When crossing the land border between Thailand and Myanmar at Mae Sot/Myawaddy, there are a few relatively close options were you can head next, and Mawlamyine is the one we chose to visit first. Mawlamyine is a relatively quiet town without tons of visitors yet, and we ended up being pleasantly surprised by the sights and friendliness of the locals.
Getting there from Myawaddy
After crossing the border we were approached by a local who sold us a ticket for a shared minibus to Mawlamyine. We paid 8,000 kyat ($5.90 US) each and waited for about 20 minutes for more passengers to join before leaving. We quickly figured out why the 100 kilometer drive would end up taking almost five hours. Most of the roads in Myanmar are in a pretty poor state, making short distances often take much longer than in other countries. Often they are only paved wide enough for one car, so each oncoming car forced ours to slow down and move aside into the dirt. Paved roads turn to dirt often as well, slowing the journey even further. This was the case for a good part of the road to Mawlamyine.
Once we got to town, it took our driver a while to find the popular guesthouse, Pann Su Wai, where we intended to stay. We didn’t have a reservation, just the name of a guesthouse, but we got lucky and secured their last room. In Myanmar in general, many of the hotels and guesthouses don’t have permits to accommodate foreigners, so it’s always good to have a reservation or have someone call and book a room. Compared to other countries in southeast Asia, accommodation in Myanmar is also quite expensive and the budget options are limited, so expect to pay at least 20 US$ for a budget double room in high season.
Pagodas, Museums, and Sunsets
The town is easy to walk in, and we ended up taking in the sights on foot. To escape the heat of the day for a bit, we visited the cultural museum near the town center. We paid the 5,000 kyat entry fee and started exploring the two stories of the museum. Most of the exhibition was about the Mon people’s culture, who have a long history as some of the first people in Myanmar. We learned about their clothing, saw artifacts from the past millennium, and admired their beautiful instruments. The second floor of the museum mainly exhibited ancient statues of the Buddha and carvings from long ago. While the descriptions of the items could have been a bit more informative, we enjoyed our half hour long visit.
Having spent a few months in southeast Asia already, we had seen quite a few Buddha statues. Our hotel manager recommended that we visit Taung Pauk Kyaung Monastery, where they made a Buddha entirely out of bamboo, so we decided to check it out. The Buddha statue looked really cool and was something different compared to the stone or gold Buddhas that we had seen so far.
From the Bamboo Buddha it is only a few minute walk to Mawlamyine’s most popular pagoda and a perfect sunset spot. The Kyike Than Lan Pagoda is built on top of a hill and you can either access it through various rundown stairways on the east corner of the pagoda, just opposite to the entry to the Bamboo Buddha, or via an elevator a bit further down the road (you’ll be ask for a small donation).
The golden Pagoda is beautiful and the view over Mawlamyine and the river is very nice. We stayed until sunset and sat down on the stairs with quite a few other tourists, but it was still not crowded. It’s definitely worth making your way up there to enjoy a nice view of the sunset.
Food Night Market
After watching the sun set from the pagoda, we walked 15 minutes back down towards the river, where there is a small night market full of food right at the riverside. Most of the restaurants at the market served freshly grilled barbecue and traditional dishes such as fried rice and noodles. If you’ve been around southeast Asia for a bit and you like stout beer, you may search out a vendor that sells Black Shield, a stout from Myanmar.
After asking our hotel manager for some tips on where to go, he volunteered to take us on a trip around the area. Our itinerary included the world’s biggest reclining Buddha, the Win Sein Taw Ya Giant Buddha, a pagoda on the top of a karst mountain overrun by monkeys, and a Buddhist meditation center. We ended up paying 20,000 kyat for the three of us and hopped on the back of his converted pick-up truck.
The ride took around an hour before we got the first glimpse of the giant Buddha. Driving down the road toward it, we were already impressed by its size. At 180 meters in length and 30 meters high, it is currently the biggest freestanding reclining Buddha in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Unlike most Buddha statues we had seen so far, this one was not made out of stone or gold, but cement and plaster.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw that they were building another giant Buddha just opposite of this one, pointing in the other direction. There wasn’t much to it yet, just the cement skeleton and parts of the head, but to our surprise we were told that they had started building it 15 years ago.
It’s not only possible to admire the giant Buddha from outside, you can also walk inside of it. We climbed a few sets of stairs and passed small rooms with smaller Buddhas inside before entering another area that ended up being one of the strangest places we had seen in a while. Over three floors and numerous hallways, mythological scenes and scenes from Buddhas life were depicted by life sized statues that were painted. The further we ventured the stranger it became, with quite a few scenes showing some sort of cruel hell in graphic detail. The Buddha is definitely impressive and worth seeing, but also a very strange place and not quite what we expected.
From Win Sein Taw Ya it was a short drive to Yadana Taung Pagoda, which sits on top of a small karst mountain. We made our way up to the pagoda on a set of very steep stairs and the moment we arrived on top, we were greeted by tons of macaque monkeys. It seemed like they had overtaken the pace, as everything was dirty and partially destroyed and the pagoda itself was locked up. Some people had already left quite a bit of food for the monkeys, so they hardly noticed us as we observed them playing and fighting. Between monkey sightings, we enjoyed the view over the countryside from high above it. If you are in the mood to meet a troop of rowdy monkeys and don’t mind the rundown temple, then Yadana Taung Pagoda might be worth a visit.
The last stop on our trip from Mawlamyine was a Buddhist mediation center in a forest. From where we parked the car, we walked a short ways through a peaceful forest, passing wooden huts where monks live, and arrived at the meditation hall. It is a massive two story building with a big Buddha at the end of the otherwise empty hall. It was lunchtime, so there weren’t any monks mediating when we got there. One of the monks stayed behind to show us around and told us about himself and the mediation center. The monks at the center stay as long as they want or need to finish their meditation and then some of them go back to normal life as before. The monks meditate four times a day and in their down time you can see some with their iPhones out or smoking cigarettes, an image that we would end up seeing plenty over the rest of our time in Myanmar. Before heading back to Mawlamyine we stopped at the kitchen where they serve free vegetarian lunch for anyone every day. We didn’t know what to expect, but we got a really good vegetarian meal, free water and coffee, and nobody even asked for a small donation.
Getting to Hpa-An
The most popular destination after Mawlamyine seemed to be Hpa-An, a small town about 60 kilometers away that is known for its caves and karst mountains. Getting to Hpa-An is easy, you can either take a minibus or opt for the more scenic option, a five hour boat ride down the river. We paid 10,000 kyat per person and got picked up at 8am and driven to the pier. The boat was quite small and could fit 10 people on plastic chairs squeezed together, two astride. The ride was really enjoyable, we passed tons of pagodas and some karst mountains once we got closer to Hpa-An, a town full of interesting attractions!