South of Yangon is a region that has long been ignored in favour of the big three tourist drawcards of Myanmar – Yangon, Bagan, & Inle Lake. This is grossly underselling the attractions of the South, particularly the area around Mawlamyine and Hpa An. With a combination of scenic beauty, often spectacular, a plethora of fascinating sites in the neighbourhood, friendly laid-back towns, and enough tourist infrastructure to make independent traveling quite straightforward, they are a Myanmar must see. The only caveat here is the season – this region receives a massive amount of rainfall during the monsoon, roads and rail can be washed out, and traveling become extremely difficult.
Surprisingly one of the largest cities in Myanmar, Mawlamyine certainly doesn’t feel like it. Nestled at the mouth of the Salween River, and bisected by a low ridge of hills parallel to the coast, Mawlamyine is picturesque, laid back, easy to navigate on foot, and a great base for a few days.
,The Salween River, emptying into the Andaman Sea at Mawlamyine, is actually one of Asia’s great rivers along with the better know Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, and Mekong rivers. Running for most of it’s 2,800 km through a steep sided canyon, it’s only navigable for a few kilometres upstream, basically to H’pa An. It does provide Mawlamyine though with a significant port, historically even more so when the British used it as a capital and the basis for their teak wood shipping empire, and excellent fishing. A riverside boulevard, The Strand, and a park run beside it virtually the length of the main town, great for locals jogging, sitting, watching life on the river & sunsets, and a base for the food night market. That’s if you don’t park at one of the local beer stations dotted beside the Strand and the river instead.
The ridge line that dominates Mawlamyine is home to a string of paya. The largest, Kyaik Tan Lan, perches at the highest point on its red base, and dazzles with gold and mirror work. There are multiple Buddhist shrines & a full complement of nat shrines around the perimeter. It has elevators to ascend to the platform for those in a rush, rather than tackling the traditional entrance stairways. A short walk along the ridge to the north is Mahamuni Paya, even more mirrored. Origami money folding, in the form of giant flowers & pineapples seem to be the go here for offerings. There are other payas and monasteries dotted along the south of the ridge from Kyaik Tan Lan if you’re feeling energetic. Walking down towards the river from Mahamuni is a pleasant stroll and brings you to the market downtown area.
Around Mawlamyine there are numerous possibilities for half day & day trips. These can easily be combined, depending on the direction of travel.
To the south is Win Sein Taw Ya. Best described as a psychedelic Buddhist theme park it’s very popular with locals & Burmese tourists. Sprawled over a large area it includes such delights as an eight-story reclining Buddha, the interior of which is hollow and filled with sculptural dioramas depicting Buddhist hells, and virtuous Burmese from history. In various stages of completion the climb to the top allows panoramic views, including across to other giant part completed Buddhas, a sacred lake, water slides, and other temples & shrines that dot the site. Thoroughly recommended.
Also to the south, and not quite as far as Win Sein Taw Ya, are the twin limestone eruptions of Kyauktalon. Both are topped by shrines & stupas. The southern hill is lower and has a paved set of steps ascending to a sweeping view of the plains. The northern crag on the other side of the highway is more vertiginous and challenging. Monkeys can be an issue, especially when taking a break from the sweat inducing climb.
Inland from these, and returning to Mawlamyine, is the Kyaikmaraw Paya. In a small town, this beautiful paya complex dates back to the 1450’s, and is a very popular local pilgrimage spot. Aesthetically pleasing, this paya contains a host of serene white Buddhas inside the main shrine. There are elaborate and carefully tended nat shrines, as usual around the perimeter. An array of the planets in bronze and gold overlooks a pool beside a shrine containing an 8 metre woven Buddha. For Australians, look out for the garlanded statue atop a pillar that is a dead ringer for the late Bob Hawke.
A quirk of history pops up on the road between here and Mawlamyine – the Mawlamyine Golf Resort – proudly signposted – “Founded in 1940”. Colonial isolation & hubris at it’s finest and funniest, remembering what was actually happening & about to happen in the wider world,
There are other possible sights around Mawlamyine, depending on your time, which I didn’t make it to. To the north there are some options mentioned in detailed guides, and a large number of interesting looking payas & monasteries are scattered densely in the hills on the north side of the river, visible from the train entering town. Or further afield to the south are a number of small & historic towns.
Nuts & bolts – Mawlamyine
Transport. Mawlamyine is on a main train line from Yangon. As far as Burmese trains go this is an excellent trip – 8 or 9 hours, with some good views after the train turns southward past Bago, running along beside the ridge of hills & mountains dotted with gold spired stupas, and the coastal plain on the other side, before running over the massive rail bridge across the Salween into town. Plenty of food vendors boarding along the way. Cars are easy to hire in town for day trips. It’s also simple to buy tickets on a private boat heading upstream to Hpa An. This 4 to 5 hour boat trip has a succession of wonderful scenery, ranging from the working life of the river at the Mawlamyine end to the limestone crags & escarpments as it nears Hpa An. A good idea to bring earplugs though.
Accommodation & Food. Mawlamyine has a reasonable range of accommodation. A place not as highly rated as it should be is the Ngwe Moe Hotel at the far end of the Strand. A bit characterless, and there may be tour groups, this makes up for that with clean river view rooms, icy cold beers, and very good food. Particularly recommended are their Burmese salads – spicy seafood, & crispy fish salads were memorable, and they also do some interesting Kachin dishes – herb laden curries, a change from the standard Burmese options. This hotel also does a line in local weddings & celebrations which is always good curiosity value. There is a Food Night Market on the Strand, with a strong line in offal dishes, but of patchy quality. A decent Indian Chetty restaurant is at the North end of town near the backpacker hub & the market. The usual tea stalls are dotted around town.
Hpa An is a large town of around 450,000, the capital of Kayin State, and largely populated by the Karen. Inland, and between Yangon & Mawlamyine, it’s a bit of an odd place – cute & charming in some ways, suffering growing pains in others. There are a handful of actual sights in town, but, and this is a big but, Hpa An is surrounded by spectacular payas, caves & temples, scenery, and more. Mt Zwegabin (Zwekabin) dominates the view from town, and offers a 3hour climb to the summit for the energetic.
Within Hpa An places to visit or amble include Shweyinhmyaw Paya, in town near the market area, with good views over the river. Kan Yar Than Lake, in the leafier southern part of town, offers peaceful strolling, fish feeding, and pedallos. On the south side there are restaurants and a small museum which may be open. Or not.
There a lot of places to consider visiting in the area – they can be combined into one rushed or abbreviated day trip, but breaking them up into a couple of separate trips allows time to explore each in detail, and have longer conversations with the local & domestic tourists who seem as interested in you as the famous site you’re visiting.
Sadan Cave. The largest of the caves, Sadan is filled with payas, Buddha statues & nat shrines in it’s entrance area. This is before you walk under the mountain, across hundreds of years of spongy (but not smelly) bat guano, to scramble out at a small lake on the other side. From here you can catch small boats back through another small cave & along canals around to the entrance.
Kaw Ka Taung Caves. This is both a religious spot, and a mass swimming pool area, surrounded by restaurants. An extensive plot of serried Buddha statues is visible just before the main car parking area.
Yathaypayan & Kawgun Caves. Kawgun cave was first established as a religious site in the 7th century. Wall paintings, relief sculptures and some impressive entrance carving are all worth investigating, with a series of shrines inside the cave. Yathaypayan is smaller, but offers the opportunity to scramble through the cave to an overlooking viewpoint at the far side of the mountain,
Kyauk Kalap Paya. Sitting atop a fantastical twist of limestone this is the most iconic image of Hpa An region. The lake surrounding it is man made. A very busy spot for domestic tourists, there are bustling nat shrines part way up, before the ascent to the summit. A quieter monastery is across a bridge to one side.
Kaw Ka Thuang Cave is another busy centre for local worshipers. There are actually three caves here. I can’t describe the interiors – one long set of steps in the heat too far on the day – but an interesting & somewhat weird conglomeration of buildings & statuary surrounds a pool at the base of the ascent. Note the boat shaped building on the left of the photo below for example. Very good for people watching.
Nuts & bolts – Hpa An
Transport. Hpa An is basically accessible by road, unless you opt for the river trip to & from Mawlamyine. It’s a relatively straightforward drive from Yangon, and so a popular weekend trip for locals & expats. The new Thai funded highway makes the drive to the Thai border at Mae Sot less than 4 hours – putting Hpa An firmly on the overland travel agenda for backpackers.
The town itself is quite spread out over numerous hills, with the traditional traveller accommodation clustered near the old & new markets, which is a busy but pretty uninspiring part of town. Staying a bit further out gives a better ambience, with good local tea shops & lunch joints available, provided you can mime a bit. Oddly, tuk tuks around town can be difficult to find or hail down.
Accommodation & food. Hpa An, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t have a great range, with most aimed firmly at the lower end of the market. The Hotel Gabana is the poshest place in town; though the food is ordinary, they have beer, and tea shops are over the road by the fire station & monastery. There are one or two fancy places out of town, but these require your own car to get anywhere. Apart from various tea shops it actually isn’t a great town for food either, with many options seeming to have idiosyncratic opening days & times.