February 29-March 3, 2016: Hpa-An

Got off our night bus from Yangon at 3am, found our guest house, which was kind enough to wait up for us, and passed out immediately. For anyone visiting Hpa-An, I HIGHLY recommend The Galaxy Motel. The place is itself is awesome and the owner, Kim, is the nicest and most helpful person ever.

First thing in the morning (well, sort of morning), we rented a motorbike and, with Kim’s handy dandy map and instructions in hand, set out to check out the wonderful caves of Hpa-An. Spent the next few days site-seeing, making friends and even hiked up to a monastery, where we spent the night. Check out pics below!

Miles walked:               26
Miles transported:     ~280

Kawt-Gone Cave

Otherwise known as Kawgun Cave, this was our first cave visit in Hpa-An! In we go:

Hpa-An, 1st Cave - 1

Hpa-An, 1st Cave - 2

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Greeted by a row of Buddhas lining the wall:

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Nap time! For one of us, at least:

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A whole bunch of stunning Buddhas and wall carvings:

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Though we had to pay 3,000 kyat to get in (which is only like, $2.5 bucks, but in Myanmar that can equate to dinner for the two of us!), it was well worth a visit. We snapped one more cool profile pic of the Buddhas for the road:

Hpa-An, 1st Cave - 12

Yathaypyan Cave

Made our way over to Yathaypyan Cave (this one was free!):

Hpa-An, 2nd Cave - 1

More stunning Buddhas and pagodas in the cave:

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Hpa-An, 2nd Cave - 3

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I love this photo in particular:

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You can actually walk through this cave and emerge at a beautiful viewpoint, which we did:

Hpa-An, 2nd Cave - 10

Hpa-An, 2nd Cave - 11

This is probably one of my favorite photos that we’ve ever taken… I don’t remember if it is I or Francy who deserves the credit on this particular piece:

Hpa-An, 2nd Cave - 12

Made our way back out of the cave, running into these little monsters on the way:

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Way to propagate the stereotype, monkey!

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Said goodbye to the cave, monkeys, and this group of kids who was insanely excited to see us:

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And took off, enjoying the gorgeous scenery:

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Stopped at a little family-run shop to chill a bit and enjoy Myanmar’s notorious 3-in-1 coffee, which we had quickly learned to enjoy. We hung out with the family for a while and played with their newborn goat and little baby, who we immediately bonded with over our mutual love for motorcycles:

Hpa-An, 2nd Cave - 20

Bat Cave

Had some time to kill before the Bat Cave – though there’s a small pagoda there to see and a nice little view point, the main attraction is the emergence of the bats at dusk (similar to what we saw in Austin, Texas) – so we wandered around the nearby village. Stumbled upon a shop, where we hung out for a bit with the girl running the shop:

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 1

She showed us how to make the betel nut quid (what the areca nut + tobacco + lime wrapped in the betel leaf is apparently called), which is a hazardous and addictive stimulant commonly chewed in Myanmar. This drug has “uplifting” effects and is regularly used by many of the locals, especially bus drivers and taxi drivers, to help them stay awake. We also saw this drug commonly chewed in Bhutan and had wanted to try it (you know, for the “experience”), but never really got a chance to. Since we had plenty of time to kill, we decided to take the plunge! It tasted like shit and we felt nothing. I found myself spitting for hours just trying to get the remnants and the taste out of my mouth.

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 2

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 3

Eventually made our way over to the Bat Cave and hiked up to the viewpoint to get a good glimpse of the river:

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Then found a nice little spot to await the dusk and the bats!

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 7

And I made a friend:

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 8

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Who introduced us to this little guy and his balloon:

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 12

And then the bats emerged!!!! Though we’ve seen the bats emerge in Austin, Texas (as I mentioned earlier in the post), that was NOWHERE near as impressive as what we saw here in Hpa-An! Hundreds and thousands of bats emerged over the course of 20 minutes or so for their nightly feeding, creating amazing clouds and patterns in the sky. It was a truly remarkable sight:

Hpa-An, Bat Cave - 13

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But the pictures don’t do it justice. Lucky for you, the only thing my crappy phone happens to be good for is capturing video:

Kawt-Ka-Thaung Cave

Took off bright and early the next morning to see some more caves, starting with the Kawt-Ka-Thaung Cave:

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 1

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 2

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 3

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 4

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Turtle on turtle:

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 6

I don’t exactly remember why there was a bed inside the cave – perhaps it is an offering? – but I totally got a kick out of it and decided to share it with you guys, in the hopes that you’ll get a kick out of this super fancy bed sitting in the middle of a cave, in the middle of a remote village in southeast Myanmar:

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 7

Though this cave wasn’t as cool or as impressive as the others we had already seen, we couldn’t leave before investigating what was on the other side of this tiny little tunnel:

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 8

It was a tiny little shrine!

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 9

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 10

One of these things is not like the other:

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 11

Samsonite, NO!!!!!!! JK everyone. That’s not a real fish. Don’t you worry. Samsonite will live to see another day.

Hpa-An, 4th Cave - 12

Sadan Cave

Made our way down to Sadan Cave, which we were told was not to miss!

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 1

The inside of this cave was as cool as usual:

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 2

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But the SUPER cool thing about it was that you could actually walk all the way through the cave to the other side, which we did:

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 7

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 8

To return to our bike, we could either walk back (lame) or take a CANOE back (awesome!). In case you you’re unclear, we opted for the latter, along with a cool German couple we had met 5 minutes earlier:

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 9

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 10

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It’s a two-way channel…

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… that at times I wasn’t so sure should be two-way:

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But we made it back to dry land, with spectacular scenery:

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 19

And said goodbye to our boatman as he slowly paddled away:

Hpa-an, Sadan Cave - 20

Mt. Zwekabin Monastery

Met some fellow travelers (Doreen from Amsterdam and Nuria from Madrid) at the Bat Cave the previous night, who happened to be staying in our guest house. They too were planning to hike up to the monastery that night, so the four of us joined forces and made our way to the village at the eastern base of Mt. Zwekabin, ready for our 723 meter (~2,370 ft) ascent to the monastery at the top of the mountain. Contemplating the daunting task ahead of us:

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 1

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 2

And up we go!

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I don’t think we brought enough bananas:

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 6

Ran into this cool kid:

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We weren’t even half-way there and this is how I was faring:

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But we powered on:

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And enjoyed some incredible views:

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Finally arrived at this water pumping station, which, according to Francy, meant we must be close to the monastery!!!!

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 12

AND WE MADE IT! Just in time for the sunset!! Well, more like… “Just in time for the sun to disappear behind the dense and impenetrable smog”:

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Our monastery camp-style dorm with our new friends!

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Samsonite made himself right at home, getting his monk-hood on:

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 16

We set our alarms nice and early to get up in time to catch the sunrise. Turns out, that was completely unnecessary because at exactly 4:06am, the loud-speaker that was RIGHT next to our dorm started BLARING the monk’s morning chants. Now if you’re thinking “just go back to sleep, catch another hour’s snooze, you’re fine”, then you’re wrong, because those chants were blaring incessantly until exactly 5:06am. Exactly. Perhaps that was their grand master plan, because by then we were all up and ready to go! Except for this guy…

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 17

But he came out of his shell (tee-hee) eventually:

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We were even greeted by the morning monkeys:

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Whose behavior is sometimes a little TOO human for my liking…

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Ready for the descent:

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Encountered this beautiful pagoda on the way down:

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And these adorable girls:

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 27

Made it to the Lonepani Garden (field of 1,000 Buddhas), which was a sign that we’d finally reached the bottom! Hopped into a tuk-tuk and made our way back to the guest house for some much needed breakfast and a shower!

Hpa-An, Mt. Zwekabin - 28

Boat to Mawlamyine

Next on our agenda was to make our way up to Kalaw to embark on our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. In order to get to Kalaw without flying, we had to go through Mawlamyine (there is actually another way, but it was booked). We could either take the bus to Mawlamyine, which would take about two hours and cost only a few dollars, or take a boat down the Thanlyin River, which would take about double the time and cost double the amount, but would still get us to the bus in time. Though we were on a budget, we had an 18 hour night-bus to look forward to and figured that a boat ride down the river would a) be much more pleasant than a bus, b) allow us to enjoy the villages and countryside a whole lot more, and c) give us some more hangout time with Doreen and Nuria. Well, we made the right choice:

Hpa-An, Boat - 1

Hpa-An, Boat - 2

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See that massive mountain in the distance? Yup, that’s where we woke up that morning:

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Passed by tons of villages, with children splashing around in the river, yelling hello and frantically waving at us as we passed:

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Saw some more beautiful pagodas:

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And we even managed to squeeze in a nap, which was extremely necessary after our sleepless night and soon to follow sleepless bus ride…

Hpa-An, Boat - 13

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