Dodging monkeys on Myanmar’s Mount Zwegabin
The town of Hpa-an in Myanmar is almost devoid of tourists. Perhaps that has something to do with the eight-hour bus ride you need to endure from the dusty former capital of Yangon.
But with caves to spelunk, thick rice paddies to visit and jagged limestone cliffs there is no shortage of things to see or do.
One of those cliffs is slightly taller than the rest: Mount Zwegabin, 725 meters tall, looming over Hpa-An.
I'm going to climb it for a change of pace from a frantic travel schedule and for some ridiculously beautiful scenery. Word of warning: if climbers are discovered by the wild monkeys, they will be chased up the mountain.
It is easy to hike Mount Zwegabin in a day. But you would miss out on a sunset to end sunsets and the experience of sleeping atop a Kayin monastery in one of the lesser-visited provinces of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
To hike to the summit, it’s a two-hour trip up. Straight up. The monkeys discover me about halfway, and then call for reinforcements.
By mid-afternoon I'm surrounded by close to a dozen, leaping at me and snarling from the walkway. Several try to snatch my blanket away, which is rolled up under my arm.
I end up running up a good part of the hill, monkeys cackling close behind.
Finally, I pick up a thick wooden branch and swing it around. Only then do they begin to melt into the forest.
The lingering few disappear once I blow on the safety whistle attached to my pack, covering their ears from the noise.
Note to the wise: leave both hands free and whatever you do don’t bring any food.
On top of Mount Zwegabin travelers are rewarded with an incredible view and a place to sleep.
There is no official cost but visitors are expected to leave a donation for the monastery prior to departure. Allocate at least a 2,000 kyat for the donation.
As the only guest at the monastery that night, the primates hone in on me, their new target.
After 10 minutes of watching me dart around the dorm room pursued by monkeys, the Mohe monks are kind enough to house me in a secondary prayer room. After they laugh at my predicament, of course.
With a simple bamboo mat and an eerie calm, I sleep more deeply than I have in weeks.
The monkeys, the creaky wooden floors of Mount Zwegabin monastery's quiet rooms, the washrooms with a view and the jaw-dropping sunset all make for a great side trip from Hpa-An.
It is highly recommended. But carry a stick and whistle: the monkeys will find you.
Where to stay: Soe Brothers Guesthouse, Hpa-An + 95 058 21372. Single/Double with shared bath: US$4 to US$7.
The Soe Brothers Guesthouse can organize everything visitors would want to see or do in town.
It is run by four friendly brothers (and their grumpy sister).
Where to eat: Atop Zwegabin travelers don’t have much of a choice: a small restaurant will make a dinner for all guests for 1,000 kyat.
In Hpa-An, ask for Mr. Soe for directions to the night market and get some freshly made street eats, or dine at the teahouse across from Soe Brothers.
Getting there: From Yangon, catch a night bus (8-10 hours; 8,000 Kyat) from Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal. In Hpa-An, ask Mr. Soe to take you out to Zwegabin on his motorbike, or catch an 8 a.m. pickup next to the market and get off at Zwegabin junction and start walking.