This was one of our very last minute picks. And our best decision all trip. While looking for a place to break journey between Myawaddy and Yangon, I read about the small town of Hpa-An that most claimed had an easy, countryside charm that was difficult to articulate. Having spent just two days there, we came away with an uneasy feeling that though this was our first stop, it couldn't be topped. We couldn't have been more right. Hpa-An is a tiny town in Southern Myanmar that hardly wishes to compete with the big four in tourism in the country -- Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Yangon -- in that it has no particular spectacle that is its showpiece. What it lacks in a showstopper it more than makes up for in its vibe however. As soon as you step out of the town, the surrounding countryside is awash in refreshing paddy hues and some truly amazing caves, pagodas and water bodies. And the complete lack of tourists make sure you have all the time in the world to just stand there and take it all in without the slightest hint of urgency.
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This is one of the two major lakes in Myanmar and is referred to as "the great royal lake." The lake provides a great view especially of the Shwedagon Pagoda, located on the eastern bank of the lake. The Shwedagon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda dominated the skyline of the city as well as leaves quite a clear and beautiful reflection in the Kandawgyi Lake. This pagoda is one of the most sacred places for the Buddhists with the relics of the previous four Buddhas in it. The pagoda has several stupas made from different materials: gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron, and brick. The main pagoda is gilded with gold along with the 86 stupas surrounding it. Thousands of diamonds and other gemstones were used to decorate the pagoda. Myanmar is known as the "Land of Golden Pagodas" and Shwedagon is one of the reasons why. Even though the stupa has been repeatedly plundered over the years, it has been able to maintain its glory.
We headed to Shwesandaw Pagoda for sunset, to be honest we weren't sure about this one. We'd heard it was the most popular sunset spot and as a result from 4pm onwards tour buses start to roll up and it becomes very crowded. On the same note we didn't want to miss it so went anyway. Arriving around 4:30pm, it was already busy, there were a few tour buses parked up and row upon row of e-bikes and push-bikes. The climb up the side of the pagoda was very steep and the steps were very high. It was quite a struggle for little old me and my short legs. Luckily there's metal railings both sides to help drag yourself up the steps. Tourists positioning cameras and tripods crowded into the top two or three terraces. Several perched precariously on the walls, dangling their legs over the side. They were all trying to get the perfect sunset shot. Once at the top we could see why it was so popular. The views were spectacular, on a par with, if not better than the views from Bagan Viewing Tower the day before.