Myanmar and the Little Hpa-An Hostel

I wanted to write a blog about Myanmar, but wasn’t sure what specifically to focus on. So after I checked into the Little Hpa-An Hostel, I was inspired. Furthermore, this blog was the first of its kind for me, I did a brief interview, but compiled the answers into paragraph form. Read on.

The Little Hpa-An Hostel

You may have seen me use both Myanmar and Burma when referring to the southeast Asian country that borders Thailand and Laos to its east, Bangladesh and India to the west and China in the north. Myanmar also has a very long and beautiful coastline, 1,200 miles of beaches that face the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The largest city is Yangon, but the capital is Naypyidaw. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, or as called by the British, Burmese. In the 19th century, after three Anglo-Burmese wars, the British took over and Burma became a British colony. They were granted independence in 1948 and were a democratic nation, but shortly after in 1962, there was a coup d’etat. A military dictatorship ruled the country until 2011. When the junta dissolved, a lot changed, including the country’s name. Under the junta, Burma was closed off to the outside world. The press was censored, and many political, governmental, and other key figures were jailed. Now people are adjusting to a democratic society, news papers, and of course the new world of social media to include Facebook and Instagram. SIM cards are readily available, data is cheap, and everyone, every where, has a cell phone. You can see cell towers all over and coverage across the country is much better than I expected. So back to wording, yes, Myanmar is the official name, but Myanma is actually the demonym! It sounds awkward to me, so I use Burmese instead. I don’t think it’s an issue as a lot of locals use it as well. As far as the rest of the history, not really my forte, but hit up google for more!

Karst formations and rice paddies in Hpa-An, Myanmar.

I recently stayed at a hostel in Hpa-An, a city about 100 miles from Yangon. It’s not too far from the coast and the countryside is dotted with karst mountains that shoot up from the plains around them. According to one website, Hpa-An has a “backpacker feel to it,” but the reality is, few tourists come here, and as of three days ago, there was no hostel to be found in this capital of the Karen State. Meet Dennis (his “western” name), one of three brothers whose idea it was to open the area’s first backpacker friendly accommodation. The 24 year old resident of Yangon saw an opportunity for growth away from the more frequented Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake, and the unique setting would provide travelers with a new view of Myanmar. The Karen people here are “different,” the area is good for climbing, there are loads of natural caves to explore, tons of pagodas to visit, and there is a Thai border crossing 60 miles to the east. Now with the ease of entering Myanmar with an eVisa, more and more travelers can arrive overland from Thailand.

Kyuak Ka Lat Monastery

The Burmese brothers had a vision and a plan. They put their educational backgrounds, construction, business, and design, together to create an innovative and unique hostel in the heart of the city. The interior design itself was influenced by Jack White, the lead singer of the White Stripes, an American rock duo from Detroit, Michigan, a world away from Myanmar. The yellow, red, black, and white colors along with some animal figures set the theme for the newly constructed hostel. I honestly can’t tell you more beyond that because I don’t know much about the White Stripes except for their single “Seven Nation Army.” But ok, it provides for some interesting decor nonetheless and Dennis hopes some day Jack White himself will visit the hostel he so influenced!

White Stripes influenced decor in the kitchen area.

The people of Myanmar have yet to be accustomed to the notion of travelers and adventurers visiting their country. I’ve been told Myanmar is like Thailand was 30 or 50 years ago. The people are incredibly friendly, they smile, and while some give an inquisitive stare, upon greeting them with the local “Mingala Ba,” they show their maroon betel nut stained teeth and flash a bright red smile. People wave and yell hello from wherever they may be, be it from the inside of a car, on a motorbike, or even in a shop or home. Children run up to you and shake hands and people are all around friendly and kind. They don’t bother or pester you to buy stuff, they don’t ask you for money, and they don’t expect handouts of any kind from anyone. When I asked Dennis if he thought any of this would change, he said it’s inevitable. With tourism comes money, and eventually, people want it. So with that said, I asked why he’d want to “entice” tourists by catering to them with his shiny new hostel. But his hope is that people will leave Myanmar with an experience. That they will take away something greater than a trinket or an Instagram worthy photo… That they will come here and see this “precious” country for all it has to offer: kind people, beautiful beaches, pristine nature, tasty food, and a unique and varying culture. He said Myanmar isn’t a place for one to come and party, like so many areas of Thailand where people don’t respect the local customs and culture. So often, tourists don’t fully appreciate the country they visit, and he feels he doesn’t want this place to “turn into Bangkok,” or be viewed as just a place to visit because it’s cheap. Come to Myanmar, come to Hpa-An and stay in the Little Hpa-An Hostel, see a confluence of culture of sorts, with it’s White Stripes influenced decor while enjoying a local style breakfast. But leave Myanmar with an experience, meet the people, respect and preserve the country.

One of the many Buddhist temple cave sites in the area.

On day three of it’s opening, the Little Hpa-An Hostel is nearly fully booked, and this is considered to be the off season! When I asked Dennis if he felt this was a success, he said no. He said it’s a hostel and of course budget travelers would come, it’s better than a hotel and it’s the only one around! But he said they need to put some hard work into the place, because if there’s “No struggle, there’s no story to tell.” He asked for feedback, a trip advisor rating is so important to so many business owners and getting the word out is key for business. What improvements can be made? How can the hostel be unique and innovative while meeting the goal of preserving and promoting the culture of the area?
The Little Hpa-An Hostel will strive to be different from the hotel culture that currently predominates the accommodation scene in Myanmar. Guests can meet and mingle with locals and other travelers alike, they can enjoy a local style breakfast with a fresh brewed cup of coffee, not a “3 in 1” blend, and at the end of the day, the weary traveler can take a hot shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. So new in fact, some mattresses still have the plastic wrapping on them!
Myanmar is a beautiful country with friendly people and amazing places to explore. If you’re in town, check in to the Little Hpa-An Hostel. Be prepared for some breath taking views and lots of step climbing during the day, and at night, rest in the most comfortable bed in the area. Tell them I sent you! ☺️

The Downside of the Nomadic Lifestyle

How do you envision long term travel? Ever wonder what it’s like beyond the pretty pictures and interesting photos? Here’s a bit, just a bit, about the downside of being a traveler and what people don’t realize about this lifestyle. And I say traveler in the long term sense, because that’s what I do. This is not a vacation, it’s a lifestyle.
As you may know, I got injured in Myanmar on January 3rd and had to return to Thailand. I’d been pining to come back ever since and finally made the journey from Chaing Mai to Mandalay via Bangkok Airways. Mandalay is quite north compared to where I’ve been the last few months (since I left Bhutan, actually), and I was really surprised by the heat, dryness, and vegetation. The acacia trees are reminiscent of the mesquite found in the dry areas of Texas and I even saw a few cacti of some sort. The Irrawaddy River flows north to south, basically bisecting the country and along its shores, water is diverted for crop growth. On the bus ride to Bagan, you can see green fields of rice, coconut trees, and fruit of all sorts from bananas, to papayas and mangoes, and more. While some areas are desert like, the lush green fields provide quite a contrast, and of course, the landscape is dotted with magnificent Buddhist temples. But, back to travel…
It takes time and money to get from point A to point B. The less developed the country, the longer it takes, and the more uncomfortable it typically can be. (Unless you fly this the flight from Thailand).
Life is different. People are different. Food is different.
People do things how they see fit, not necessarily in a manner that may make sense to you or us as westerners.
You sweat, stink, and can be dirty for what feels like forever. (In Kathmandu, this was definitely a never ending feeling). You may not have access to a washer and dryer. You may have to hand wash clothing, and sometimes, when the humidity is high, shit just doesn’t dry. Turn up the stench factor. One good thing about flying solo: the only one you have to worry about smelling you is yourself! ?
If you’re like me, you’re unhappy when not participating in regular physical activity and eating proper meals.
Food can be questionable and food safety is always a concern for me.
Have a look at my intake today:
Breakfast, buffet style, at the hotel in Mandalay. They had a bit of everything, but mostly Asian foods. I chose a bit of noodles, spinach “salad”, some sort of chicken made with sweet pickled onions, Indian style pakoda (or vegetable fritters), an egg, and some coffee. I filled up. We had a long bus ride ahead of us and I wasn’t sure what we’d come across on the road.
“Snack:” Some peanut bars at a rest stop. I don’t know exactly what the ingredients were, but definitely peanuts and sugar.
Afternoon Meal: “Chicken Sandwich.” OMG- worst sandwich ever. My plate had thee squares, cut into two. Crustless white bread of different sizes with something like chicken salad inside. Oh, and a few well-salted French fries. I ate it. It was 3:30 and I was hungry.
Dinner: Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Quest Bar and an Oreo cookie.
Water, water, water.
So far, the places I’ve visited in Myanmar will arrange for pick up and drop off wherever you are. The bus to Bagan is supposed to take 5-6 hours, but we got picked up first, at 8 am, and arrived to our hotel around 2:30 pm. The whole trip was about 90 miles and we were on a mini bus. The roads weren’t too bad, but it was still quite bumpy and long. Not my first time traveling in Myanmar, so my expectations were not too high.
In Myanmar, food seems to typically be served out of large pots that are placed on a stand once cooked. They are refilled when almost empty from inconspicuous place out back. It was 102 degrees today. Even the semi-adventurous food lover in me did not want any mystery meals in those pots. Same went for lunch so I found a bakery with AC. I’ll pay for that luxury. A bakery. So imagine my horror when I received a sandwich made of white bread?! I have enough quest bars to get me through Myanmar, but only one a day, so I choose when I want to eat one carefully!
Despite the photos, it’s not always pretty, or comfortable, and sometimes it isn’t even sensible, but at the end of the day, I derive a huge sense of satisfaction in exploring new places, seeing new faces, and getting to know a place a bit. Every time I go somewhere new, I’m so excited, I’ve shared that before.
So here I am in Nyaung U, a village near Bagan, I’ve been waiting to come here for a long time. Tomorrow morning we have a hike up to one of the temples to see the sunrise over the plains. Bagan is the most densely populated area in the world for Buddhist temples, over 2,000 here, and the pictures I’ve seen are amazing. I hope I won’t be disappointed. The Thai islands are beautiful, now that is a vacation, but Myanmar is a whole other world! ??