Early starts were a recurring theme during village life with another 6:00 wake up. Once we were out of bed, er, bamboo mats and a Thermarest, it was time to tidy up our space, pack up our things before having some morning coffee and walking down to the local school.
Hand in hand with Paw Li and Bibi and along with our guide Jack, we were shown around their village on the way to the school. We were greeted by several village locals as we walked past their homes and were invited inside into one of their homes where a couple of children aged under ten were watching Batman vs. Superman on a handheld DVD player while we exchanged translated English/Karen messages with their parents and relatives via Jack.
After a wander through the school (where the rooms were dark due to zero electricity and very few windows), we said our thank yous and goodbyes to the Major, Paw Li and Bibi and continued our journey to Hpa-an (the capital of Karen State) where we would join civilisation once again.
Our first stop in Hpa-an was at popular local restaurant, San Ma Tau. This is an absolute must-visit if you’re ever in Hpa-an with some of the most delicious and authentic Burmese food. The restaurant was jam-packed with locals more than tourists, which I think is always a sign that the food is authentic and good!
After our satisfying meal at San Ma Tau, we stopped off at a temple on the Salween River before making our way to our accommodation for the next couple of nights at Hpa-an Lodge. After a few days without a flushing toilet and a running shower, we were beyond ready to enjoy these luxuries again. A hot shower and clean, comfy bed never felt so good.
The following day began with a hike up to the monastery on Mt. Zwegabin. We walked past some of thousand Buddhas that were spread out over the lush greenery and up various long sets of slippery, moss-covered stairs before reaching the top in a couple of hours. Once we were at the top, we were treated with views over Hpa-an where clouds floated beneath us and golden stupas glistened in the sunlight. I picked a quiet corner to watch on as young monks said prayers in front of shrines, while other young locals took selfies with their friends.
We spent half an hour at the top of Mt. Zwegabin before making our way back down. Believe it or not, but the climb down was a little tougher than the climb up as the steps were as slippery as walking on ice from the moss and dew. We realy had to be careful to refrain from falling over. When we finally made it down, we refuelled with some much needed trail mix and Clif bars which I always bring with me on any hikes or while I’m travelling.
Our village family were soon off to grab some lunch – back at San Ma Tau. It was some of the family’s few restaurant experiences as they don’t get to the city of Hpa-an often from the villages so, seeing their faces and reactions to things was entertaining in itself and so cool to be a part of!
After lunch, we all went to check out a nearby pool where locals were cooling off in. After the hike in the thick air and humidity, it was pretty tempting to get in but we were determined to get on with our day and check out Sadan Cave which was our next and final stop before crashing out at the lodge.
We drove along a dusty, dirt road in our pick-up truck admiring the jagged limestone cliffs and rice fields in the background to get to Sadan Cave. Upon walking up a staircase between two large white elephant statues, we made it to the entrance of Sadan Cave where we were once again, walking barefoot on a muddy, slippery surface (another recurring theme of our time in Karen State).
Our walk through the cave took approximately 20 minutes and about halfway through, the already dim lights decided to switch off leaving us in complete darkness. Living in the age of technology where our cellphones are basically an extension of our arm meant that we were led through the rest of the cave by the light of beaming iPhone flashlights.
From a distance, we could finally see that there was light at the of the tunnel, er cave, and we no longer needed the guidance of our cellphones anymore. The tail end of our Sadan Cave excursion concluded with a boat trip along a river/lake where raindrops hit the sheet of glass-like water that took us back to the entrance of the cave where we had left our shoes.
After the hike up Mt. Zwegabin and our Sadan Cave excursion through the heat and humidity, we were keen to take the rest of the afternoon and evening pretty easy and enjoy the tranquility and luxuries of Hpa-an Lodge before heading back to Mae Sot the next day.
My time in Karen State was definitely one of the most exciting and memorable trips I’ve ever taken. Being immersed in raw culture where there’s no electricity, Internet or even running water was an experience like no other. The Karen people we encountered were all incredibly warm, inviting and friendly – willing to go out of their way to accommodate us, even when we were completely unexpected guests. Even though we were complete strangers, I honestly felt like we were part of their family.