Some of the most interesting states in Myanmar are often overlooked in favour of the well-trodden routes to Bagan, Inle Lake and the coast. Two such states that often fail to make it into itineraries are Mon State and Kayin State, both only a 6-hour drive to the east of Yangon. Edwin Briels, MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar, leads the way on a 4-day adventure, from the Bago highway, down towards Mawlamyine and concluding in the scenic landscape surrounding Hpa-An.
Somewhere lost in Mon State, so myth has it, is the city Suvarnabhumi, which is so famous that Bangkok airport is named after it. Allegedly located near Bilin, indeed there are remnants of ancient city walls nearby. While there, you can also visit the historic Kyite Htee Saung Pagoda, which is just 20 minutes’ drive off the main road near Bilin. Further along the same road is the town of Thaton, which is worth a stop to see the market and visit the bamboo Buddha statue.
The capital Mawlamyine is interesting for culture lovers and the Mon Culture Museum is excellent for understanding the local traditions. Stroll around the neighborhood and it quickly becomes clear that the British liked the city as well as they left several churches behind, including the crumbling but picturesque St Matthews Church which was built in 1887.
The main site to visit in Mawlamyine is the beautiful Seindon Mibaya Monastery, famed for its fantastic woodcarvings. Built by Queen Seindon Mibaya, and her entourage of workers of course, after she escaped the Mandalay Palace massacre that saw all possible claimants to King Mindon’s throne executed, paving the way for the last King Thibaw and his wife Queen Supayalat. The Seindon Mibaya monastery is probably the best example of how the Mandalay Palace once looked. Queen Seindon Mibaya became a Buddhist nun until her death and her tomb is still in the compound. Further south you can also visit the huge reclining Buddha and the interesting Phar Ouk weaving village where Mon longgyis are woven.
To continue into Kayin State and on to Hpa-An, the best mode of transport is a boat over the Thanlwin River; a beautiful trip of about 3-4 hours with interesting stops on the way in small villages. The Thanlwin River is narrower than the Ayeyarwaddy and in the distance you will be able to see the limestone mountains in Kayin State.
Do stop at the small jetty in U Na Auk village, which has a particularly fascinating history. Mr Na Auk was a Mon trader, living in this area during the British colonial era. He was famous for his intelligence and ability to trade successfully with the big British companies. He later became a patriotic symbol of having good trading sense and being kind to his fellow countrymen and his legacy is still taught in modern schools.
From the U Na Auk village jetty you can take a tuk-tuk to visit the amazing carvings and decorations on the temples and Ordination Hall donated to the village by Mr Na Auk. The U Na Auk Temple committee does not ask entrance fees but a donation is greatly appreciated – I would suggest a donation of 5,000Ks per person, as the community really needs the money to keep the buildings in such a good shape. In my opinion, these are honestly the most beautiful temples in Myanmar and I wouldn’t be surprised if they become a Unesco World Heritage Site one day.
The people of Kayin State (formerly named Karen State) are known for their traditional lethwai skills and have unique languages and traditions, whose origins are still very much unknown to scientists until this day. The state of Kayin offers beautiful natural scenes with traditional villages and waterways surrounded by spectacular lime stone mountains.
Though the town of Hpa-An may still be searching for its soul, the surrounding caves are spectacular and well-worth visiting. One of the best caves is the Saddar Cave, where you can walk through to the other side and enjoy the fantastic view; alternatively you can take a small boat to pass through a creek under the rock. The Kaw Gun Cave is also very beautiful, with thousands of ancient small Buddha statues lining the walls.
The landscape, with the green paddy fields and the majestic limestone mountain formations coming out of the water, is ideal for biking trips, walks through the traditional Kayin villages in the forest or an hour of leisurely kayaking through the paddy fields. Don’t be fooled by monsoon, June until December is the best time to go kayaking. Adventurous travellers with a good level of fitness can climb the Zwekabin Mountain or the Taung Wine Mountain. Visit the Linno Caves around sunset and witness the spectacular sight of thousands of bats flying out.
What’s more, the influence of Thai cuisine seeping over the nearby border means that those visiting Kayin will also taste some of the best food in Myanmar.
How to get there…
Book a bus or order a private car from Yangon, down the Bago highway and onwards to Mawlamyine.
There is one Myanmar National Airlines flight per week between Yangon and Mawlamyine on Mondays.
Where to stay…
There are plenty of decent 3-star hotels in Mawlamyine: Cinderella (forget about the pink wall paint; the service is very good), Queen Jamadevi, a hidden gem, the new Hotel Suggati or Attran Hotel.
In Hpa An
Spoil yourself and stay at the luxury Keinnara Hpa-An (formerly Hpa-An Lodge) or stay closer in town the 2-star Hotel Gabbana.
Khiri Travel Myanmar offer a 4-day private guided itinerary including all transport, sightseeing, several special meals, accommodation, entrance fees and activities starting from $495 per person based on 2 persons.
Edwin Briels is MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has been working over 15 years in travel in Myanmar and will share his experiences travelling in Myanmar in a monthly column.