Tag Archives: hpa-an

MYANMAR – A hike up Zwegabin mountain in Hpa-an

“It’s got a good view.”

(Written by Steph)

It was a sentence that drew me into my future, and saw me pushing my husband off the top of whatever he had forced me to hike up in order to get to said view. Nick likes a good view. Normally the kind that requires some sort of laborious ascent. 

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Zwegabin mountain in the distance

Today’s “good view” was from the site of 1000 Buddhas (because we hadn’t seen many already) and was to be earned by walking up 10 times more steps. THE steepest steps I’ve ever seen. There must have been at least 3 step’s worth in each one. Talk about scrimping.

It was scorching hot, and we soon realised why people did this walk in the early morning, not at 2 in the afternoon, like us. That may have been my fault, but let’s not dwell on that…

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Near the start of the trail, in the field of a thousand Buddhas

Twenty five minutes in, Nick consulted his faithful companion, his phone’s GPS, and announced that we were half way there.  Spurred on by this news, we accelerated our speed, just about managing to say “mengalaba” (hello) to each person who was descending. There were 100s of them, each smiling and greeting us, perhaps wondering why we were the colour of lobster and quite so drenched. A great deal of them had children with them, who they were carrying in their arms or in slings. I couldn’t imagine many English families hiking that far with their children. But comparatively speaking, we are a nation of weeds, socialised to take the easy route. Or maybe I’m speaking for myself.

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That pagoda is where we're heading. And the path goes almost straight up.

After 50 minutes, it was clear we were nowhere near the top, and I was cursing the misinformation from Nick’s phone. The summit of each winding staircase only revealed, in turn, another: just as steep and with no clue as to how many more proceeded. My “had enough” moment came 2 sweaty hours in, just as two tourists appeared round the bend. “It’s about 5 minutes,” one said. “Ten,” corrected the other. Pffff. We did as any sane person does for motivation – we put the Lion King soundtrack on the phone and sang Hakuna Matata til we reached the top. I’m sorry Nick – being married to me is doing nothing for your street cred.

So, what was the point of all this? At the top stood a monastery, and apparently you could sleep there. Images of monks silently moving through stone archways conjured in our minds. It sounded quite special, and something we might not be able to repeat, so we would do it.

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Our bathroom facilities
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Sunrise

It must have been “wear what you like” day that day. Either that or there was only one actual monk living there. There was a beautiful moon that night, and we had some nice company. Nick was happy taking photos and pottering about, but a small part of me was gutted to find out that there was a festival…at the bottom of the hill!  Lights dotted the landscape below and music echoed through the valley, but we would have our special night in the monastery, even if it did have only one Monk. Did I mention that he snored like a bear? It was definitely fairly far removed from what we had expected, and yet, it was at least memorable.

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Our room for the night. Check the monk's portrait on the right

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MYANMAR – First impressions & misconceptions (1 of 2)

(Written by Nick)

Ever since I peered down into the country from the Mizo hills and across the water from a boat in Teknaf, I had dreamt about visiting Myanmar, a country with such poetic and exotic sounding names. The relatively low number of visitors and the fact it was impossible to visit for so long, of course only added to the appeal of exploring a relatively unspoilt land.

Before arriving I tried hard to research what it might be like to travel in this country. I read a lot of newspaper articles, blogs and internet forums and kept an occasional eye on the news coming out of the country.

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Whenever I got excited about the possibilities of exploration, I was brought back down with a jolt by constant reminders about how strict the government were and how difficult it could be to undertake your own self-guided tours. On top of this was the warning that Myanmar was a lot more expensive that its neighbouring countries and that tourists had to pay different rates and even a different currency (US dollars) than the locals. Reports of motorbike tours requiring multiple special permits nd high fees put me off trying to go down that route.

Constant double-page spreads in The Times and The Telegraph advertising luxury tours and other travellers’ calls to “go before it’s too late” made me skeptical about whether it was already too late

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My persistent desire to visit had not exactly been shared by my wife, and now I was doubting whether it was going to live up to my initial high expectations.
It took just the first day for the doubts to be cast aside and to start to fall in love with the country.

-Immigration and customs officials at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border with Thailand were genuinely friendly, helpful and inviting. There was no body search, no searching of bags, no frowning. There wasn’t even a general air of distrust. We were given seats inside the booth while waiting and were allowed to walk to the ATM even before we received our entry stamps. The exchange rate we were offered for Thai Bhat seemed reasonable, as was the taxi they helped us arrange (about 4h to Hpa-An for 10,000 Kyat each (£6.70) for 4 people)
The immigration officers were so friendly to us we were half expecting to receive facebook friend requests from them. Was this really an international border??

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-Food
Stopping for a toilet break on that first taxi ride, I caught sight of the enormous spread of dishes on a family’s table in the roadside restaurant. It didn’t take much to convince our fellow taxi passengers (2 French guys with Poirot-esque mustaches) to stop for a very early breakfast. We ate small bowls of mutton curry, fish curry, soup, bamboo shoots, green veg, chilli salsa, fermented chilli sauce, pickled vegetables, and great mounds of raw snake beans (really long green beans), lettuce, cabbage, lemon leaves and other herbs. We thought we’d just ordered a meat or fish curry each but side dishes kept arriving and filled the table with small bowls.
It was bloody fantastic and ended up being one of the best meals we ate, but we were concerned at how much the bill would come to with all these extras. We needn’t have worried; the bill came to 1000 Kyat each (£0.60)
How is that even possible?! I’ve died and gone to heaven – that’s what I was thinking.

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The freebies: Chilli sauce, snake beans, cucumber, lettuce, watercress, lime leaves etc
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A different meal from above, this was king prawns, fish curry, soup, veg, fermented chilli sauce, rice and herbs. It was still 1000 Kyat each (£0.60)

The standard was set too high we were to find. More often the free vegetables offerings had been sat wilting at the table for too long, cast aside by the previous customers and covered by a fly net if you were lucky. The vegetable dishes were often seasoned with fermented fish, and the meat and fish was served luke warm or cold.
It was hit or miss whether the curry contained liver or intestines.

The food was a lot more varied than that, though. A huge influence from China was appreciated by us as well as samosas, parathas, steamed buns, vermicelli, noodle soups and tons of seafood.

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Shan noodles with fried onion soup
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Prawn salad

MYANMAR – Welcome to Hpa-an

Na-na na-na na-na na-na BAT CAVES!!

(Written by Steph)

Nick and I love to ride. Ok, so let’s clear that up – Nick likes to ride, I like to be a passenger, and how better than with a motor? No exertion required. Perfect.

We had been in Nepal for 6 weeks before arriving in Myanmar, and the petrol crisis had meant that we had accrued a total of about 30km by bike. Hashtag, firstworldproblems.

As Nick wrote, our preconceptions of Myanmar were largely based on the internet, and a couple of my mum’s friends who have been going there for years. But this is a country on the move; no sooner is information posted, it changes. So we really weren’t sure how much we were going to be able to ride bikes here.
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We needn’t have worried. Our guesthouse hosts were only too happy to rent us a bike. Nick has a licence, but even if it were me that wanted one, I don’t think it would have been a problem. We hadn’t much idea about this town, it was just on the route, but our guesthouse owner was ready with a map of the sites and some broken English. Caves seemed to be the big thing here. We would explore by bike the next day.

The next day came and it was baking, but we soon discovered relief in the lush, foresty shade. I often dream of living in a wooden hut in the forest, and here people were, doing exactly that. A whole forest community, smiling and waving, welcoming us to their country. We were off to a good start.

Now, my idea of a cave, is a huge stone entrance that’s dark and wet inside. I was half right. This cave had bats – noisy ones. It also had giant buddhas. And so the theme would continue.
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The Buddhists really like their Buddha statues, and this cave had quite a few ginormous ones inside, but this was not my favourite thing. Tiptoeing through the cave with our head torches, we felt like we were intrepid adventurers. I was none too convincing as I squealed everytime a bat flew overhead.

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Out the other side we hopped on a row boat to take us back to the entrance, ducking our heads as we passed through the underneath of the cave. “Crocodiles?” we asked him jokingly. He looked puzzled, so I whacked out my charades skills. He smiled and nodded his head, the same way everything that is not understood is reacted to here. We would assume he wasn’t aware of the international mime for big jaw snapper.

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We had had an amazing day chipping about on the bike, and had even gone swimming in an outdoor pool we happened upon on the way home. Loads of kids were swimming, and one asked me to come in. I’ve got no swimming clothes, I thought. Not that that matters in a country like this. Everyone goes swimming in their day clothes and lets the sun do what it’s best at afterwards. Including us. Apart from humiliating myself with the world’s longest build up to an underwater handstand (which was more of a roly poly in the end), it was the perfect end to a sticky day.

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“One day. Only one cave?” Our guesthouse owner seemed confused by our obvious lack of speed. There were two other caves on the map, as well as a sunset spot, where you could see the bats come out at night. We would be more efficient with our time the next day, we thought.

Day two:

The following day came and we were determined to tick off some more caves to save us from the quizzical look of our guesthouse owner. We set off with a drawn map, and some vague idea of how to say one of the names of the caves. At least that’s what we thought. Our pronunciation was obviously lacking in finesse, and we were still discovering what we should have already known – people just don’t speak English here (there was to be the very odd exception to this, but that comes later). So, out came the charades again. “Bat” and “cave” being somewhat more advanced than “crocodile,” it took a while. But, eventually we made it to the caves, and to the Buddhas.

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We were joined by a huge swarm of young monks, doing what you imagine all young monks to do – take selfies with the buddhas, duh. It was not long before they turned their attention on us. Here we were, serial photographers, having the tables turned. It was to be the first of many times we were treated like celebrities, and a reminder that this was a country where tourism was still very, very new.

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After seeing the sum of two bat caves in the daytime (a 50% increase on yesterday’s total), we decided we should explore some of the foresty villages that surrounded us. More than monuments or statues, I loved meeting the people. And the people here were just incredible. We stopped off for a tea at the side of the forest (much harder to get here than I imagined!) and were then lured in by the mystery of the network of houses there. If the people of Hpa-an hadn’t seen that many tourists before, they certainly hadn’t seen any brazen enough to walk right into their shaded sanctuary. Feeling slightly obtrusive, we weren’t exactly sure how people would react, but we needn’t have worried.

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After happening upon a full size snooker table in the middle of the forest (they really love this sport!) we had a communal place where we didn’t feel like we were encroaching upon their space. We had no means of communicating verbally, but we laughed and played with a boy – equally ecstatic and nervous that these alien people were by his house, and his grandmother brought us drinks and snacks, refusing to take any money. She even wanted to take us on a tour of her house, but we had to go – the third bat cave that day awaited us.

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Now, this last cave was not one we were going to go in. This was a one way system, and at this time, there were due to be lots of bats, coming OUT. I don’t know how many I expected to see, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer amount that suddenly started swarming out. It was quite incredible! Painting a wavy path across the dusky sky, a continuous stream of black, tens of thousands of them exited for what must have been near half an hour. Buddha only knows how they all fit in one cave. All I can say is, as a Brit, and lover of organised queues, these bats were really quite something.