The capital of Karen (Kayin) State, Hpa An is a picturesque town with a backpacker feel that sits on the eastern bank of the Thanlwin (Salween) river, about 270 kilometres east of Yangon. The setting itself, the surrounding caves and mountains to explore, and the laid back atmosphere are the highlights of the area.
The Shweyinhmyaw Pagoda in the centre of town is Hpa-an’s most attractive and popular temple among locals and visitors alike. Constructed on rocks lapped by the waters of the Than Lwin or Salween River, the temple consists of a series of platforms connected by staircases and walkways featuring various shrines, stupas, the obligatory ancient bodhi tree and several spectacular viewing spots.
Kan Tar Yar Lake
Scenic Kan Thar Yar Lake lies just on the south side of Hpa-an and aside from making a convenient waypoint for a stroll around town it’s a worthwhile destination in its own right.
Kayin State Cultural Museum
The Kayin State Cultural Museum, housed in an impressive building on Zwegabin Street, is such a well-kept secret they haven’t yet seen fit to put an English sign outside.
The massive and dramatic limestone outcrop known as Zwegabin dominates the landscape around Hpa-an. At some 725 metres, this is the highest and largest of the myriad jagged karst formations that jut abruptly out of the otherwise pancake flat paddy-fields here. The Karen considers the outcrop sacred and it has become Kayin State’s symbol.
A visit to wonderful Saddar Cave is one of Kayin State’s highlights. The limestone karst scenery of Zwegabin and the numerous jagged, mountainous outcrops sprouting abruptly from the paddy surrounding Hpa-an host myriad spectacular caves. Saddar (sometimes written Saddan) involves a cave temple but also a hike through underground passages to the far side of a mountain and a return by wooden boat. It really is something special.
Hpa-an’s Kyauk Kalat Pagoda is a stunning stupa-topped limestone pinnacle, set on a tiny isle dotted with monastic buildings itself set in a lake fluttering with white egrets and surrounded by paddy. With Mount Zwegabin as the dramatic backdrop, it’s a gorgeous sight.
Named after the mythical Nepalese birthplace of Buddha, though commonly known as Buddha Park, Lumbini Gardens are not really gardens as such, but are rather home to several hundred neatly aligned, seated Buddha images.
One of the region’s most spectacular caves, Kawgun is found in a small limestone outcrop just over the river from Hpa-an off the Thaton Highway. Amazing Buddhist carvings and stucco work line the shallow caverns and limestone cliffs, and are said to date back as far as the seventh century. A few ancient Hindu images remain and bear witness to the area’s former religious diversity.
Kaw Ka Thaung Cave
Kaw Kathaung (or Ka Thaung) Cave is found in a limestone outcrop slightly to the north of Zwegabin.
Bus is the most practical way to go to Hpa-An. There are several buses which depart every day from Yangon.
A great way to leave or arrive in town is by boat down the picturesque Than Lwin (Salween) River to or from Mawlamyine. It used to be that there was a scheduled daily departure, but with the upgrading of the highway few local people use the boat anymore; it’s used by either downstream villagers or foreign tourists.