Mount Zwegabin (or in Burmese: ဇွဲကပင်တောင်) makes for a beautiful and short day-hike near the Southeast Burmese city Hpa An.
Hpa An was an accidental stop on my Myanmar journey. Though I had wanted to go off the beaten path from the classic Yangon-Inle-Bagan-Mandalay trail, my last-minute Burma trip didn’t leave me with many choices to go offbeat.
In Myanmar, regional communities live together not just in cities and towns but, more often, in obscure hills and in deep valleys of the country, too. These communities are mostly self-regulated and not easy to discover.
Unlike Peru or Malaysia, I couldn’t wander off a hike in Myanmar hoping to discover something that I wouldn’t find on well-known trails. I had to stick to the route or take prior permissions or book guided tours — I couldn’t do the latter two as I was planning the trip on the go and either fell short of time or everything was already booked. The promising week-long walking tours in the Shan or Kayin valley felt like distant dreams.
When I was almost finalizing about spending a few more days in Yangon, my first stop in Burma, some orangy pictures of Hpa An that filled my Instagram feed caught my eye. I had about three days on my hand before my friend arrived in Yangon to join me for the new years.
As Hpa An looked gorgeous and Google kept shouting that thousands-years old caves and open neon fields circumscribe the city, I packed my bags and hopped onto a bus from Yangon to Hpa An. (You would be able to read more about Hpa An in my travelogue which I promise to publish soon.)
Hpa An was a simple riverside town where one can wander in the countryside during the day and eat dinner at the night market while watching the river.
The town also stood as a live example of the assumption “oh, no one goes there so we will go there” gone wrong. There were not as many tourists in Hpa An as you would find in Bagan, but this tiny town isn’t offbeat or unknown anymore, and most of the good hotels were full of tourists.
My Hpa An days were filled with riverside strolls, sitting at the riverbank or in the pagodas watching the sun disappear under the Thanlwin river, eating grilled fish in the night market, and waking up early to see the town rising before sunrise.
One day, I took a tuk-tuk tour to the various caves and the stupas around the city. Behind one such beautiful symmetrical arrangement of about 1100 buddhas in the Lumbini Gardens stood Mt Zwegabin.
Our tuk-tuk guide told us that the fee of going inside the gardens was about 4000 Burmese Kyat(approximately USD 3), so most of us — French, Indian, Swiss oldies, and me — clicked some pictures of the statues from the outside. Not that 3 dollars were a lot of money, but by the time our tour arrived at the Lumbini Gardens, we had seen various amazing Buddha statues, incredible pagodas, and ancient inscriptions on cave walls. We would have needed the temptation of something different from Buddhas aligned in a garden to pay the amount.
But we were all admiring the limestone mountain that towered behind the golden statues. And that was the Zwekabin mountain.
Though only 722 meters (2,369 ft) in height, the incline of the mountain is pretty steep. You climb up a staircase for the most part as the mountain is sacred and thus has been made accessible to devotees of all ages.
The tuk-tuk driver told me that I could climb up from either the Westside(the Lumbini Gardens) of the mountain or the East and that the east side is even steeper than the West.
It was not easy for me to ignore the beckoning of a mountain. Not that I can hike up any mountain that I like, but this anxiousness of whether I will be able to do climb to the summit or not, makes the climb more enticing. (You can read about my climbing experience to the Volcano Villarrica in Chile to know how doubtful I get.)
A French girl on the tour was also planning to hike the Zwekabin mountain. While I thought of driving to the gardens to do the hike the next day, she didn’t want to do anything with a scooter and wanted to hire a tuk-tuk. Southeast Asia and scooters might not go hand in hand for all travelers.
I decided to drive and do the Mount Zwekabin hike, alone.
I had an idea that we could be able to stay at the top of the mountain in the Kayin monastery, but another traveler told me that the monastery didn’t entertain visitors anymore. In the absence of experiencing a Burmese monastery stay, I made my mind that I would go to watch the sunrise.
To be able to make in time for the sunrise between 5:30 and 6 am, I would have to drive early to the mountain. When my hotel couldn’t give me a scooter, I walked to the Soe Brother’s guesthouse and asked them for one. One of the Soe Brothers not only gave me a nice scooter, but guided me to the petrol shop of his friend, and even gave me quick tips to reach the Mt Zwekabin in the morning.
I bought some local snacks for the next day and ate at the market. But the train of errands didn’t pause as I remembered that I had to extend my booking by one day, then I exchanged the room for mine wasn’t available for the next day, only to realize later that I could have done it all after the hike as I would have definitely returned by 11 am. After a quick shower and some other hundred thousand tasks, I went to bed.
Taking everyone’s advice and after precise calculations, I had put a 2:30 am alarm. Drenched in period pain, I got ready within half an hour. One of those fried sweetmeats served as a good early morning snack. By 3:15 am, I was driving in the dark on the road to cover the 7 miles distance to Mont Zwekabin.
Driving on an unknown road, in the dark, with headlights on, and with my phone‘s GPS guiding me from the front pocket of the scooter, I was thrilled. Cautious of the stray dogs, I sped up whenever they seemed too close and, otherwise, drove in silence. After about a 40-minute drive, I was at the Lumbini Gardens gate by 4 am.
If not for the sweet boy at the Garden’s gates, I would have never noticed the plastic that was melting like a candle on my scooter’s bonnet. He said that the mask was used in some religious rituals by the Burmese people. I had no idea how it had landed on my scooter.
I didn’t have change, and the boy was also just starting his day so he didn’t have any either. While putting away the half-melted mask, he kindly told me to pay while coming back.
Soaked in a morning benevolence, I drove on while the Buddha statues watched me from both sides of the road. After much confusion about the parking, I parked at the foot of mount Zwegabin and strode on.
From the bottom, the stupa of the Kayin monastery at the top was faintly visible in the dark.
Beginning with a rough path, the walk soon turned into stairs. Not many local devotees were climbing up at that time. But a few other foreign travelers were walking up.
Walk. Stop. Walk. Drink water. Look around. Say hello. Walk.
About an hour and forty minutes later, I was at the summit of Zwegabin mountain.
While on the way to the bigger Pagoda at the top, I crossed many other smaller ones on the way. Later when I was coming down, I noticed that from one of these smaller pagodas one could get unobstructed views of the valley. So, maybe, take your chance from a smaller pagoda as the view from the top of the hill is obstructed by weird wires and electric towers.
Though the internet says Mt Zwegabin hike is a tough one, I felt that the climb tested my patience more than my leg muscles. But isn’t every hike more about willpower rather than strength?
Don’t get your hopes high for the descent would be the one that could kill your knees if you aren’t a hill woman (or a hillman).
But it would be another two hours before I would go down.
I didn’t realize if I had arrived at the top for there weren’t many people at the pagoda. Even the tourists who had crossed me on the hike seemed to have left.
From that height in those dark hours before the sun, the sky was still a dark hazy mix of purple and pink. The sun was rising from somewhere.
At the railing of the Mount Zwegabin monastery at the top, I found myself standing next to a middle-aged couple. Soon they told me that they had spent the night at the monastery. They refrained from saying that they had slept there, as the monkeys in the monastery had kept them up all night with their banter. And when it wasn’t the monkeys, the mosquitoes came buzzing.
Even though filled with gratitude, their drooping eyes showed that they were tired.
Now we could all see the sun slowly coming up. The open land stretched across us was still inky bluish, but the yellow ball was drowning the darkness of the sky in her orange hues.
Soon, the land also started lightening up. The Thanlwin river lay curled in the morning slumber at a distance. The sun slowly sheathed the valley in orange and gold.
As it was one of my first times clicking a sunrise with my Nikon, I wasn’t frugal in clicking pictures.
After a run to the monastery bathroom that was cleaner than I had thought, I settled down at the snack shops of the temple. A cup of hot tea and a pack of biscuits reenergized me enough that I could climb down.
As I said before, going down was so much harder than going up. But the descent was a bit more fun in the company of a giggly Burmese girl, accompanied by her mother, who carried her slippers in hand, tiptoed on the stairs, and chatted throughout.
An hour later, I was at the bottom of the hill.
The boy at the Lumbini Gardens gate wasn’t as concerned about getting the entrance fee from me as he was about knowing if I had seen the sunrise. But such are some people.
While driving back, the fragrance of the deep-fried samosas and the morning chatter of the locals forced me to stop at a small restaurant. Though some of the customers got scared by the smoke coming out of my scooter, everyone cooled down as soon as I told them that the damage had already been done and now only the residual smoke was releasing itself into the air.
The waiter might have ignored me for some time, but the kind lady next to my table offered me her samosa plate. And I gorged on the potato sweetmeat and sipped my tea while listening to some Burmese songs along with the locals who were just doing the same.
Everything seemed alright.
Where to stay in Hpa An?
The manager at the Thanlwin hotel was rude and incompetent: booked the wrong bus ticket for me, gave me a room without a hot shower and didn’t tell me, and failed to tell me about a bathroom with a hot shower that I could use. And these are only some minor inconveniences that he caused.
But rather than putting him down, I would like to emphasize how helpful one of the Soe Brothers was when I arrived at there guesthouse at 7 in the night to rent a scooter. He didn’t only want to make money from me, but it was obvious that he genuinely cared if I arrive safely at the mountain and enjoy my day.
Click here to see the prices and availability at Soe Brother’s.
Would you go up the Mount Zwegabin on your Myanmar trip? Let me know in the comments.
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