Everything in this article is based on my own personal experiences hiking and sleeping atop Mount Zwegabin. For my top 10 things to know about sleeping at Zwegabin, skip to the bottom of this article.
I pulled into a grassy area with a thousand Buddha statues surrounding me. It was eerily quiet, but peaceful in its own way.
I'd driven 8 kilometers out of Hpa-An, Myanmar in search of an experience of a lifetime. I think I've found it.
The towering mountain summit behind the thousand Buddhas was my destination.
It was Mount Zwegabin. Zwegabin sits 722 meters (2,369 ft) high on the outskirts of Hpa-An, Myanmar. To reach the summit it's a strenuous trek up steep trails. But I wasn't just here for the hike.
At the summit sits a beautiful monastery with sweeping, panoramic views. I'd heard from other backpackers that, if you ask nice enough, the monks who live up there will allow you to sleep up there too. I couldn't resist how incredible it sounded, so here I was.
How To Sleep At Mount Zwegabin Summit
It was midday and the sun was unrelenting. I parked the cheap rental scooter... I was on foot from here.
I quickly found the slightly hidden start of the hike and set out. I felt the sun taking a toll just 20 minutes in. The hike was both easy and difficult. The heat seemed to make a medium-difficulty climb so much harder, and I was glad I'd packed enough water.
There were a few steep parts, but nothing to worry about. At one point I reached a gang of monkeys blocking the path. One thing I've learned about monkeys in Southeast Asia is they are either the cheeky wanna-steal-your-wallet type - or - they are the aggressive wanna-start-a-fight-type... this gang was definitely the latter. After a short time trying to get passed them without conflict, I managed to scare them off enough to get by.
After a few hours, I arrived at the summit, sweaty, but excited. But then it dawned on me - I wasn't even invited. I had just shown up to this sacred temple on the back of random advice from some beat backpackers. What if the monks didn't want me here? After all, would I want some sweaty foreigner arriving at my home unannounced?
I barely had time to catch my breath before a monk appeared and I was guided to who I assumed was the head monk.
He sat tall, like Buddha and he didn't say a word.
"Can I sleep here," I asked still catching my breath.
He nodded and held out his hand. I gave him 5000 Kyats ($3.60 USD) and he tied a yellow bracelet around my wrist.
I was shown to a sleeping area by another monk. I was disappointed to learn there was a separate living space for foreigners, which made it feel more hostel-like than the vision I'd had of bunking up with the monks. But it made sense. However, it did break the illusion that I was doing something truly off the backpacking trail. And in a sense, I was. This was not on the trail, it was not in any guides. There were a select few travelers who would make the hike based on a whisper from other backpackers.
Everything was as you'd expect for sleeping on a mountain. Hard mattresses, uncleaned blankets, and about 20 beds - all part of the experience. If you come here for anything else, you're in the wrong place.
A few other foreigners arrived, along with some monkeys and we all sat together and watched a breathtaking sunset in pure awe.
Once darkness set in the temple lit up, glimmering to life.
Foreigners were called to dinner.
There was little interaction with the temple monks, which extended through dinner. For 3000 kyats ($2.20 USD), we were served a basic vegan meal of rice and veggies, which was filling.
After dinner, a few of us stayed up exchanging travel stories but planning for sunrise, we put our heads down early.
I must have had three hours of sleep before the gongs went off. Then the prayers started. In fact, the whole night there was monk activity, prayers and gongs. It was impossible to sleep well.
The next morning I woke to one of the most spectacular sunrises I've ever witnessed. The sun seemed to invigorate me, filling me with the energy I'd lost through lack of sleep.
Once the sun was up, I didn't hang around long and made the journey down the mountain with new friends and a pretty cool story to tell.
Getting to Mount Zwegabin
Mount Zwegabin is about 8 kilometers outside of Hpa-An, a small town east of the capital, Yangon. It takes between 5-7 hours to get from Yangon to Hpa-An by bus or train.
Once in Hpa-An, you have two options to get to Zwegabin: rent a motorbike or get a tuktuk driver to take you there. If you opt for a driver, it might be a good idea to arrange a pick-up time the following day.
At the foot of Mount Zwegabin, you'll find the Lumbini Gardens where there are 1100 Buddha statues. It makes for a nice start to the hike ahead.
The start of the trail is reasonably easy to find from the Buddha garden. Once you're on the path you'll encounter steps and steep inclines.
For those who are reasonably fit, it'll take about 2 hours to complete but could take considerably longer if you take a lot of breaks.
The trail does have monkeys, which will steal any food or anything else that interests them. You'll want to keep things secure in packs just in case.
Note: Don't miss Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, which is located very close to Zwegabin.
Hpa-An (pronounced Paa-Ann) is a small Burmese town in the south-east of Myanmar.
The town is a lesser-known tourist destination compared to hotspots like Bagan and Inle. The most popular attraction is Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda, but there is a number of hikes, caves and attractions for tourists.
The accommodation was limited when I arrived late into Hpa-An. I eventually secured a room at Soe Brothers 2, which was lucky as it's one of the more popular places to stay in the town.
Things to know about Mount Zwegabin:
To summarize my experience sleeping at Zwegabin, here's a list of 10 things you should know before visiting.
1. The hike up is strenuous
It takes 2-3 hours of steep hiking to reach the summit depending on fitness and temperature.
2. You need to donate 5000 kyats to sleep there
At around $3 USD, it's worth it.
3. The food served is vegan
Eat what the monks eat for 3000 kyats. There's no other choice unless you've brought your own food.
4. The sleeping arrangement is very basic
Don't expect 5-star... or even 1-star accommodation here.
5. You probably won't get much sleep
Gongs, prayers and chanting. What did you expect?
6. Watch out for the monkeys
Those cheeky monkeys will steal so be careful.
7. You won't get to interact with the monks
Unfortunately, the monks and foreigners are separated for meals and sleeping.
8. Kyauk Ka Lat Pagoda is nearby
Don't miss this popular attraction.
9. Don't miss sunrise
This was a genuinely stunning event.
10. Be respectful
It's a rare experience to sleep atop a mountain with monks, and the privilege shouldn't be taken advantage of. We don't want to lose this.