We take the overnight bus from Yangon to Hpa-An (pronounced pa-an), a small town about two hours from the Thai border crossing we need to get to in a matter of days. The annoying thing- this overnight bus arrives in town at 4am. And we know we're going hiking this same day, meaning we don't need a room to stay overnight. So what do you do? You proceed to the one hostel you've been recommended and knock on the door to wake up it's staff. Completely full with no where for us to even relax for a few hours. Then what?
We wander town, contemplate napping on the sidewalk for a few hours, and then stumble across another hostel. By now it's about 4:30am and so we wake up another staffer. Though she spoke barely any english, she was thankfully much friendlier. We managed to communicate that we only needed a place for a few hours, and she led us a large open room on the top floor, for a very cheap price. This was basically an attic space. They put mattresses on the floor and gave us blankets - perfect - we could nap until the normal morning hours. But I barely slept. I kept hearing noises in the storage areas of this open room...mice. I'd dealt with worse, so there being mice didn't really bother me. But the idea of a mouse possibly crawling on top of me in my sleep. Absolutely not. I made a cocoon out of sheets and tried to sleep fully enclosed. It worked well enough for a poor morning's nap.
Some food before we take of on the hike. (left) maple-glazed donuts sold on the street; (center) a delicious tomato hors d'oeurves at a nearby street kitchen; (right) the mohinga - a traditional Myanmar fish-based soup - we ate for lunch
Waking up late morning, we each soak up a bit of wifi as we all had plans to be made for the coming days of transition. Then it's off to Mt. Zwegabin - a nearby landmark with a monastery sitting at the top, overlooking the town of Hpa-An. We plan to hike the mountain and spend the night at the monastery.
The hike itself was tough. Gorgeous, but quite steep. Our driver had given us the option of taking the west route - longer, but a bit easier of a climb - or the east route - faster and more steep with lots of steps. We collectively decided to take the smoother route up -west- and the steeper route down -east. (By observing the location of sunrise/sunset, we later come to find out that the driver had dropped us at the east route. That explained why it was so challenging of a climb even though we had been told it wasn't :) )
We get to the top and it's serene. Find one of the monks and 'check in' for an overnight stay. We're expecting mats on the floor of a dormitory setting. What we're led to are two private hotel rooms. Individual beds each in a private wing of the monastery. Turns out we just got lucky and all the other visitors were staying on mats on the floor. But I'm ok with that.
Monkeys. yep. I learned early into my travels in Thailand that the sweet adorable monkeys we think of are not so sweet and adorable. They're greedy and somewhat vicious. The monkeys scattered the landscape along our hike up - a stray dog even followed us to protect. We named her Ruby, and she made sure we hiked past the monkeys without being tampered. Once we got to the top of the mountain, monkeys were still everywhere. They're even creepier than rats in the NYC subways.
Anyways, we go to watch the sunset not too long after our arrival. It was beautiful. We found a little monkey-free nook to enjoy the brilliant colors of the setting sun.
Sunset atop Mt. Zwegabin - (left) check out that crescent moon top/center; (right) can you spot the monkey...tail?!
Bright and early the next morning, we wake for sunrise. I had been told by others that this is one of the most magnificent sunrises they've ever seen. It was beautiful, but it wasn't phenomenal. Why? Because of the 'controlled' fires taking place all along the west side of the very mountain we stood atop.
That morning, we woke to crazy smoke. The people in Myanmar (and a lot of Asia) will light fire to their crop for a turnover into the next crop. I can only assume that is what was taking place here. Except it was much bigger than any other controlled fire I'd seen to this point. It wasn't scary - knowing that we were at the top of a mountain surrounded by only concrete. So, for that reason it was eerily beautiful. It did create quite a hazy atmosphere, though. These pictures show a bit of the scene we witnessed. And lucky for us - the sun rises in the east meaning it was less hazy watching this view.
After sunrise, we hike down. We had to return the way we came because the other route - the western side - was consumed by smoke, ash and continued flames. And therefore, it was nearly as tough going down as it was going up. Those steep declines hurt your knees! How did the group of men, one being at least 75 years old, manage this climb up and down? It's empowering to see - if they can do it, I most certainly can. Along the way down, we passed loads of Myanmar high school kids heading up to the monastery. Per usual - they gawked and giggled in an endearing way as we passed. This group of boys was particularly giddy and asked for a photo... why not, we thought.
The local boys hiking up while we're hiking down - very excited to snap photos of four western girls, and one western boy
From there, it took some time, but we found a taxi-truck to bring us around to the remaining sites in Hpa-An. This started with Kyauk Kalap, a beautiful pagoda atop a shocking rock formation on an island, and was followed by the Sadan Cave, an entirely natural temple. These were gorgeous and made us wish we had more time to see the remaining area sites of other caves and landscapes.
But, our visas were up. It was time to hit the road and head to the Thai border. Overstaying the Myanmar visa as an American means $$$. As wonderful as this country was - I just can't cut that.
And so, we (along with our Argentinean friend we'd met atop Mt. Zwegabin) hire a cab to drive us the 2 hours to the Thai border. Great - westerners paying me money to drive them 2 hours...I'll take my friend and pick up another along the way. That must have been what was going through our drivers mind. Well, we were willing to keep our mouths closed as they shoved 4 girls into the backseat and another man in the trunk amongst our bags. But we (well, I) can't stay quiet when that trunk-dwelling man spills a cup of betel spit (the red spit from the betel many Myanmar men chew) all over our bags, and then proceeds to swap spots with a woman we pick up on the side of the road. Oh, and he tries to then sit in the middle of the driver and passenger in the front of the car. I wouldn't have it. I got out of the car and told the driver that NO. We are paying for this ride and already uncomfortable and fairly unsafe. Adding a passenger to the middle of the front seats is not acceptable. It's entirely unsafe. About 5 minutes later after my blow-up, and my friends backing up the same argument... we are on our way without the middle-seat-sitting man. We still have the lady in the trunk with out bags... Most uncomfortable 2 hours.
They sleep - I'm shmooooshed. And it's so hot - hence the crazy hair from open windows on the highway. And say hi to our trunk-lady friend...
And ahhhhh. We hit the border. Let's figure out this bus system and get to Bangkok. See ya there!