James Fable visits an old summer getaway in northern Kayin State that is fast reclaiming
its erstwhile popularity. Photos by the writer.
Off-limits to overnight visitors until late 2015, the former colonial settlement of Thandaunggyi is gradually making a name for itself as a charming countryside town. The region is renowned for its coffee, tea and honey, but Thandaunggyi’s real draw is its spectacular location 1,400 meters up in the Kayin hills.
Thandaunggyi is best accessed from Taungoo, a small city located 30 kilometers to the west in Bago Region. Pick-ups leave from Taungoo bus station at 11am Monday- Saturday (2,000 kyats); but I had arrived on the Sabbath, and didn’t fancy hiring a motorbike from Beauty Guesthouse II for 15,000 kyats.
So I opted for Option 3: hitchhike. A multilingual Shan educated in Russia took me 7 kilometers, then for 5,000 kyats I arranged a lift with a truck driver headed for the hills.
It’s considerably cooler in Thandaunggyi, and of the traditional dress only the tasselled
Karen bags remain popular. Christianity predominates, the legacy of American and
British missionaries, but in recent years a handful of pagodas have sprouted on nearby
As beneficiaries of an hotel licensing experiment, several local families were able to
convert their residences into bed-and-breakfasts. These B&Bs are far superior to most
rural Myanmar guesthouses and the lodging revenue goes straight to the Karen
I stayed at Kaing’s Villa, a comfortable B&B home to three generations of Kaings. Nancy, the villa’s 96 year-old matriarch, cherishes visits from guests and is a keen storyteller.
“There used to be lots of tigers here,” she recalled over a cup of Kayin coffee. “Sometimes we saw them from our classroom window, eating calves right in the middle of the street.”
Nancy holds fond memories of colonial rule, even though the British were “very proud”
and often kept themselves separate from the Karen. She dismissed the days of military
rule with an impatient swat of the hand, but was optimistic about the new government.
“Things are much better today, even the Tatmadaw soldiers here in Thandaunggyi
respect me. You’ve never met Burmans like them.”
Sonia, Nancy’s daughter, was equally personable and happily adjusted the room fee to
suit my budget.
The Tourism Information Centre at Star of the East guesthouse was able to provide
some basic information on local sightseeing, but their project is still in its infancy. So I
hired a guide, Ya Zar, who drove me around for 20,000 kyats.
Naw Bu Baw Mountain
Our first point of call was Naw Bu Baw Mountain, the highest peak in the Dawparkho
Range. This local Christian pilgrimage site towers over the town and is topped with an
LED-edged crucifix. The 374 steps leading to its summit are not demanding, but my
ascent was dogged by cheeky young Karen girls shouting out odd English phrases:
“How are you?”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you a virgin?”
I don’t believe virginity is a prerequisite for climbing the mountain.
For our subsequent trip to a nearby waterfall, Ya Zar insisted on changing motorbike.
He reappeared riding a beaten-up hunk of junk with exposed wires, no wing mirrors
and a smashed display panel. It’s one redeeming factor was a thick wire frame on the
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, this is much better.”
I soon found out why. The track leading to the waterfall was the worst I have ever
experienced. It wound down through the jungle, treacherously steep, stony and dusty.
At one point it looked as though we had come across the remnants of a landslide; but no,
this was the way down. Ya Zar crashed on a tight corner; we were lucky to escape
Hiking to the waterfall takes two hours but is a better option. The slippery descent is
not for the faint-hearted and sturdy shoes are a must. I later learnt that this excursion
can be turned into a full-day trek by combining it with a trip to the reputedly beautiful
Taw Pyar Gyi hot springs.
Lastly, Ya Zar took me to Pathi Chaung, a verdant, rocky creek in Thandaung. Its water
was refreshing and the overhanging trees cast it in cool shade. We stopped by some hot
springs on the way, but they were nothing special.
The Old Fort and the Tatmadaw Tea Factory
The next morning I walked to the old fort and the tea factory, which occupy opposing
hilltops. The former is an impressive, mossy grey structure that allegedly served the
British well during the war. Ya Zar claimed you could overnight in it, but its haunted
aura did not appeal.
The tea factory is a stately red building that was founded over a century ago by the
British. It has since been commandeered by the Tatmadaw, also tea enthusiasts. The
military compound looked uninviting, but the officers were happy to give me a tour.
Inside, civilians and soldiers laboured away, persisting with dated machines mostly
imported from India.
The lush jungle surrounding Thandaunggyi harbours prosperous tourism potential, but
ongoing conflict between the Karen National Union and the Tatmadaw hinders development. Nonetheless, Thandaunggyi is a safe and rewarding destination that’s
attracting more and more tourists each year—visit now while it’s still a mere blip on the radar.
James Fable is a freelance travel journalist based in Myanmar. Follow him on instagram: fabletravelmyanmar.