by Marie Starr
Sitting on the benches at the lookout amongst some young revelers and early exercisers, Mawlamyine slowly revealed itself. The sky brightened over a sleepy town. The chocolate Thanlwin River formed a backdrop to the smoke rising from fires cooking breakfast below. Chanting from a nearby Buddhist temple danced in the air, with the call to prayer from mosques below, a monotonous, meditative chorus. The birds joined in.
Our trip started to the South from Hpa-an, where several buses leave for Mawlamyine throughout the day (1.5 hours). From Yangon, there are numerous overnight buses to Mawlamyine.
Having previously visited Shampoo Island and the beautiful colonial churches, we took a shared pick up to Kyauktalon Taung (20km outside of town), home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha. The effigy truly is colossal in size and hangs over the village below in a surreal way. Inside, you can walk through a series of displays depicting the teachings of Buddha. They are life -size and graphic and the cave-like setting creates an eerie atmosphere. Continuing to the end, there are unfinished scenes and the statues gesture with incomplete limbs towards invisible others. When the lighting fades you can get a serious case of the heebie geebies. Walking back to the main road, along the way there is the marvel a seemingly endless row of alms-collecting monk statues. Here you can catch a pick-up back to Mawlamyine.
The bus from Mawlamyine to Dawei, the next destination, leaves at 6.30pm (K11,000). Arriving in Dawei the middle of the night, we chose to take a motortaxi straight to the guesthouse in Maungmagan (K5, 500, 30mins). We zoomed under an uncompromised view of the infinite constellations towards the coast. The Coconut Guesthouse is US$15 per night during off season.
The next morning, Maungmagan beach was very relaxed. A few families splashed around in the water. Bamboo huts on the beach are served by nearby restaurants and serve cold drinks and excellent seafood. There was almost no-one else there but apparently it gets busy around holidays. A few hundred metres away to either side of the main beach there area few other people but you are likely to have the white sand and tropical blue waters all to yourself.
To the south, rolling green hills hug the curving bay, at the tip of which you can see Myawyik Pagoda. Nestled in the bay, a 40 minute walk along the beach, there is a picturesque fishing village. Children fishing in the rock pools will come to say, ‘Mingalabah, hello!’ Rows of wooden fishing boats, with colourful flags fluttering, rest on the sand. There is a beer station where you can cool down in the shade and watch, smell and listen to life in a fishing village.
We biked to Myawyik pagoda (40mins south of Maungmagan Beach) on a small island off the coast at San Maria Bay. It’s accessed by a footbridge and there are shaded places to sit and daydream, gazing out at the surrounding emerald sea.
Back on the motorbike, 50 minutes to the north of Maungmagan along some rough, sandy lanes followed by some suspiciously straight and wide roads (built as part of the controversial deep-sea port project) is Nabule Beach. Park at the pagoda, drink a cold juice, feel the breeze, prance along the boulders, gather some shells.
The next day, we were able to get a lift to Dawei with Mama Gyi (Big Mama) from the guesthouse. Dawei is bustling, vibrant and has some great colonial architecture. The main thing to see in the town is Shwe Taung Zar Pagoda – a particularly blingy Buddhist temple complex. Bizarrely, you can drive through the temple on a motorbike but only if you take your shoes off. Don’t forget to try moke ka la mae, the traditional Dawei snack.
The bus to Myeik leaves at 5am and costs 8,000Ks. The road is extremely windy and narrow but with some enthralling views of jungle, mountains, rivers and streams. In Myeik, you can walk north along the seafront and watch the frantic loading and offloading of people and goods from boats coming in from the Myeik Archipelago.
Turning right off Strand Road (Kanna Lan) just before it forks, there is a fantastic teashop at the intersection with C Street. They serve very delicious bey palatha (bean paratha) and black coffee which will come as a bitter oasis in a desert of sweet 3-in-1 coffee for many travellers. We sipped, waiting for the rain to pass, mesmerized by the skill and dexterity of the teashop’s naan man rolling, stretching and slapping naan bread onto the walls of the brick oven.
Bey palatha (bean paratha) and black coffee.
Climbing the steps to Thein Taw Gyi pagoda to watch the sunset followed by dinner at the night food stalls along Strand Road is a great way to round off the day.
Presuming we had seen everything in Myeik, we were reluctant to join other travellers on a walking tour of the city the next morning. How wrong we were! Tamk (092 54303230, [email protected]) was not only a wonderful tour guide but also our very own comedian, story teller, guitarist, singer and travel agent among other things. He barely stopped talking during the entire day and gave us interesting and personal insights into what it is to be a young person with big dreams and bigger hurdles in Myeik today. Between 6 of us it cost 15,000Ks plus Tamk’s meals for the full day.
Tamk began by taking us for a delicious breakfast at Number 1 teashop followed by the busy port area and mesmerizing boat building yard. His ‘land diving’ consisted of visiting an interesting and smelly part of town where you can see all manner of caught fish, including giant manta ray, ready to be processed and sent to Yangon and China. Next, a broom factory and a lobster farm where you can buy your own live lobster to be cooked for you at a restaurant of your choice (or, I guess, set free). The town is home to a lot of fantastic colonial architecture, much unchanged during the last century. We were even invited by a friend of Tamk’s to go inside one particularly beautiful teak house and look around.
Walking through the streets, it’s easy to meet locals in Myeik.
Granted it’s not every day Myanmar plays Thailand in the U-23 SEA Games football final, it was good to meet Tamk and a few others to watch the match and absorb the atmosphere the next day at Shwe Ya Su restaurant (Strand Road). The great food, whiskey and stories softened the disappointment of losing the game and everyone went home happy.
Unfortunately, the ferry to Kawthaung does not operate during the rainy season and foreigners are not yet allowed to travel further south by road as planned. However, the excellent experiences we had and the memorable characters we met on this trip proved that there is more to Southern Myanmar than the elusive Myeik Archipelago. We flew back to Yangon satisfied with a mind full of happy memories and belly full of culture.
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #10, August 2015