Myanmar – Dawei to Hpa An

Over the last 11 months I’ve had a lot of feedback on my blog posts, and the most common thing I’ve heard is ‘Alex, I love your writing, you’re like a modern-day Shakespeare, but could you make your pieces longer? I feel empty and broken when I finally make it to the end.’

Just kidding, apart from my grandma who appears to be my biggest fan – hi grandma – a lot of people have told me that they got about halfway through a post before being distracted by something important happening, like a cloud floating across the sky, or the need for a cup of tea.

So, from now on I’m going to try to keep it brief. Relatively brief. It’s taken me 150 words to tell you that, so we’re already off to a bad start, but I’ll do my best. And maybe we’ll finally finish this thing and you’ll get to read about my return to the UK before 2020.

So, here we go.

Dawei in daylight was a nice little town, or at least the small part of it I saw was. The first thing I did upon waking up was pack up my gear and move onto the hostel I’d originally planned on heading to. This hostel had the same viewpoint on solo travellers as all the others (that they’re wastes of space), and therefore could offer me a double bedroom for $16 or a triple for $20. Using quick and cheap thinking, I asked a guy behind me in the queue if he fancied splitting the triple. He did, we shook hands, split the $20 fee, and I never saw him again. I think he was called Paul. Who knows.

The guy who had driven me around town trying to find me somewhere to stay in the middle of the night had recommended a scooter rental place, and it turned out to be literally just around the corner from my new hostel. I walked over there and tried to impress the man on the counter with my knowledge of the employees working there, but failed, probably due to poor pronunciation and not really remembering the name. I got a few nods, then a bike, and a map, and a new friend called Baukje, who wanted to explore the beaches as well.

My phone stopped functioning two days later, and I lost all of the photos that I’d taken of the place, so here is a photo from the internet instead.

Not my photo. Obviously. I don’t own a helicopter

We spent the first day on St Maria beach, and wandering round a lighthouse peninsula style temple, and the evening with a few American lads from Baukje’s hotel. The Burmese showed their hospitality again by, when asked directions to a shop selling beer, insisting that we get on the back of a scooter and being escorted there. Experiences like this would ultimately lead me to be trusting in situations where I really shouldn’t have been, just two weeks later, in Thailand.

Dawei is all about beaches, and so my last day there comprised of a two hour tuktuk ride to Grandfather Beach with Baukje, the Americans, and two Brits, Lucy and Leo. Grandfather Beach is supposedly one of the prettiest, whitest, nicest beaches in that part of the country, and we were surprised to find that we were the only people there. This only lasted for about a minute however, as the sight of white people rapidly attracted all the children from the local village, so that they could have a good gawk at the white girls with blonde hair, and to a much lesser extent, the pasty white lads with slightly less exotic, but still a little bit, brown hair.

Then one of them stole Baukje’s iPhone, leading to them suddenly seeming a lot less cute. It was returned by an adult half an hour later, with profuse promises that this never normally happened, and requests not to judge Myanmar based on the one toe rag that had run off with it and then taken a dozen selfies.

After that I quickly realised that there’s only so much beaching you can do, and while I had planned to take it easy and not rush my trip, I decided to make my way up towards Mawlamyine, to see what else Myanmar had going on.

It was half an hour before that bus trip that my phone broke, so for me, Mawlamyine turned out to be somewhere to buy a new phone from and nothing else. Combined with personal cash shortages, empty cash machines, and issues with my travel pre-paid credit card, it wasn’t the highlight of the trip. But I managed.

I have to admit, that I was a bit disappointed in myself, feeling like I had to immediately replace a broken phone. I know that all of you see me as a rugged, old school adventurer/hero, who has no reliance on technology, and while that is entirely 100% true, I’d also developed a sensible amount of caution based on bad taxi rides in Central Asia. Having a phone meant being able to be sure of where you were, and to ensure that you weren’t being driven far far away from your intended destination, and to know that, even if a call was going to cost you hundreds of pounds, that you always had a way to escape your situation. And that’s nice to have in your back pocket.

So I scraped together £180 from a range of cash machines and through a range of bank accounts, and bought a phone from the only brand I recognised; Huawei. Though I was tempted by the Oppo F1, a phone with a 21MP front camera and a 5MP back camera (because the only photo worth taking is one of yourself), I figured at least if I could get this phone to survive the UK, it’d still work over here.

It didn’t make it back to the UK.

Then I headed to Hpa An – pronounced ‘Pa-An’- on the local bus with all the locals, making friends by giving out biscuits that I’d bought in a pack of 50 for $1.

What’s going on here? Is this even Hpa An? Maybe

The ramshackle bus ride to Hpa An

There are both roads and plants in Myanmar

Sunset over the Than Lwin river

Sunset over somewhere else

Where do rivers go? Where do they come from? What are they made of? Does anyone know?

You can go from out on the plains to the middle of deep valleys in seconds

Open marshland and bogs for miles and miles

The sun seems to set a lot in Myanmar

Old school fishing traps on another mysterious river

Cows and chickens own the road whether you like it or not

A Burmese man driving his tractor and loving life.

So Hpa An was beautiful, and ties with Bagan for my favourite place in Myanmar. It’s a small town, with friendly people, beautiful countryside, great sunsets, bats, rivers, monasteries, temples, hikes, caves, sunrises probably, and everything. You can’t ask for much more really.

I arrived at about 2pm, then wandered into several hostels asking for a room, only to be told that they were all booked up. Just like Jesus when he went on holiday to Bethlehem in that book, I was finding that there was no room at the inn. Thankfully after visiting approximately 5 different hostels, Golden Sky 2 hotel offered me a double room (because only losers travel alone) for a reduced rate because I was only one person. I checked in, dumped my stuff, and went to hire a scooter. It was time to go to the bat cave.

Back in the 1980s, only two decades after Myanmar’s emancipation from the British, crime had reached such high levels that a Burmese philanthropist from Hpa An decided to take matters into his own hands. Using all the resources he had, he went to live in a cave outside of town, made a suit out of the bats that lived there, and to this day can be found running out into the streets and squeaking loudly at ne’er-do-wells. Several years later he was used as the inspiration for a set of comics called Batman; his lair became the basis for the bat cave.

None of the above is true. Probably. I’m no historian.

But there is a bat cave near Hpa An, and it is filled with bats, and so what you can do, if you feel like it, is drive over to it, climb up the peaks and crags around the main entrance, and sit and watch the sunset, before seeing hundreds of thousands of bats fly out in a long, undulating line as they go out hunting for the evening. Stories told to me by the internet say that they fly over a hundred miles to catch some insects. I was being eaten alive by mozzies even as I watched, so evidently these bats were not the smartest ones around.

Drives in the countryside, trips to caves, trying tea leaf salad – it’s weird, and exploring filled up the rest of my time in Hpa An. On my penultimate day I decided to hike up to a monastery, mostly based on the recommendation of Hannah, who I’d met in Malaysia, and her post.

It’s that tiny spec of white on top of that mountain that looks really tall and far away

I quickly found out that I’d picked the wrong time of day to climb it; most people went up in the cool of the evening, stayed overnight, and then walked down before it got hot in the morning. Either way, midday was not the best time to go. But that’s when I’d arrived, so tough.

It. Took. Hours.

I drank all my water, bought some more from a very sketchy looking store midway up, drank all of that, took a break, complained to myself, read a bit, then carried on up. I sweated out pretty much all the fluids in my body, before finally reaching the top.

It starts flat, open, friendly

Buddha as far as the eye can see. Why? Who knows

 

Hey look, Buddha

Myanmar fades into the distance

The steps start

More steps

They never end

Well, they do end, but it’s still not fun

The surrounding forests and mountains. Why build a monastery here?

Still not all the way up

 

A sight for sore eyes. Ish

These weird dome things are called Stupas, and are key design feature of any modern ancient temple

 

It’s a good view. What’s that smoke about?

I bought myself a well-deserved coke, then sat down and considered my life choices.

I was the only tourist up there, and the monks didn’t come to say hello. I was informed by two Burmese who looked like they worked there, but didn’t do the whole worshiping thing, that four days earlier a French tourist had walked all the way up the mountain, and then thrown themselves from the peak. So people were no longer invited to stay the night in the monastery, and in general were viewed a bit more suspiciously.

‘So, no jumping’ she wagged her finger at me, in a slightly less serious manner than I think was probably tactful. I promised I wouldn’t, went for a second wander around the temple, then made my way down.

Turns out they’d set the mountain on fire while I was up there. It did make it a slightly more exciting walk.

When I got to the bottom I found to French-Swiss hikers and told them that they wouldn’t be allowed to stay overnight at the top. They weren’t happy.

That night was my last evening in Hpa An. I chatted a bit with people from the hostel, before heading towards the clock tower where I would be picked up by a bus, as per usual. Who doesn’t love a good bus trip though.

So I headed off to Yangon, formerly Rangoon, ex-capital of Myanmar. It was solidly okay.

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