyi Caves plus Zwegabin, Kyauk Kalat Pagoda (it's delightfully pronounced "chocolate") and Lumbini Gardens.
As its tranquil backwater status is being notched down a couple of clicks, on the bright side this means the choice of cafes, restaurants and accommodation is widening considerably. Hpa-an is still a long, long way off becoming Burma’s Pai or Vang Vieng.
As a port on the important Salween or Than Lwin River, Hpa-an has been around for a while, but it has a low-key history and lacks both the traces of the ancient Mon civilisation and the splendid British colonial period architecture that other southern Burmese towns have. Up until the end of World War II it was basically a village. These days, with a relatively homogenous Karen population, the town has a different feel to its neighbours, though Bamar officials and Sino-Burmese and Indo-Burmese traders are present in town in large numbers. There’s a substantial Christian Karen minority here, so you’ll see plenty of churches as well as Hindu temples and mosques. Expect to be greeted by ‘God bless you’ as well as ‘Mingalabar’ by the friendly townsfolk.
As the region settles down and infrastructure improves, further flung parts of Kayin State ought to open up and the huge forests and mountains to the north and south ought to become more accessible to tourists. To the north along the border with Thailand’s Mae Hong Son lies Kahilu Wildlife Reserve, with reportedly vast areas of still well preserved forest while south, backing on to Tak province, is Mulayit, one of the country’s last preserves of wild tigers and elephants. Access to both is still very difficult; they were up until recently war zones, which -- is in parts of Cambodia until recent years -- probably helped to protect the region’s natural resources.
If you're in this part of the country don't miss Hpa-an; it's a great little town and well worth staying in for a couple of days. A convenient and cheap means to see all the key sights, which are scattered over a large range and can be tricky to find, is to take one of the day tours offered by many hotels and guesthouses. The standard option is with a small group in a tuk tuk, and it typically takes a full day, with some of the tracks rough going. Soe Brothers have their own tuk tuk, making their tours a bit cheaper, though they’ll also be busier and during high season they often fill up two tuk tuks per tour, so you could be with a larger group. Average prices are 8,000 kyat per person by moto; 5,000 by tuk tuk and 30,000 by car. All entrance fees plus the boat at Saddar are extra. Private tuk tuk hire is around 30,000-40,000 kyat per day.
Hpa-an potentially has one of the most picturesque settings of any Burmese state capital, lying as it does along the south bank of the winding Than Lwin River and with jagged limestone outcrops surrounding the town on all sides. Across the river is Hpa Pu Mountain, and to the south and southeast is spectacular Zwegabin, sacred mountain of the Karen people.
Yet the town does turn its back rather on the river. The cramped, bustling centre to the east comprises a compact network of narrow old streets around the old central market area. Three main routes lead out of town: Highway 58 heads south along the river to the bridge and continues westwards to Thaton and Yangon some six to seven hours distant. Keeping straight on at the bridge will eventually lead you the short distance to Mawlamyine, while a highway runs east to Myawaddy and the Thai border. Most of the town's more modern buildings lie on these arterial routes, including the town's newer accommodation options, some of which are a fair distance from the centre.
The riverfront is sedate compared to those of other river port towns such as Mawlamyine or Pathein. There are a couple of temples from where you could add a foreground stupa to your sunset over the river photos, a small park where locals gather in the evenings for football and a slightly half-hearted attempt at a promenade along the Salween which is crying out for a bar...
The police station is directly opposite Soe Brothers on Thit Sar Street and the town hospital is situated on BEHS (formerly School) Street, heading up towards the scenic Kan Thar Yar Lake. If you are sick we’d recommend getting the first bus up to Yangon or back to Thailand. We won’t even bother mentioning the post office since by the time your postcard arrives, if ever, granny would probably be long gone anyway. KBZ with change facilities and ATM is on Zay Tan Street just past popular Lucky and Khit Thit Restaurants, while there’s a useful supermarket opposite Good Day Bakery on the western stretch of Main, or Bogyoke, Road.
An official bus station lies further down Main Road on the edge of town, but it seemed almost empty when we checked. The pragmatic locals prefer to wait for buses in the centre of town around the clock-tower junction, which is where all the ticket agents are located as well.
Confusingly, many streets have both old and new names, and you may see either noted on maps. Otherwise the compact centre is easy to navigate and most accommodation will provide you with basic town maps. Out of town, things can get complicated, with so many limestone outcrops dotted around and caves here, there and everywhere. If you’re planning on touring around on your own, make sure you have GPS and if you’re in the least navigationally challenged it may in fact be best to take an organised tour.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 24th June, 2016.