After a couple of days of minimal traffic, Hpa-An felt like a metropolis as we made our way into town. It was getting near dusk, and the town was bustling with people wrapping up the day's business.
The other noticeable thing was the huge increase in the number of tourists milling about. There were dozens of them. Dozens!
"Sweet! More accommodation options!", we thought.
Sadly, that was not to be the case.
"Sorry, no foreigners. And everything's full."
A passing tourist confirmed that everything was indeed pretty full and wished us luck. We next rolled up to the very purple Than Lwin Pyar Guesthouse on Thida Street, next to the night market. It too, was almost booked solid, save for the sole semi-detached room that faced the main street and had its own door. 25,000 kyat/night got us a double and single bed, cold shower, and mice rampaging constantly across the ceiling, making so much noise we thought they were going to chew their way through and land on top of us. A cockroach big enough to put a saddle on emerged from under the bed and met a crunchy end courtesy of Jess's sneaker.
Even though we weren't thrilled about the obvious profiteering, we were also at the end of a 100+km ride for the day. At this point we'd take anything that let us wash the dirt off and get the head down.
The room was big enough to hold our bike so we just rolled it right in off the street. After the beating we had just put it through, it needed a bit of a wash itself. Caked in mud and dust and creaking constantly, we were glad to have the time to give it a bit of TLC.
Anyone who's ridden long distances knows that by the end of the day, all you want is to eat and sleep. Unfortunately by the time we had gotten ourselves showered and dressed, it was nearing 8 PM, which is practically the witching hour in Burma. Not much stays open late here – presumably they're all exhausted from being woken at the crack by monastic chanting. If you don't manage to get sitting down at a restaurant by about 9 PM, you're cutting it fine.
But during our time here, we found two places that are oriented towards foreigners and close a bit later, although you shouldn't push your luck.
Khit Thit on Zay Tan Street.
And Lucky 1 Restaurant, directly across from Khit Thit on Zay Tan Street.
Khit Thit in particular seems to have caught on with tourists, and with good reason – the food's really quite good and portions are plentiful, which is great news for us. But both will leave you happily fed and watered, and Lucky 1 has draft beer too. You can expect prices around 5,000 kyat per dish and eat well off it.
Our second day in Hpa-An started off with a mega thunderstorm that saw us peering out the window around 7 AM and saying, "Nahhh", before bundling back to bed. It was our first rest day of the trip, and by golly, we were going to sleep in.
By 7:30 AM, we were wide awake.
It was bucketing down. And unseasonably chilly too. It's all relative, but temperatures around 15C feel pretty bracing compared with the norm of 30+.
Seeking shelter under the hanging tarps in the market, we happened across a stall with a lady whom Neil remembered from his time here long ago. Her specialty was a freshly made spicy noodle salad with tofu and cilantro that was sure to awaken the senses on this sleepy day. Absolutely delicious and a total bargain to boot.
The rest of the day was spent meandering around town and stopping in tea houses to play cards when the rain got bad. Shwe Htone Maung Cafe on School Road is a perfect pitstop for Shan noodles and fried rice, with milkshakes on tap and free wifi thrown in.
In the the middle of town, there is the beautiful Kan Thar Yar lake that seems like a fairytale. A footbridge crosses its middle and limestone mountains rise in the near distance. We spent a happy moment looking out across the water and enjoying the stillness.
Then you start to notice the throngs of young people milling about. They're paired off, hiding underneath jackets whilst sitting on motorbikes. Enjoying a cuddle and staring at their smartphones. Looking around surreptitiously before leaning in for a smooch.
We had inadvertently found ourselves on Lovers' Lane. Quietly excusing ourselves, we tiptoed around the snogging couples and giggled at the familiarity of it all. Burmese youngsters come here to get away from watchful eyes and get up to the same stuff everybody else does.
Walking a bit further down along the Thanlyin River, we passed a school yard where a football match was about to take place. A big crowd had gathered to cheer on the lads, who were all between the ages of seven and nine. As token tourists, we drew our own wee congregation, with children shyly asking us in broken English for our names and ages before running away shrieking when they realised we understood what they were saying.
It was still intermittently pouring down, and the pitch was a bit of a quagmire. But the kids gave it all they had. And so did we with our cheering.
Most importantly, it was Jess's birthday. And how does one celebrate the day of your birth when in a place like this?
Why, with the finest pre-packed sliced sponge cake, of course!
Despite the moody sky, it was still a beautiful, moving day. As we strolled aimlessly, we kept our ears and eyes opened and cherished the opportunity to just watch life happen.
We continue on our journey in the morning.