Hpa An: A Destination for the Committed Traveller

Nestled down in the depths of the South East of the vast country of Myanmar, Hpa An is a destination that only the committed travellers venture down to. Its arduous journey and distance from the capital, as well as the main backpacker route, means when talking about this destination, you receive many blank expressions.

Needless to say, because of this, the town’s tourism industry is quite basic, with locals still amused and entertained by westerners and many lacking basic English (although still trying to be helpful-despite the language barrier!) making the town still authentic, as tourism has not made a significant impact on the place- yet.

There is not much to see in the town itself; a local mosque proudly chanting melodically to all those who will listen next to a bustling local market, dozens of local shops selling various hardware and other bric brac to suit daily needs, as well as cheap noodle cafes home to steaming broths and sticky tables. It’s easy to get lost within the town centre, where sights look similar and monks eagerly enquire, “Where you from?” on every street corner. Well at least I managed to, a number of times. Hitching a ride with a rusty truck that creaked past me, I leapt onto the back and shared the woven mat with napping Grandma’s and I was taken in the right direction I needed to go.  Rejecting my haste of giving some money to the family and pinching my love handles bemusedly, (I really must get rid of those) they let me off the truck, waving me goodbye as I headed into the town centre.

If you have some time whilst you are in Hpa An, it’s worth a stroll along Kan Than Yar lake, where hopeful fisherman sit and wait patiently, and couples sit nearby, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. With the reflection of the voluptuous mountains behind onto the smooth shimmering surface, the lake is a calm and peaceful spot away from the noise and commotion of the town, where shops seem to pile on top of each other, jostling for space. Shwe Yin Myaw Pagoda (the only pagoda in town) is worth a wander around too. A view of a river stretches out into the distance reaching Mawlamyine, where temples and pagodas are in abundance. It’s a wonderful spot to catch sunset too.

What really draws travellers to Hpa An are the numerous amount of caves that are dottted around the outskirts of town, some miles apart from each other. It’s quite difficult to locate the caves with little signs and treacherous roads, so renting a motorbike and visiting them yourself can become a challenging task. Luckily, the hostel I stayed at, Soe Brothers, organises an all-day cave tour which visit six caves around the area. It is a long and sticky day, but it’s an incredible experience. You visit religious sites and sacred monuments that are hidden within the depths of enchanting cascading caves, which continuously drip water as you wander around, tinkering in the background, playing their own tune.

The Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, is a pagoda embedded into a suspended rock in the air, balancing on a precarious piece of rock, as if a natural piece of Jenga. A mystical and breath-taking sight.

Another favourite of mine was Sadan Cave. Walking in to the open space filled with glistening Buddha’s and ancient holy images crumbling off the walls, the cave is as if any other cave you have visited throughout the day. However, descending further and further into the darkness; past stagnant rock pools and over rickety bridges, you reach the other side of the cave. Where a bright clear opening invites you in, where thousands of bats hang upside down, sleeping serenely, and where at precisely 6pm, hundreds of bats flutter out into the sunset. A bewitching sight to see, I can only imagine.

Taking a two thousand kyat boat trip to the start of a nearby cave, you float under a dangerously low level wall of solid rock, narrowly missing your head as you quickly duck for cover. Be careful to not shine a torch up into the black darkness that looms above you, the sight of hundreds of bats nestled in gaping holes, lurking within rock faces, just might terrify you. The tour can be organised through either Soe Brothers or Soe Brothers 2 Guesthouse and varies in price depending on how many people sign up to the tour and share a tuk tuk with you.

Another wonderful thing to do in Hpa An is hike up the monstrous Mt.Zwegabin. “Only” 740 metres above sea level, it doesn’t sound too steep, but the numerous sharp steps that jaggedly line the path in front of you, are a little soul destroying after a while. I guess the hike can be described as if waxing your legs, extremely painful, but rewarding as you admire your efforts, nonetheless. Climbing over two thousand steps, (I say steps in a very loose manner) you reach a humble monastery peering out at the peak of the mountain. The views are stunning;, picturesque pagodas merge with peaceful paddy fields and lakes line the horizon. The magnificent mountains stand next to Mt Zwegabin, shoulder to shoulder, showing off their curves and smooth ridges.

There is a restaurant hidden amongst the monastery- although expensive, after a gruelling trek up its face, a chilled coca cola and fried rice at 7 thousand kyat is heavenly. A shared taxi with others can be as little as two thousand kyat each, a return journey from town to the mountain. There is no entry free on Mt Zwegabin and the easiest way to ascend this beast is through Lumbini Gardens, where thousands of Buddha statues line orderly to attention.

I stayed in Soe Brother’s 2 Guesthouse, a little out of town but the guesthouse is modern and clean. Double beds with AC and a private bathroom cost 20 dollars a night, including breakfast which was quite a luxury. Coming directly from London to Soe Brothers 2 in Hpa An, after two flights and a day bus, I craved comfortability and thus, I decided to splash out on my first destination in Myanmar.

The guesthouse is a little out of town which can be a hindrance at times, but it is walking distance to the night market and has a delicious “Thai food and coffee” restaurant nearby- it’s the restaurant that has pictures of dishes all over its walls and MTV blaring out. The staff are super friendly and each time I went, each dish was equally as delicious! If travelling on more of a budget, check into Soe Brothers 1 in town, where single rooms with fans and shared bathrooms are 5 dollars. A little more rough around the edges, it still has a friendly backpacker vibe.

Reporting on Gigs Big Busk for Winkball

I love music. I especially love unsigned music artists who are incredibly talented, thus, I jumped at the opportunity to cover Gigs Big Busk in London recently.  A busking competition sponsored by Busk In London and the Mayor of London to support busking in the UK, as well as the wonderful array of musicians it brings with it.

Here, finalists are competing to win a number of prizes including recording time at a professional studio and other goodies from their sponsors, as well as of course, gaining the fantastic opportunity to perform at a number of unique and stunning venues throughout the competition like Liverpool Street, St Paul’s Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and finally, Westfields, where the final takes place.

 

Reporting for Winkball, we captured the event below:

Laziness in Gibraltar

Gibraltar really is an odd place. It’s a collision of two lifestyles, two European countries, that are so inherently different, it just doesn’t seem to blend that well. I felt like I was constantly on an all-inclusive holiday for Brits abroad, but over a whole country. It was bizarre seeing numerous pubs serving up British grub and signs in English stating that Lord what’s his name lives here and there, it felt wrong. It felt like I was cheating, where was all the rain? Where was all the doom and gloom of British weather that England is most commonly known for?

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the country, I was just perplexed. Perplexed about the British culture that encapsulates this tiny area of the world which rubs shoulders with Spain, both in language and weather, even flirtatiously eyes up Morocco’s mountainous ranges, but is also still so, British. Being a fan of sunshine, Spain and people that smile, needless to say I did enjoy my time here- despite my confusion and feelings of misplacement.

The first thing you’ll spot when you land off your flight and when the warm wind blows on your face is the massive rock that stands encompassing such sheer size and volume, it is as if it looms in the distance, reminding those that surround it of the impassive power of nature. Admittedly before I arrived in Gibraltar, I shared my wishes of climbing the rock with my parents “depending on my knee” (an injury I sustained training for the Midnight Sun Marathon), however, when I finally did arrive and my eyes glanced up to the rock, I realised it wasn’t a measly hill with a rock on top, but a colossal mountain, a wall of solid rock- something not to be sniffed at. Vowing to climb it another day once my knee is fully recovered, I left the monkeys behind.

Mainly coming here for a holiday to catch up with my parents and eating and drinking ourselves merry, (as well as taking some time out to soothe the soul) meant that unfortunately I didn’t see as many tourist attractions as you might have expected. I didn’t swim with the dolphins as many tour companies advertises; or go down into the depths of St. Michael’s cave or through the Great Siege Tunnels, or ponder over history at Moorish Castle, or sip coffee and watch the world go by at Casemates Square.

Instead of spending days browsing in the Art Galleries or the Museums in Gibraltar, or exploring the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, I did in fact spend most mornings doing lengths in the swimming pool and afternoons lounging around in the sun soaking some much needed vitamin D.  I did however, pop over to Europa Point, which stands at the most southern point of Gibraltar and is seeped with memories of battles and dramatic events.

Although my trip lacked in cultural and touristic attractions and excursions, I can recommend places to eat and drink within the Ocean Village area, which is adjacent to the Gibraltar border and nestles right next to the airport. Grill 53 is a good restaurant if you are looking for a hearty meal that nails traditional dishes of steak and burgers, whilst El Pulpero has wonderful fresh seafood. A popular destination to be seen at is La Sala on the Sunborn Yacht, but just come here for an overpriced drink if you like- the food is inedible. The Bridge is heaving on its live music nights and is a place to go if you want to soak up the Gibraltar sunset amongst the bright lights of the Ocean village below.

Gibraltar is a place I could live in because to me there are aspects of a routine which you could easily adapt from countries like neighbouring Spain; swimming in the morning, a siesta after work in the evening, but I wouldn’t choose to visit Gibraltar out of sheer interest; there are many more places in the world for that.

Flying A Helicopter and Holding a Tarantula (not at the same time)

Well you may be aware that I oddly like to live my life by my bucket list- which does sound strange, living life by a list of things I want to do before I die, but it enables me to live adventurously continuously with an excuse (instead of people thinking I am just that mad with no legitimate reason). If you are interested in reading my full up to date completed list just click here.

In the last few months I have ticked off two things off my bucket list which are both unique and conquer three kinds of fears that many people commonly share: of heights, of flying and of spiders.

Most recently I flew a helicopter for the first time, courtesy of a Christmas present that allowed me to fly with Phoenix Helicopter’s based in Camberley, in Surrey. Having never flown a helicopter before, or even seen one, I was excited about the prospect of doing so. As we stepped closer and closer to the little machine, (Robinson 22 if you are wondering) I realised just how minute this aircraft was- barely any room for any belongings let alone any extra sophisticated gadgets I have seen in many an action film! I was told by Will my instructor, that this machine was known to be “the mosquito of the sky”, famous for its light weight and quaint size. As we began to take off and I gazed at the numerous buttons ahead of me, the propellers began to surge, becoming louder and louder, gaining momentum.

Taking off so rapidly and with such ease was an incredible sensation, one minute we there on the ground and the next we were off, whizzing through the clouds, speeding over tree tops- it was enthralling and an experience like no other. I then got the chance to turn and dip and dive, controlling the speed, direction and height, even trying to hover at one point (which is extremely difficult). For anyone who is thinking of trying, I really can’t recommend it enough- even if you would like to see the world in a new light, travelling by helicopter is fascinating.

Before that I took a day trip down to Drusilla’s Park in East Sussex where I had been given a gift voucher to hold a tarantula (you can see where my family gets their birthday and Christmas ideas for me from). The zoo itself is small and mainly catered towards under ten year olds, filled with interesting facts and fun games (which we enjoyed nonetheless!) The voucher also enables you to bring a guest which means my friend and I were able to check out lots of small mammals like meerkets and ant eaters with very little interruption and queues, which was an enjoyable experience.

We both then met the “spider expert”, a woman who showed us a number of different spiders and creepy crawlies, from the basic garden spider to a tarantula. She was enthusiastic and positive about their enlightening individual defence mechanisms and continued to highlight how little harm they did to us- “they are more scared of you, than you are of them!” So it was lovely to be shown a tarantula by a true enthusiast. Holding the furry lady (the spider!) highlighted just how fragile this little creature is and not one to be afraid of, as many are.  A wonderful experience learning more about such a misunderstood animal!