Once a tropical sea, now coral deposits have formed limestone karsts that rise dramatically from the lush forests and rice paddies around Hpa-An. Riddled with rivers and lakes, there are magnificent pagodas and temples to be explored in this extraordinary landscape.
You don’t go to Hpa-An for the town itself. It’s a bit scruffy and non-descript, although the people are warm-hearted, and the street food is tasty. What sets Hpa-An apart, is the spectacular landscape around it. Think lush, flat rice paddies with jagged limestone outcrops rising from the plain, the Than Lwin River winding past.
The region was once a shallow, tropical sea. Coral hardened over millions of years to form limestone deposits, while softer rock eroded away leaving behind vertical karst mountains. Rain and rivers carved caverns and chambers at the foot of the outcrops.
The tallest of the karsts is Zwegabin at 725 metres, with a pagoda at the summit. It’s sacred to the Karen people who live in this region, and Hpa-An’s football team is even called Zwegabin United.
There are two ways to experience Zwegabin. The first is a sweaty two-hour climb to the top, with troops of monkeys to keep you company while you admire the spectacular panorama at the summit. Option two, and equally exciting in our book, is the tunnel through the mountain. A huge cave network runs through its base, called Sadan Cave. The first section is a giant cavern filled with glitzy gold Buddhas. Then the journey continues deeper into the rock through chamber passageways. It takes about 15 minutes to reach a beautiful tree-lined pool on the other side of the mountain. Boats wait here to take you through paddy fields back around to the start.
While Zwegabin mountain impresses in scale, Kyauk Ka Lat, (pronounced ‘chocolate’) is the most stunning of the pagodas around Hpa-An. It’s a golden stupa perched on a tall finger of sheer limestone in the centre of a man-made lake. The rocky pinnacle thins towards it base, giving the impression that the whole thing could topple over in the slightest wind.