Though Hpa-an is officially the capital of Kayin (or Karen) State, it has the distinct feel of a country town. Until recent road upgrades were completed, Hpa-an was a rather remote, somewhat forgotten settlement. With the completion in early 2016 of a new highway linking Hpa-an to the Thai border at Mae Sot and Yangon plus the improved border crossing facilities at Myawaddy, things are changing rapidly.
Traditionally a market centre and transport hub for the surrounding region, these days well-heeled local visitors from farther north are profiting from its new accessibility as Thais flock over the border on their holiday weekends. As a convenient land crossing between Thailand and Burma, Khao San Road and Chiang Mai tour agents now offer ‘direct’ tickets to Yangon, passing through Myawaddy and Hpa-an, and many of the more adventurous seem to be breaking up the journey with a stop in this picturesque region.
The small town itself doesn’t possess too many sights to see -- once you’ve done a sunset at Shweyinhmyaw Pagoda, walked around Kan Thar Yar Lake and checked out the morning market you’ve about done it -- but it is a very pleasant town to hang out in. With a delightful riverside location on the banks of the Salween, a laid back charm and some of the country’s most picturesque landscapes within easy striking distance, Hpa-an looks set to become a popular first stop for overland visitors on their way to the more traditional tourist destinations further north. Using Hpa-an as a base you can head further afield to see Saddar, Kaw Kathaung, Kawgun and Bayin Nyi Caves plus Zwegabin, Kyauk Kalat Pagoda (it’s delightfully pronounced "chocolate") and Lumbini Gardens.
As its tranquil backwater status is being notched down a couple of clicks, on the bright side this means the choice of cafes, restaurants and accommodation is widening considerably. Hpa-an is still a long, long way off becoming Burma’s Pai or Vang Vieng.
As a port on the important Salween or Than Lwin River, Hpa-an has been around for a while, but it has a low-key history and lacks both the traces of the ancient Mon civilisation and the splendid British colonial period architecture that other southern Burmese towns have. Up until the end of World War II it was basically a village. These days, with a relatively homogenous Karen population, the town has a different feel to its neighbours, though Bamar officials and Sino-Burmese and Indo-Burmese traders are present in town in large numbers. There’s a substantial Christian Karen minority here, so you’ll see plenty of churches as well as Hindu temples and mosques. Expect to be greeted by ‘God bless you’ as well as ‘Mingalabar’ by the friendly townsfolk.