Hpa-an town sits alongside the Salween River in the southeastern part of Myanmar. It is the capital city of Karen (Kayin) State, and home to over 400,000 people who are mostly Karen ethnicity. Surrounding the town are numerous limestone karst mountains, within some of which are located sacred caves and temples. These same mountains, however, have also attracted the mining industry, who view them as raw materials for cement production.
In recent years, as infrastructure and security improved, Hpa-an has increasingly attracted tourists as it is located only five hours drive from Yangon and three hours from the border crossing to Thailand at Myawaddy. Asides from the controversial mining, plans for industrial development although widely touted are yet to attract significant investment. Instead it is agriculture and small trade that dominate the town, with various products including rice, and vegetables grown in its hinterland including along the Salween River.
Whilst hotels, guest houses and restaurants are now springing up around the town, catering to the new-found tourism, much of the town remains as it was before.
The myth of Hpa An can be discovered in the two words that form its name: ‘Hpa’ and ‘An’. ‘Hpa’ means snake or Naga, which is a mythical serpent-like creature. ‘An’, meanwhile, means to spit or vomit...
Local people believe that Hpa-an was the place where a Naga was sighted spitting out a frog that had a rare gem inside its stomach. The gem had magical properties to be able to deter those who wished to harm those who possessed it.
If you lucky enough to visit Hpa-an, a statue commemorating this one-sided battle can be found at Shwe-Yin-Myaw pagoda. From there, you could jump on a boat for a trip on the Salween River as the pier is right next to the statue entrance.
There are a few ways to get to Hpa An. For example, you could take either a day bus or a night bus from Yangon, or from Mae Sot, Thailand. The first option will take about 6 to 7 hours, while the second option will take about 4 to 5 hours. Either way, you can take a cosy VIP bus or an even cosier sleeping VIP bus. Many people tend to prefer the night bus over the daytime one.
A Trip to Daw Lar Lake
During my visit to Hpa-An, I had an opportunity to join Saw Tha Phoe and his team to visit a lake called "Daw Lar". His team is working with five villages surrounding the lake, supporting community-led natural resource management. There, I met Saw Tun Thar, a local fisherman who together with many others are concerned about the declining natural resources, and have been proactievly working to find ways to preserve their beloved lake for their younger generations.
I first met Saw Tha Phoe during a short trip to Chiang Mai. It was a hot sunny afternoon with a brief heavy rain around lunch time. We sat down and had a cup of coffee in the hostel where he was staying. Saw Tha Phoe apologised for his possible lack of focus and attention span due to a hectic morning. We had a brief chat about his town, Hpa-an and how interested I was to come over and film the mighty Salween river.
Fast forward two weeks and I was on a bus from Yangon, heading to Hpa-an. After a lengthy and eventful bus ride, I finally caught up with Saw Tha Phoe at his office on the outskirt of Hpa-an. He greeted me energetically and told me that he was in better shape than the last time I saw him in Chiang Mai. He introduced me to his team and told me that if we were going to fit in a little sightseeing on that day, we needed to go check in at the hotel right away. We were accompanied in the car by his wife, his sister-in-law and his two kids. Once we arrived at the hotel, we agreed that he would pick me up in half an hour as he needed to go run a few errands with his family.
During our sightseeing, Saw Tha Phoe introduced me to his work and his music. He enjoys Iron Cross, a Burmese equivalent of Metallica in terms of popularity but musically somewhat different. He told me a few stories about his time in college and how his friend is a sound engineer in Yangon and work for Iron Cross. I told him that on the bus ride to Hpa-an, I had a chance to enjoy the whole back catalogue of Iron Cross and I really appreciate their take of Coldplay’s famous tune “Yellow”. I told him that I was always curious how that song could be played in a stadium rock style, and my curiosity had been satisfied by Iron Cross’s version. Saw Tha Phoe mentioned that he plays the guitar and had recorded a few tunes himself. I rudely interrupted and asked if he would be interested to play in front of my camera the next day. We shook hands and he moved our conversation forward to a subject about which he’s also very passionate as our car zoomed along the esplanade of the Salween River.
Saw Tha Phoe was born in Nyaung Lay Bin in Bago province, which is about three hours by car to the northwest of Yangon. When he was three years old, his parents decided to move to Hpa-An to be closer to his mother’s family. He went through school at a local school and moved to Yangon to study for his undergraduate degree at Myanmar Institute of Christian Theology.
He decided to study in theology because he came from a christian community and he wanted to become a pastor to help people. He remember when he was young, he was learning guitar from a youth leader as he found it a great way to communicate with people. He said “everybody loves music as it speaks and uplifts your soul”.
After he graduated, he started working with local churches in Hpa-an. The majority of his work was involved with small isolated communities far away from the town. He would travel to these small villages and help them with whatever they needed. “I used to travel all the time, but now since I have two kids I’ve been trying to stay at home to see them more. Plus I’m not a young man anymore” he said.
During his travels, he started to become exposed more and more to how many of the small communities were being taking advantage of. “Little by little, I learned how important natural resources surrounding these villages were and how outsiders came in to take it for themselves” his eyes were on the road and his mouth was chewing on Paan, Burmese chewing tobacco. That’s when he started to get involved in environmental issues.
Saw Tha Phoe now spends most of his time working for an NGO based in Hpa-An called the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network or “KESAN”. He told me that it’s a very tiring job but he loves it and he wouldn't trade it for any other job. “Maybe ... but only maybe ... a career in music” he laughed, as his Paan tucked away neatly in the corner of his mouth.
Faces of Hpa-an
A huge thanks to:
This story wouldn't have been possible without these amazing people:
- Saw Tha Phoe & the KESAN team
- Miranda Franks
- Daw Lar Lake Communities