With a new bridge linking Mawlamyine to Bilu Kyun, James Fable compares the old tour to the new possibility of independently exploring the island. Photos by the writer.
Across the Thanlwin River from Mawlamyine lies Ogre Island, or Bilu Kyun in the Mon language. Some stories suggest the island earned its name long ago because of its fierce inhabitants’ inclination toward devouring raw meat with their sharpened teeth.
But the reality these days is that of a tranquil island, roughly the size of Singapore, dappled with hilltop pagodas and famous for its cottage industry—wooden smoking pipes and slates made, of course, by friendly locals.
Breeze Guesthouse based on Mawlamyine’s Strand Road has been running boat tours to the island for years, but on May 9 a bridge connecting Bilu Kyun to the Mon State capital was opened—and travel restrictions were lifted.
Tourists can now drive over independently and view the islands 78 villages set amid vivid paddies. So is it still worth doing the tour?
For 18,000 kyats per person, the slightly pushy yet endearing owner of Breeze Guesthouse, Mr Khaing, will take you to see women making slate tablets and styli for schools, ropes and doormats from coconut fibers, bamboo farmers hats, and traditional Mon longyis.
Lunch, drinks, a swim at a waterfall swimming pool, a trip to a rubber plantation, and a final boat ride back to the city are also thrown in. It’s a 9am-5pm day that’s worth its price tag, but unless you buy the handicrafts, none of your money will go to the local community—Mr Khaing pays the working women in sweets.
The completion of the new bridge, however, means tourists can rent motorbikes (manuals from 10,000 kyats, Breeze Guesthouse) and explore freely. Men lean out of tractors to shout “hello” as you pass, while children run onto the road and cry “mingalabar.”
Bilu Kyun harbors all the charm of rural life yet to be tainted by tourism. Rows of rubber trees dripping white sap into black cups line the roads, and brown rubber sheets resembling small cowhides hang from wooden beams in front gardens.
In Ywalut village is a roundabout topped with an absurdly large pipe, surrounded by shops selling wooden watches the size of WWE belts. Made by local craftsman Mann Ngwe Win in 2014, the sculpture is a nod to a strong heritage of pipe making. Beyond the culture is also a beautiful landscape. Climbing up to the elevated pagodas and enjoying sweeping views of the palm-studded paddies can break up the pleasant and intriguing drive around the island. Unfortunately overnight trips are not possible, as there is currently no accommodation for visitors on Bilu Kyun.
Should you opt for the motorbike option, however, you will miss out on a few things. One of these is local knowledge: the English-speaking Mr Khaing was able to field questions on local life; without him we would have not known about the waterfall pool where we cooled off just before lunch. He also took us to a monastery hosting a novitiation ceremony: that morning of food and forced dancing also saw 200 locals taking photos of embarrassed French girls, the highlight of my day.
Then there’s the handicrafts production: riding past rubber trees is enjoyable, but the oozing white sap is just the start of the story—you need a guide to educate you about the entire process of making rubber. Without a guide, we probably also wouldn’t have seen the old lady cutting circles out of condensed milk cans to put on top of bamboo farmers hats, the incongruous finishing touch to an age-old tradition. Then again, much of the handicraft production you see on the tour is allegedly geared to tourists anyway.
So, tour or no tour? It depends on your travelling preferences, but I recommend doing both: take the tour one day and spend the next driving round by yourself. When we hired motorbikes the day after doing the tour, we saw no other tourists on Bilu Kyun; most locals welcomed us with warm smiles, a few even invited us into their homes. The experience was enriched, though, by our knowledge of where to go: had we just driven round aimlessly, our day wouldn’t have been so rewarding.
Those mulling a visit to the island, then, should take two days out to do so. But if you don’t have the time for both, either one is still worth your time and money.