“Have you done the tour?”
“Are you going on the tour?”
“How did you find the tour?”
Everyone* who goes to Hpa-An stays at Soe Brothers, and everyone* who stays at Soe Brothers goes on the tour. It’s a full day of temples, caves, lakes and pools, and at only 5,000 kyat each is a bargain. It’s a much easier way of seeing the sights of Hpa-An without having to rent a motorbike (and risk the dangers of Myanamar’s roads). On the day I went there were about 24 of us – eight in each pick up – so I wouldn’t be worried about being alone.
I was, of course, desperately hungover, which meant my hypothalamus was out of control. There was a lot of sweat in my life that day, as well as excessive amounts of water and ice cream. Nonetheless I had a lovely day and I would strongly recommend going on the tour – as will everyone else you meet there!
*Not everyone, of course, but a lot.
Temple 1: 4/5
Cool cave, quite big, free to get into – no complaints here!
Temple 2: 1/5
This was my least favourite destination. It cost 3,000 kyat to get in (£1.80, so not a lot, but when you consider the 13 hour train from Mandalay to Hsipaw cost 1,700 kyat it becomes quite a lot) and there was very little to see. I would not recommend entering this temple – there is a man who sells ice cream outside, which is a must better place to put your 3,000 kyat.
Temple 3: 4/5
This was probably the most surreal thing I’d seen for a while. The pagoda is perched on top of a rock that juts out of the landscape like nothing I’d ever seen before. It really looks like a fairytale and is a very special place.
Buddha Garden: 2/5
Lonely Planet estimated that there are x thousand Buddhas here. There are a lot of Buddhas. Nobody quite knows why. It’s less spectacular than peculiar, but also it was the middle of the day and very hot. I returned here on my way up the mountain the following day and it was much more pleasant and interesting when the weather was less severe.
Long wait vs generous portions – you decide. I saw someone else who avoided the restaurant altogether (blasphemy to go against the instructions of your tour guide!) and got some meat on a stick which looked pretty good.
Swimming pool: 4/5
I jumped in wearing my clothes, since they hadn’t told us that there would be a swimming pool en route. Having a bikini wouldn’t have been any use, to be honest, since no one in this area of the world swims in less than shorts and t-shirt. I dried soon enough, and it was a wonderful break in the day.
The only reason it gets four, not five, stars is because there was a section of the pool for men only, which is stupid.
Temple 4: 5/5
This temple is super famous and very popular, and it’s easy to see why. It starts off as a cave, and you start to wander through with no clear idea of how long it’s going to take to get to the other end. Each corner or shard of light could be the exit, or it could just be a hole in the roof. The lighting is very effective, including a very magical bridge. I would have taken better photos, but I thought we’d be coming back the same way. How wrong I was…
When you finally get to the other end, there is a lake, and there are boats. For a mere 1,000 kyat you can get a boat, and you drift around the lake. At one point you go under the rock, and you can touch the ceiling without standing up. Then you emerge on the other side, in a tranquil little lagoon. You are unceremoniously dumped on a bank and then you start to follow a little path.
Soon the path opens up, and you are walking through fields of grass and rice and cows. There are mountains in the distance and women working in brightly coloured clothes. It’s sensational.
Temple 5: 3/5
This temple was a little quiet, a little small, but very peaceful and interesting. It has a relic in a small cave at the back, but I found the queue of disciples outside to be much more intriguing. This is a Buddhist trope that seems to be unique to Myanmar – at least, I didn’t see it in Thailand. Apparently there’s supposed to be another cave at this temple, but it was shut when we visited. That was ok, but after all that, it was definitely time to go home.