After the border crossing from Thailand to Myanmar over the Thai-Myanmar Friendship bridge, we headed straight to the town of Hpa-an by the broad Salween river. Given the initial culture shock, the horrid road conditions, and the fact that we’ve been crammed into a 4-person sedan with 6 other Burmese locals enlisted as a minibus, getting from Myawaddy to Hpa-an was an adventure in itself.
The town of Hpa-an and Galaxy Motel
At the time of our travel, tourists visiting Myanmar were only allowed to stay in a handful of hotels registered by the government in each town. In smaller towns like Hpa-an, the number of officially licensed hotels were even more limited. Galaxy Motel was one of the registered accommodations able to host foreigners. It was a family-owned motel, also run by them, with a few local employees. The daughter of the owner who spoke perfect English, was taking care of all the guests’ needs and knew everything about the area.
The day when we arrived at the motel, we still had some time to discover the town. We had a great lunch at a traditional Burmese curry house. We also took a short excursion later that day on foot out of the town just to the other side of the Salween river, visiting a Buddhist monastery built on top of a high crag sticking out of the otherwise flat surroundings. We crossed the river with a long-boat ferry, then walked through a small village and ascended the rock before getting back within only a couple of hours. There were some amazing views from this surviving religious site, where we saw a number of Buddhist monks living and building their sanctuaries.
A day-trip around Hpa-an
We are not the type of travelers who’s keen on joining groups, but in Myanmar we did. Given the lack of public transportation, the horrendous road conditions and driving manners, lack of road signs etc., one has to think twice before renting their own scooter. We came across an unlucky French couple at the motel with some serious injuries from their scooter accident, recovering for the second week then.
So the day after our arrival we joined a group-tour organized by the Galaxy Motel. Day-trips organized by Galaxy Motel for small groups of their guests were a great chance to discover the area without having to worry about getting around. We got on the back of a tiny tuk-tuk with 4 other backpackers, and the driver took us on a whole-day trip, visiting several points of interest around the area. Riding on a Mad Max-style tuk-tuk in the scorching heat for a whole day had not been the most comfortable experience, but generally anyone who wants to visit Myanmar has to give up any expectations of tangible comfort or luxury.
We visited two Buddhist cave temples, a Buddhist monastery built on top of an absurdly shaped rock, a pool where locals go swimming, and went ‘bat-watching’, to see the bats flying out their cave at dusk.
The cave temples decorated with hundreds of Buddhist statues, carvings and all the different holy relics were truly remarkable. We could look back at it from the perspective, that this marked the time we lost our Buddhist-cave-temple-virginity in Myanmar. As by the end of our trip we realized, that except for a couple of occasions, the only activity a tourist can do in Myanmar is visit holy Buddhist sites. And many of these sites are built in caves, which is a great opportunity to conveniently escape the insane heat during the day.
Splashing in the pool with some local Buddhist monks and their disciples just in the middle of the day had been a great fun and much refreshing.
At the end of the day, we went to see how the bats leave their cave at dusk. Imagine what it’s like when hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of their cave from a single opening, while you’re sitting right by. Seeing the cloud of bats disappearing in the distance, while hearing them still swarming out from the cave by your ear was a truly awe-inspiring experience.