Discover Pa-An, Burma
A boutique in Pa-An is making it easier to visit this entrancing Burmese limestone-hill town in style. By DUNCAN FORGAN.
Published on Feb 8, 2016
THINGS ARE GETTING ROWDY at the swimming hole on the outskirts of Pa-An, the capital of Burma's Karen State, this balmy afternoon. A rocky promontory provides the ideal leapingoff point for a queue of young Burmese lads. The pool itself—a cool, clear expanse fed by a natural spring—is an aquatic free-for-all where kids pilot inflated car-tire inner tubes and splash about in noisy water fights. As the younger teenagers frolic, an older crowd packs out a collection of ramshackle wooden restaurants. Boys pick out classics on guitars while girls fix their makeup by using the reverse cameras on their mobile phones.
The local guys aren't the only rock stars around however. As my friend and I stroll down to the pool we are accosted by groups of fearless smiling admirers who take turns posing for photographs with the giant Western interlopers. I've found that such eagerness is harder to come by in many of the region's tourist hot spots, but here in Karen State—where many areas remain closed due to ongoing conflict between ethnic armies and the central government—visiting foreigners are a rare and welcome sight.
A serene valley at the foot of Mount Zwekabin. Duncan Forgan.
Little happens at a breakneck pace in Burma. Boats take days to chug their way up the country's rivers while a creaky road and rail infrastructure means that patience is a virtue that even the crankiest visitor must adopt when it comes to getting around. In keeping with the somnolent way of things, the country's tourist strategy has also taken its sweet time to diversify, focusing mainly on a handful of destinations including Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Rangoon. Yet Pa-An and its surrounds are now emerging as appealing additions to any Burmese itinerary.
Bordering northern Thailand, Karen State has plenty in common with its neighbor to the east. It's a land of lush river valleys, emerald paddies and towering limestone peaks. Pa-An is an easy bus ride 290 kilometers east of Rangoon and enjoys an enviable setting on the banks of the mighty Salween River. Here you'll find a few serviceable eateries, the excellent communitycentric Veranda coffee shop brewing beans from Shan highlands, and an attractive central lake. The jungle-clad bulk of Mount Zwekabin is a sacred symbol of peace and an easily identifiable landmark in an expansive countryside that offers a wider host of outdoor adventure: visitors can walk or cycle to a variety of caves and pagodas, swim in natural pools or simply luxuriate in the bucolic landscapes.
Doing all this has become a whole lot easier, not to mention appealing of Hpa-An Lodge. The boutique lodge has set an impressive new standard for luxury in the area. Cradled in a serene valley at the foot of Mount Zwekabin, the property features 18 cottages handcrafted from local wood and stone by French carpenter François Jacquey and his team. Cottages are kitted out with tasteful furniture made from the mahogany-like thitka and come with a huge deck equipped with a daybed, while trimmings such as Beats USB speakers make lazy monsoon days even more amenable.
Sashaying through the green grounds of Hpa-An Lodge. Courtesy of Hpa-An Lodge.
If the weather is fine—as it was when I visited—the great outdoors is well worth exploring. We start our first day in Pa-An with a brisk two-hour climb to the top of the mountain. The trail is steep and the steps are slippery due to recent rains, but the view from the top is as gorgeous a reward as one could wish for. After a tasty Thai lunch in town at the hilariously named Golden Cock restaurant (+95 9 314 999 28) we visit the Kawt Ka Taung Cave before indulging our fans with some photo opportunities at the nearby swimming hole. Sunsets around here are particularly wondrous, the early-evening light injecting extra luminescence to the scenery. We end the day with a cold Myanmar Beer at a restaurant looking out over the Kyauk Kalap Monastery, a pagoda that straddles a tall limestone outcrop in the middle of a lake.
Buddhist imagery adorns Kawgun cave. Courtesy of Hpa-An Lodge.
Back at Hpa-An Lodge, we opt for the Burmese set dinner, a risky choice as the merits of local cuisine are often disguised by the overuse of oil. But there are no such negatives here. Highlights of the meal include a delicate myin kwa ywet thoke (pennywort salad) and wet that sipyan (pork curry) with tender chunks of pork belly coated in a perfectly spiced ginger and tamarind gravy. Pa-An is nobody's idea of a nightlife hub, but the lodge's comfortable bar makes a convivial spot to sip wine.
With several of the area's sights ticked off the previous day, our final morning is spent lounging around the property's attractive pool and admiring the view over the valley from its raised deck.
Hungry for some ballast before the long drive back to Rangoon, we stop for an espresso and a pizza at the friendly Italian-themed Hotel Gabana in the center of Pa-An. We order "a margherita" and wait eagerly.
Reflections on Kawt Ka Taung Lake. Duncan Forgan.
Forty minutes later our server reappears with… an icy margarita. So we remain hungry, and the salty tequila drink will delay our drive, but we don't mind—with mountains, lakes and rivers providing the backdrop to a weekend of pure relaxation, it is impossible not to go with the flow.