Southern Myanmar, Part 1: Mawlamyine and Around

By Michael

While traveling in Myanmar, we always planned to reserve part of our 28-day stay for the southeast part of the country — specifically the cities of Mawlamyine and Hpa-an. We ended up enjoying these towns so much that we stayed for an extra two days beyond the length of our visa!

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More on this later . . .

Starting from Mindat, we had a roughly 30-hour bus trip to Mawlamyine.  First up was a 4.5 hour daytime minibus to Pokoku (all minibuses from Mindat to Pokoku appear to leave at 8:30am), followed by an 11-hour overnight bus to Yangon via Bagan (we had to wait several hours in Pokoku until the first bus to Yangon left at 6pm), and finally a 7-hour daytime bus to Mawlamyine (we were directed by a local when we got off the bus in Yangon to a bus headed to Mawlamyine scheduled to leave at 5:30am — not the best bus or price, but better than the impossible task of trying to locate one of the nicer companies at the crazy Yangon bus station and hope to get on their 8am bus). While some of our other long bus connections in Myanmar resulted from our own mistakes, this one seemed unavoidable.

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Crazy lights at night on the bus.

Mawlamyine itself was a pleasant place for us to slow down and stay in place for a little while. George Orwell lived here for a while, and Rudyard Kipling visited for a few hours. Admittedly, our first impression of the town was that it was hot and dusty, but its charm eventually grew on us.  Probably because we found so many great spots to eat 😉

We managed to try local food at various restaurants and shops, including our first Indian food since Mongolia (tasted like Burmese spices) and our first pizza since Hong Kong (it was ok; not as good as in Hong Kong or later in Koh Lanta). We also enjoyed tasty food at the night market, where Elizabeth found a vendor selling Tandori Chicken and I went to a different vendor selling squid in a tomato-ish sauce.

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Night market food along the riverfront. So good.

And then we each ordered a slushie from a hawker stall, which we are pretty sure was the cause of us both throwing up all night. Fortunately we had splurged on a nice room at the Cinderella Hotel — we spent the whole next day recovering in our room — watching movies including Night Crawler, Saving Private Ryan, and Sharktopus versus Pterracuda (there were limited choices in English).

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The likely culprit beverages.

Bilu Kyun (Ogre Island)

We did three main excursions from town. First, we went on a group tour of Bilu Kyun, known as Ogre Island. We didn’t see ogres, instead it was basically a “how it was made” tour to a bunch of local manufacturing shops. We saw how door mats, slate boards, lacquerware, pipes, woven cloth, and even rubber bands are made!

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Transforming coconut husks into door mats.

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Cutting straight edges for slate chalk boards. It was incredible how much work went into each board.

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Blacksmithing workshop that utilized machinery from the 1940s!

Normally we wouldn’t purchase anything on these types of workshop tours, but Elizabeth did end up purchasing a nice piece of cloth, whichever she had a local tailor make into a longyi (for a bargain price).

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The “factory” for weaving fabric was simply a bunch of looms out in the open under a tin roof.

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Hard at work.

But perhaps the most amazing part of the tour was when we visited the rubber band workshop. Elizabeth will not stop talking about how unexpected the rubber band operation was — it was literally a backyard operation out in the open and the end-product was virtually identical to the rubber bands that you could buy at an office superstore back home.

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First, poles are dipped in colored liquid rubber and then left out to dry in the sun (in their front yard)…

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Rubber tubes removed from the poles and ready for processing…

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Feeding the rubber tubes through cutting machines…

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These machines quickly chopped up the rubber tubes…

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Then the rubber bands have to be washed in a mixture of hot water and detergent to make sure that the rubber bands don’t stick together…

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And then the final product is put out on a tarp in the front yard to dry. Amazing!

Win Sein Taw Ya — The Reclining Buddha

The second excursion was to a giant reclining Buddha at Win Sein Taw Ya, south of town. In addition to being huge, the figure has many scenes with life-size figures inside it. Walking though toward the feet it becomes more and more unfinished, which was a problem since we had to leave our sandals at the entry (standard practice for temples, and usually ok since most temples are not construction sites).

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Elizabeth placing one of the tiles that our donation funded.

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Check out those eyelashes!

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I don’t know enough about Buddhism to know what is going on here, but it looks like hell.

We also climbed to a paya atop a nearby hill — also barefoot — because it was included in the “tour” (tour = taxi driver who knows the locations).

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The hike up to the paya (and the humidity) was sweat-inducing, but the view wasn’t bad.

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Elizabeth sporting her new longyi.  Not quite the kind of stairs one would want to walk barefoot up.

The Golden Boulders at the Nwa-la-bo Pagoda

Our final excursion from Mawlamyine was the Nwa-la-bo Pagoda, a temple featuring three golden boulders balanced atop one another with a pagoda on top. The site is often compared to the famous golden rock balanced precariously on a cliff ledge at Kyaikito (which we skipped).  The pagoda/rocks at Nwa-la-bo can only be accessed from the village at the foot of the mountain (Kyonka) by a big truck with rows of seats in the back. This means that taxis will only go as far as Kyonka; they are not permitted to head up the winding road up the hill. If you’re cheap like us, you could also get to Kyonka by just flagging down a passing bus from near the bridge on the way out of Mawlamyine (although we chipped in and shared a taxi on the way back with a couple other tourists).

The trucks up the mountain only leave in the morning; weekends are the best time to visit because the trucks run more frequently. Our truck was full — but only included six foreigners as most of the visitors were locals. At the pagoda, several locals insisted on taking pictures with us. I’ve had occasional experiences of locals photographing me, but nothing like this (though Elizabeth says she had this happen when she visited China as a child). It was basically a full-on photo shoot, with one of the women carefully positioning our hands and re-doing Elizabeth’s longyi to make sure that all of the folds were perfect. At first it’s fun. Then it started to feel strange…

Otherwise it was a nice half-day trip from Mawlamyine.

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Pagoda balanced on three golden rocks.  Men who visited would apply gold leaf to the rock to keep it nice and shiny.

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Riding in the back of the truck!

We also visited the Mon Cultural Museum in town. Lonely Planet suggests it was ok. We could have skipped it, in part because they recently raised the prices from 1,000 kyat to 5,000 kyat (~$4) and because it largely overlapped with our tour of the workshops on Ogre Island.

After six nights in Mawlamyine we took an afternoon bus to Hpa-an and on our first evening we hurried to the Batcave! I’ll explain that and more in the next post.

[This post describes our visit to and around Mawlamyine, from November 27 though December 3, 2016.]

One thought on “Southern Myanmar, Part 1: Mawlamyine and Around

  1. Pingback: Our Month-Long Adventure in Myanmar/Burma | two backpacks, no plan

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