Kaw Ka Thawng Cave

Hpa-An: The Coolest Place in Myanmar That You Don’t Know About

Myanmar, Photo Essay

Hpa-An is oh-so-close to being the perfect travel destination. Surrounded by jungle-clad karst peaks and green rice paddies, Hpa-an is a busy town with a prime position on the Thanlyin River. The nearby mountains are dotted with Buddha-filled caves, golden stupas, strange monk statues, and working monasteries. It is a stunningly beautiful and interesting region.

Although I selfishly lament the inevitable change that tourism will bring to Burma, this is one place that could be greatly enhanced by some tourist infrastructure. Hpa-An is a bustling, working town where tourism is an afterthought. The shoreline of the river has exactly one bar – a little shack really – where you can drink a beer while watching the sunset. There are a few great places to eat in town, but they are scattered along busy roads. The southern part of town is dominated by Kan Thar Yar Lake, a beautiful retreat that needs a few more cafes and park benches to become a truly great spot.

Having said that, the real highlight of any visit to Hpa-An is the caves, monasteries, giant buddhas and surreal sites in the countryside. We signed up a for a day tour at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse and cruised around in the back of a tuk tuk with five other travelers. This is the best way to see the area since all the sites are scattered.

So, do you want to see Hpa-An? Let’s take a little photo tour.

Hpa-An Town

Thanlyin River sunset

Long tail boats cruise the Thanlyin River.

Thanlyin River Hpa An

Fisherman in the Thanlyin River.

hpa-an lake

Kan Thar Yar Lake, a peaceful retreat in the southern part of the city.


Monks collecting alms in the morning.

Kaw Ka Thawng Cave

The Kaw Ka Thanwng Cave is best known for the hundreds of monk statues that lead to the monastary. It is surrealistically beautiful.

Kaw Ka Thawng Cave

A line of hundreds of monk statues lead up to Kaw Ka Thawng Cave.

Kaw Ka Thawng Cave

Buddhas at Kaw Ka Thawng Cave.

Kawgun Cave

Some of the artwork in the cave dates back to the 7th century! The open face of Kawgun Cave was littered with Buddhas of all shapes and sizes in assorted poses. A hike up the side of the mountain led to stunning views.

statues in Kawgun Cave.

Locals admire the statues in Kawgun Cave.

Hpa-An Cave

Rows of Buddha statues line the entrance to Kawgun Cave.

Kawgun Panorama

A short but sweaty hike above Kawgun Cave led to this panorama.

Kyauk Kalap

If there was one disappointment on our tour it was the monastery at Kyauk Kalap. It looks cool in photos, but visitors aren’t allowed to go to the top of the rock so a visit was a bit underwhelming.

Kyauk Kalap monastery.

Kyauk Kalap monastery is built on a rock in the middle of an artificial lake.

Kyauk Kalap

Burmese women wear the best clothes.

Buddha near Hpa An

Random field of Buddha statues a few miles from Kyauk Kalap.

Saddar Cave

The entrance to Saddar Cave is large enough for a basketball arena and features a golden stupa and several Buddha statues. A hike through the cave leads past intricate stalactites, stalagmites and beautiful cave pools. Once through the cave, visitors hire a water taxi and cruise through a subterranean river back to the parking lot. It was pretty cool, I guess.

Saddar Cave near Hpa An.

The Buddha and stupa-filled Saddar Cave near Hpa An.

Monk statues in Saddar Cave

Monk statues in Saddar Cave

Reclining Buddha in Saddar Cave.

Reclining Buddha in Saddar Cave.

Stalagmite in Saddar Cave.

Stalagmite in Saddar Cave.

Saddar Cave

Boats take visitors through a subterranean waterway.

Saddar Cave Boat

Saddar Cave water taxi captain.

I realize that most visitors to Myanmar focus on the famous triumvirate of the north – Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake – and for good reason, it looks awesome. I am glad we stayed in the south and went to Hpa-An. It is an off-beat destination with friendly locals and interesting sites that won’t stay unnoticed for long.

Further reading

An Eventful Week in Hpa-An – Legal Nomads

Hpa-An Travel Guide – Travelfish.

On Small Towns and Small Adventures in Hpa-An – A Little Adrift

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I have photo prints available on my portfolio site.

Posted by

Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

32 thoughts on “Hpa-An: The Coolest Place in Myanmar That You Don’t Know About”

  1. I have to admit that I knew nothing about Hpa-An during our two-week travel in Myanmar. I’ve seen a few photos of Kyauk Kalap monastery, but I never realized in which part of the country it is located. This post reminds me of your posts on some enchanting Mexican towns which are far less popular than the usual tourist trails. You really did your research!

    • I’m not really sure where I first heard about it. We only had about 9 days, and we really wanted to see Yangon, so we looked for places in the south. We are excited to return and go to the north!

  2. Pingback: Hpa-An: The Coolest Place in Myanmar That You Don’t Know About — Planet Bell | mapsworldwide blog

  3. Wow Jeff, such an interesting post. I cannot believe the number of Buddha statues and that first of the sunset on the Thanlyin River is absolutely stunning!

    • Thank you Lynn. Yeah, some of those caves were just filled with statues. It is hard to show it in photos. The whole area is magical.

  4. This is one of those posts I must earmark for future reference! Both the natural and man-made here are simply stunning.

  5. It is incredible Jeff. Tourism could help or harm it’s such a delicate balance. I can’t believe all of the statues!

    • It is a very delicate balance. I think in this case some tourism could help, mainly because it is already a bustling, working town and I don’t think the character of it would change. The riverfront and lake area are totally undeveloped, so I could see a cafes, restaurants, park benches and the like benefiting the local people and overall character of the town. Normally, I hate to see development and more tourists in a small town, but this is one place I thought could use it.

  6. Despite the lack of cafes, bars, benches, etc. you may look back fondly about seeing Hpa-An in this state. It looks like an amazing place and your photos are wonderful. Is it difficult to get to? How do you access? I’m still trying to figure out whether to visit Laos/Cambodia versus Myanmar next year so your posts are especially interesting for me.

    • It is super easy to get to, about 5-6 hours from Yangon. Yeah, I did appreciate it in its more primitive state, but I think improvements could benefit the locals even more than the tourists since just a few minor additions could really improve the vibe of the town. You can’t go wrong visiting either Laos/Cambodia or Myanmar, but Myanmar is in a state of rapid change. I’d see it now.

  7. OMG that cave looks amazing! Pretty cool you guess? Were you being sarcastic? I would love to see all these places – Kyauk Kalap monastery is mind boggling. Too bad you could’t go up to the top. And that random field of Buddhas! At first I thought it was just a line of them but looked closer, and no, it’s a *whole field*! Great photos Jeff. You make me want to go back to Burma and see all the things we missed.

    • The other side of the field had even more Buddhas, but there were trees and it wasn’t as photogenic. Yes, I was being sarcastic! That day tour was one of the best things I can remember doing.

  8. Me too. I’m saying OMG Wow!

    You had mentioned in an earlier post about the propensity for Buddha statues – especially really big ones. You weren’t kidding!! Your photos certainly give a hint of how special this place really is.
    There are just so many wonderful images in this post, it’s impossible for me to pick one favourite!

  9. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    Just a little bit jealous. Only a little. OK, maybe more than a little. OK, maybe a lot.

  10. You have the wonderful ability to find things and get to know them, and then photograph them, where others just ride on by. I loved Myanmar, and would go back, but with a BUNCH of time, so I wouldn’t feel bad about a five-hour ride to go 20 klicks. Just lovely shots here!

      • Well, you’re close enough to go back for a three-day weekend. Do that 7 or 8 times, and you’ve done it all!

      • True, but I want at least a week for the north. I’d go back to Yangon on a long weekend though. That is a great city.

  11. Oh, yeah, magical place, the Saddar cave and boattrip back thru waterlilies filled ricefields was my favorite there, great read! Thanks, Ron.

  12. Jeff, your photos and descriptions really pulled me in, one mesmerizing image at a time. You did a great job of sharing the local flair, I really loved these photos of the fisherman, boatman, monks, and the pair of women. And then I found a curious theme of surrealness here, too — with the repeating statues in numerous places, and the caves too. Excellent gallery, thank you.

    • Thank you Jet! I really appreciate your comments. Yes, Hpa An is very surreal. I feel like we only scratched the surface of the area too. There are rice paddies among the mountains, monasteries atop cliffs and golden spires on the plains sticking up above the trees. It is really a magical place, and I can’t wait to explore Myanmar more in the future.

  13. It was a great experience … my own personal tourguide from Jeff. Love to travel too mostly in Europe, budget is more generous at my age of 54 years.

    • As I get older my budget gets more generous too! Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Where do you enjoy traveling in Europe?

      • First was Best of Italy, then Best of Greece, Best of France and the most recent Beijing, China. Best means the popular cities north, south, east and west of the country so, it’s like you’ve been educated and cultured. Thanks for your interest.

  14. Beautiful pictures, Jeff. I’ve always wondered, as travellers, should we keep isolated gems to ourselves or share it with the world. While, tourism can aid local economies, it can also create a change that can adversely alter the original culture or natural landscape of a place. It’s a tough call to make. 😦

  15. Jeff, This looks like a fascinating place and your photos are wonderful. I have been to Thailand but didn’t get to Burma. I hope to make it someday soon… this post is motivation.

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