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.

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.

Oslo: The city that has everything

Coming from the sleepy town of Tromso in the Arctic Circle to the sunny cosmopolitan city of Oslo, was quite the contrast, and gave us the opportunity to see what the rest of Norway has to offer.

Surrounded by dense vibrant forests filled with lofty trees that circle calm lakes and thriving by a ferry port that neighbours numerous other majestic islands, Oslo is lucky to be in such close proximity to scenes of nature that can transform your world. Oslo city is hip, friendly and vibrant, filled with architectural delights, fantastic museums and independent restaurants (although we were too broke to eat in any).

Arriving on a strict budget from Tromso, we stayed in an Air BnB which saved us a fortune on eating out. Cooking breakfast and dinner at home and bringing a packed lunch with us made from our new best friend, supermarket Renate, meant that unfortunately we never visited any swish bars or delicious restaurants, but that is what you can expect if you are visiting Norway- it is incredibly expensive. The level of expensive that you pay £14 for one beer. One beer! So as you can imagine, your trip might be an incredibly sober one.

There are quite a few things to see and do in Oslo on the cheap though. We took the time on our first day to walk along the river through the city of Oslo, from the Olaf Ryes Plass in Grunerlokka. At first we found ourselves exploring this trendy district, with chic cafes and trendy bars aplenty. The streets were lined with eclectic street art and unique pieces of statement art which casually were placed in beer gardens around the area. Young locals covered in quirky tattoos in the most random places sauntered around the streets, a common theme in Grunerlokka. Continuing along the river, we passed dog walkers and runners in the sunshine, catching a glimpse of what Oslo is like away from the main rush of the city.

With our second day we ventured out of the clutches of the city and explored the leafy paradise that cornered the city, taking in breathtaking sights of feathery moss, ancient boughs dancing in the wind and dazzling lakes that reflected the rays of sunshine onto the glistening lakes. Instead of hiking, we chose to cycle, hiring bikes from Viking biking for 225 NOK for the day- which although a lovely company and who organised fun and interesting city tours, do not have the most sturdy mountain bikes around!  We made our way to Frognerseteren by metro, heading to the Nordmarka forest. Hopping off the metro, you are immediately placed in the forest, and jumping onto our bikes we whizzed further into the depths of the Nordmarka. The trails are not ideal for a bike, and sticking to the cycle routes meant that we were unable to clamber into the Nordmarka and explore her natural beauty in its finest glory, off the beaten track, so I do advise hiking instead.

However, after stopping for lunch at the traditional lodge Ullevalseter, a delightful restaurant filled to the brim with various trophies and achievements from the man behind the lodge, and having our homemade sandwiches by a nearby pond, we followed the direct path all the way down to the entrance of the forest.  Taking this route, rather than doing a circle on us and backtracking to the same metro station as before meant we avoided hills and were closer into Oslo city than before.

On our third and final day, we explored the sights within the city of Oslo, and most importantly, the cheap ones too! Head over to City Hall, which hosts the seat of the city council. It is adorned with beautiful art within its walls which highlights the culture and nature of Norway as a country, filled with scenes of fishermen and forests. Be wary that the hall closes strictly at 4pm, even locking the toilets at this time (I nearly got locked in!)

Vigaland Sculpture Park is a stunning yet bizarre park to explore, as well as a perfect place to sit back and relax, enjoying an ice cream in the sun. Many locals were sunbathing or having a BBQ in the weather, and being the biggest park in Oslo, there is no surprise why that is so. There are various sculptures dotted around the park, all made from one artist making it the largest sculpture park in the world- all by one artist! Very impressive! Although some of the art pieces are as I said before, are bizarre.

There are a vast amount of museums and art galleries around Oslo, however being on a time constraint and strict budget; we chose to buy the joint tickets to the Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum for 100 NOK. Hopping on a local bus, we bounded past scenes of cows and hay stacks to the museum, as if we had jetted out into the west country! It was incredible to see how resourceful the Norwegians were with nearby land, even on the outskirts of the city. The Viking Ship Museum boasts three Viking ships that stand impassive and proud- both in shape, size and architectural design. The ships are impressive, as well as the exhibits, however it would be more interesting to see how the Viking’s lived their life and their influence on the world. Hopping back on the bus we headed to the Historical museum for answers, where unfortunately the shabby exhibits with little information told us very little. It’s definitely not a museum to pay to individually visit, and one that can be improved in many areas, as many tourists remark whilst visiting the numerous museums, “Why don’t they just put all the museums together, rather than having them sparsely located over the city?”.

One building that you must take the time to wonder over to and clamber on top of is the Opera house, a solid pure white marble building that oozes edginess from it’s sharp angles and sophistication from its smooth surfaces. I did find it incredibly ironic that such a white collar entertainment industry had been architecturally designed in this way, but who questions the opera house in Sydney? You are able to sit at the top of the building and breathe in the portside views of the city of Oslo, scattered fjords and beyond.

We found public transport efficient, clean and cheap, I really couldn’t recommend it more. You can download the app on your smart phone and buy tickets for ferries, trains, trams, boats and the metro just by a quick tap half the price! If you are old school and leave your data behind you like me, you can buy tickets from any nearby 7/11 store- and there are plenty! A fantastic travel tip for you if you are on a budget are the 24 hour tram ticket’s you can buy which allows you to validate it when you want to, and are wonderful for getting you back to the airport the next day via a local train, rather an expensive airport shuttle bus or train!

The Midnight Sun Marathon & Tromso

After a shaky and delayed flight from Norwegian Air (including the aeroplane turning around to Oslo after a technical fault and us passengers having to change planes) we finally arrived in Tromso, bleary eyed and crabby. Whilst the friendly and upbeat taxi driver pointed out the markings of the marathon we were due to run a few days later, I began to feel nerves tingle my senses. Although it was 3:30am, I suddenly felt bright and awake. It’s amazing what fear can do to you.

After a late, (or should I say early?) check in from the chatty receptionist at Viking Hotel, we finally made it to our rented apartments at City Living. Dumping our belongings and flopping onto the beds out of sheer exhaustion, we spent our first night/morning adjusting to this bizarre sensation of the Midnight Sun. It is so strange to arrive in light, although it being so late into the night. During our stay in Tromso, it was difficult to distinguish when day was and when was night, which played a real havoc on our sleep patterns and body clocks!

Tromso is a small town which is catered for mass tourism, and the influx of international tourists whom visit this somewhat sleepy town for either the Midnight Sun Marathon, or to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the winter period, has changed the town dramatically. Speaking to a British expat, she told us that life in the winter months is pitch black darkness, bar four hours, when the sky turns an inky blue colour. I can’t imagine what everyday life must be like in total darkness, even if there are streetlights and a regular routine is established, I would feel as if a creature coming out from under ground, burrowing to and fro.

Just off the main street of Tromso there is a bustling port, filled with leaking and squeaking local fisherman’s boats nestled next to towering cruise liners which are quite the eye sore. In the distance you can catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountain peaks arching out of the swirling crowds, reminding visitors of the stunning natural scenes around the settled town life.  In the town itself, there is a collision of local life; cheap eats and hidden quirky bars and independent cafes, wrestling with the impact of tourism on this town, expensive chain restaurants, luxurious hotels and tourist shops in abundance. Coming to the town at peak season, the sheer volume of visitors steadily increased by the day, as the Midnight Sun Marathon drew closer and closer.

So what is there to do in this sleepy town? There is much debate on the tourist activities and interests on websites like Tripadvisor and so my boyfriend and I went and explored what we found interesting. Walking to Telegrafbukta beach was a wonderful thing to do, the path is straightforward and easy to follow and you are rewarded by stunning scenic views of the sweeping landscape, where the vast sea couples with the jagged rocks that bed the coastline. Boats bob in the sea to their own rhythm and you can spot various other islands in the distance with a few lonely houses scattered in the distance. It’s easy to walk back or catch a local bus to rest your weary feet.

We also explored the Polarian Museum, which has mixed reviews. I personally loved the museum which highlighted aspects of life under the sea that we as humans, are unaware of. The exhibits are interesting and diverse, allowing visitors to stroke various molluscs and learn what must be done to help save endangered habitats. The information is a real eye opener and they host two wonderful films of the Northern Lights and animal life on Svalbard every half an hour, showing stunning scenes of natural beauty and snapshots of unique animals in their element. As well as this, the museum has two seal feeding and training sessions, which highlight the intellect behind a number of seals that live there. We are just mere bystanders at their training session which happens throughout the day, even before and after the museum has shut for visitors.

The Arctic Cathedral, the most northern Cathedral in the world, is worth a visit too. A short walk away (over the steepest bridge of mankind) or a quick bus ride of 50 NOK, the Artic Cathedral is an unusual shaped building which holds a magnificent display of stained glass windows. Come and enter the peace and quiet to reflect on the beauty behind such an architectural masterpiece.

Near to the cathedral is the Cable Car, a 170 NOK journey to the top of the mountain and back means you are able to visualize Tromso in its entirety and the surrounding picturesque views of gigantic mountains which dominate your view. Peering below at the town and its neighbourhoods that surround the city centre, we could see the route which we were due to run later that evening, a thrilling prospect. If you would like to save money, or aren’t planning on running a marathon after doing so, it is possible to hike up the mountain. There are many hiking trails that vary in accessibility and ease which allow you to reach the top of the mountain in your own time. Just be careful when heading back to Tromso that you wait on the opposite side of the road to catch a bus back into town, unlike us who ended up on an hour journey into some long lost neighbourhoods until we began to head back into town!

The sights in Tromso can be done quite cheaply, if you decide to walk places and stay within the local area, although a small and sleepy town, we did manage to entertain ourselves for the time we were there. Staying in rented apartments we were able to save money cooking for ourselves, shopping at the local cheap supermarket of Renate was beneficial in that aspect. However when we did eat out, Circa had fabulous pizzas for a cheap 70 NOK, Kaia Bar had lovely salmon and other main meals specifically catered for tourists in the 250 NOK area and Bla Rock Bar had delicious burgers from 125 NOK.

Bla Rock Bar is filled with punk memorabilia, where even a drum kit hangs upside down on the ceiling, which oozes character and individuality. We caught a free gig whilst we were there, a local girls band which was nice to see, although be wary the beers are as expensive as the burgers! If you want to find unique bars, Tromso is filled with many, as the Norwegians here love to party- you just need to know where to look. We also bought 100 NOK beers from Mack’s Brewery, a local brewery that sells a number of local beers and ales to quench your thirst.  I recommend Arctic Beer if you like a light lager.

And finally my thoughts on the Midnight Sun Marathon? As a new runner (and an injured one at the time of running), I would recommend those who are new to marathons, not to run this marathon. The run is filled with seasoned runners and with a set time limit to the event, it means that the pressure is on for you to complete the run in a certain amount of time; otherwise you are disqualified, which could mean you giving it your all and completing the entire event with nothing to show for it. The scenery is beyond stunning (when the weather picks up which is very little of the time as we are in the Arctic Circle) but as you are running away from the city centre, there are very little crowds to help support and push you on. In fact the only people who you are bound to see every mile, is a steward of the event. With chilling temperatures and a non-existent crowd (as well as the steepest bridge of mankind) it makes it quite a challenge for a new runner. The finale of the run, the climax of your dedication, persistence and hardwork, is defined by the finishing line right on the main street of Tromso, and as you are running through the night, you complete your run surrounded by drunken revellers enjoying their Saturday night with little support for the runners. Although beautiful, I would advise only seasoned marathon runners to choose this destination to run.