Mawlamyine – gateway to Myanmar’s less traveled south

The river town Mawlamyine lies 6 hours south of Yangon. It is a lively trading port and a colorful cultural-religious melting pot. The diverse set of Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches reflect Burmese, Chinese and Indian influences. The city inspired both George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling in their writing, reflecting in the essay “Shooting an elephant” and the poem “Mandalay”, respectively. Mawlamyine managed to keep up its authentic, down-to-earth charm until today. Since it is sufficiently uncomfortable to reach, the number of travelers remains low.

travel tipp infoHonestly, no one can pronounce that: Mawlamyine. After hearing some locals we settled for something that sounds like “Mole-mine”.

We have 2 days here, so we decide to spend one of them in the city and the other exploring the countryside by hiring a driver. The going rate for car and English-speaking driver/guide is 50,000 Kyat per day and Breeze Guesthouse can arrange the booking for you.

Sightseeing in Mawlamyine city

The city center of Mawlamyine is merely 2 by 4 km in size and easily explored on foot in a single day. If you want to take a break from walking the hilly city in hot sunshine, motorcycle taxis offer their services at almost every corner.

We start out with a relaxed walk along the tree-lined river promenade towards the Zeigyi market. A few small fishing and transport boats populate the water, joint by a couple of larger vessels. Once we arrive in the busy market, its size surprises us. Clearly Mawlamyine is a trading hub not only for the region but also for more distant parts of Myanmar.

The market hall was rebuilt after a huge fire in December 2008 destroyed every stall in the area. Countless market stands sell everything from fruit and fish to kitchenware and cosmetics. The watermelon and banana stands sell the fruits by the thousands.

Three mosques are close to the market: the Sunni Muslims’ Kaladan and Surtee Sunni Jamae mosques as well as the Shi’ite Muslims’ Moghul Shiah mosque. The Muslim community in Mawlamyine consists mostly of Indian immigrants. It and has declined over the past decades as many Indians left the country due to oppression by the military junta.

travel tipp infoIndian immigrants in Burma: Before World War II, 16% of Burma’s population was ethnically Indian. During the war the Japanese invaded Burma. Roughly half a million members of the Indian community fled. Their numbers further declined after the military junta seized power in 1962 and released oppressive, discriminating laws. In addition, the junta nationalized Indian businesses. The junta forced former business owners to leave the country. Nowadays, ethnic Indians account for only 2% (roughly 1 Mio.) of Burma’s people.

The mosques themselves are less interesting than the flair that the muslim community adds to the surrounding quarters. Hearing the muezzin sing at sunrise and sunset is a new experience for us in a country that’s mostly buddhistic.

We take the covered stairway that extends from Kyaikthanlan Phayar St up to the Kyaikthanlan pagoda. The pagoda is built on a mountain plateau. An elevator gives us a comfortable ride for the last few height meters. We share the ride with two elderly Buddhist nuns in beautiful pink clothing. From up here you get a view over the city and the back-country. We now understand what a green city Mawlamyine is when looking over the carpet of tree canopies and palm tops.

Down again, we have lunch at a small street restaurant. Price for two good curries, water and tea for two persons: 1.5$ …amazing!

We pass by the Mahamuhi temple north of the Kyaikthanlan pagoda and a couple of smaller shrines nearby. Most of them are under (re)construction.

A real highlight is the well-hidden Yadanar Bon Myint. The staircase looks like the last maintenance was a century ago. The nicely ornamented entrance leads us into a backyard at the foot of the Kyaiktanlan Pagoda.The main building is made out of dark teak wood.

First, we think that the place is abandoned as the door is closed. Then we are let in by a monk who takes care of the place. The worn down façade behind us, we find ourselves in a small dusty hallway leading to a sanctuary in the center of the temple. The dimmed light in the room reveals a wooden wall with delicate carvings of Buddha figures. Opposite to this antique work of art sits a rather modern looking golden Buddha statue. It radiates colorful light from LEDs mounted around his head. Despite that time has left its mark on the temple or maybe just because of it, we love to roam the hallways of this close to forgotten place.

Back in the street we climb a few stairs to reach the U Khanti pagoda. The pagoda has a huge but empty water basin right next to it. Again, the view is amazing and the scenery already starts to shimmer in the mild red light of a late afternoon sun.

At the top of the mountain we reach the U Zina pagoda. We are just in time to become witnesses of a picture book sunset. We are not alone here.
Many Burmese couples are huddling against each other on nearby benches to enjoy this romantic sight. Also a few monks from the close by monastery share the so-called most beautiful sunset of Southeast Asia with us. What a perfect finish for a long sightseeing day!

Exploring Mawlamyine’s surroundings

The second day, we spend exploring the countryside south of Mawlamyine.

We start the day with a one hour drive to Thanbyuzayat, roughly 60 km south of the city. Thanbyuzayat was the western terminus of the so-called Death Railway, built during the Japanese occupation in WWII and costing the life of many thousand war prisoners and civilians forced to work under inhumane conditions.

travel tipp infoThe “Burma-Siam-Railway”, or “Death Railway” intended to secure a supply route for the Japanese troops invading Myanmar and other Asian countries to the west during World War II. When construction started in 1942, Japanese engineers estimated that the more than 4000 km long, 1m-gauge railway would take 5 years to build. Too slow to be of value for the ongoing military campaign. Thus, the Japanese military forced prisoners of war and Asian civilian laborers to complete the railway within 13 months under horrific working conditions. Numbers vary, but estimations from the Australian Government state that out of roughly 330,000 people who worked on the line (including over 60,000 Allied POWs and 250,000 Asian laborers) about 16,000 POWs and 90,000 Asian laborers died.

War graves are built and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The memorial nearly exclusively focuses on the 16,0000 Allied POWs but only in one place briefly mentions the 90,000 dead Asians who died in the construction.
Our drives says that the Myanmar government is not at all interested in revisiting and collectively processing this sad period. They rather would prefer that all memories about this time fade away in the mist of history. A cold shiver runs down my spine. It reminds me of just another Burmese story of Orwell’s: his famous novel “1984”.

There is a small shimmer of hope: When we visit the end of the death railway tracks nearby, we see a construction place on the property. It will become a museum. Our driver tells us that none of them actually believes that the museum will be very educational. He rather expects it to become a showcase for government propaganda. Let’s see… change takes time.

We leave the death railway behind and continue to lake Kandawgyi. We take a walk on the lake shore and find our way into a small monastery. It has a farm feeling to it. Some small monasteries surround the lake and people take a swim. Well, men. Women are not allowed. Maybe because they are afraid that the women will bring up the legendary lake dragon against them. Back then he was also woken by a woman, although I did not hear about anything bad this dragon had done.

The next stop brings us to our personal highlight of the day: The world’s largest reclining Buddha called Win Sein Taw Ya. His 180m long body lies on the side of a green hill crowded with pagodas and minor Buddhas. It makes us feel like dwarfs.
While the huge statue alone makes an impressive sight, the real surprise waits for us inside of the Buddha. A “theme park” spreads over the 5 very spacious floors. It displays hundreds of scenes from Buddhist stories. Each scene consists of multiple life-sized plaster figures and does not hesitate being explicit where necessary. The only time we have seen something similarly crazy was in Hindu temples in Benares, India.
The stories have everything that sells well in Hollywood, too: Torture, sex and violence, heroism, love and hate. All scenes are very colorful and visually engaging. Well… colorful only applies to the first two floors. The remaining three floors are still under construction.

travel tipp infoThe construction of the world’s largest reclining Buddha started 25 years ago and is still ongoing. Facing the Buddha a new construction, an even some meters larger reclining Buddha, has started taking shapes. Yes, although the first one is not yet completed. It’s just so… Myanmar.

The figures on these floors are not painted yet. Our steps echo through the empty white corridors with half finished sculptures. The sun beams dusty rays through small windows. Two doves pick in food leftovers from workers. From a small opening near Buddha’s rips on the 5th floor, we look down on the stupa and pagoda sprinkled hills surrounding the lying giant.

Right next to the enormous Buddha we stop at the foot of a needle shaped, pagoda-topped lime stone rock. The place is called Kyauktalon Taung. We leave our shoes behind and begin to climb the stone steps carved into the dark rock. This sounds easy, but turns out to be quite challenging. The stairs are incredibly hot from the blazing midday sun.
We decide that our best chance to get up the mountain without blisters under our feet is to combine sprinting with ballet dance between the rare shady areas, where we can rest for a few moments to recover. Halfway we meet a Burmese couple which admires our dancing “skills” by giving us a hearty laugh.

We finally reach the stupa topped summit and are reimbursed for the painful ascend by a marvelous view. The limestone rock formations, the rice fields and the reclining Buddha, which is still visible in the distance, make a perfect panorama. A dance session later, we arrive again at the car where we cool our feet with iced water bottles… ahhhh… what a relief.

After a stopover at another temple stuffed with golden Buddhas we continue to the Kha-Yon Cave. Three golden Buddhas majestically sit in the wide cave entrance. The cave continues further into the mountain and several smaller statues follow. Candles, placed next to the Buddha images, cast a warm light and the only reason why we do not spend too much time in this place are the many mosquitoes hunting for blood in the hours close to sunset.

travel tipp infoThe gloomy, warm, humid caves in Southeast Asia are perfect habitat for malaria mosquitoes. Pack your mosquito spray if you plan to visit where nature meets the divinity in cave temples.


There are no guesthouses where you don’t share your bed with other living creatures. We decide to stay in a “luxury” 40$ per night hotel called Ngwe Moe. It is much more than we normally spend. The nice, clean room with a view over the river banks is worth the money. Breakfast is good, too.

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