The Mon State in southeastern Myanmar (Burma) offers great off-the-beaten-track adventures. Head down to Mawlamyine, Set Se Beach, Hpa-An (in neighbouring Kayin State), Kyaikhto, Bago, and return to Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. This region is off the “standard tourist trail” so in some areas you may travel for many days without seeing another foreign traveller. The tourist infrastructure is rather insignificant, but there are hotels and guesthouses mainly focused on local tourists and business people. Public transportation is an experience in itself! Take the train only if you have a strong stomach as even some locals puke when the train shakes out of control at just 20 km per hour.
The first time I visited Myanmar was in July 2006 and at that time I promised myself that I will be back very soon. Well, it took me almost seven years to return. This time I promised that I will be back in less than a year! Myanmar has grabbed the title of “Land of Smiles (LOS)” from Thailand as this must be the friendliest country I have ever visited.
While I found during my 2013 trip more tourists than back in 2006, tourists are still quite scarce, in particular around the off-the-beaten places I visited in Mon State.
My December 2012 / January 2013 trip started in the capital Yangon, from where I took a crazy 13-hour train ride to Mawlamyine towards the southeast from where I explored the areas as far south as Set Se Beach. From Mawlamyine I travelled by long-boat up to Hpa-An where I stayed a few days and then headed northwest to the Golden Rock near Kyaikhto and after a steep mountain climb, I went east to Bago and then back to Yangon.
I chose this route because back in 2006 I did all the main scenic areas such as Inle Lake, Mandalay (and the areas around town, as well as much further north), and Bagan. Now in 2012/13 I decided to venture well off the beaten tracks to avoid any tourists during the New Year holidays. Well, I sure did come across only a few Western tourists who thought like me!
Yangon has certainly changed over the past seven years. While it is still a third world city, I noticed some new upper scale shops, restaurants and hotels. This makes me think back to my very first visit to Saigon, Vietnam 16 years ago. At that time Saigon looked like it has not changed over the past 50 years. There were thousands of bicycles, Lambretta scooters and rickshaws. Now, most of these are all gone.
Yangon is unquestionably heading in the same direction of development as Saigon and soon famous brands will replace the local Burmese shops. Fortunately, within the Yangon city limits, it is illegal to drive motorbikes as they have been banned by the government a few years ago. This ban truly is a blessing (at least to us visitors walking and breathing in the streets). So with these laws in place, Yangon is quite a pleasant city compared with other cities around the world at a similar level of development.
Walking around the streets of Yangon is such a pleasant experience. People are friendly and curious, lots of interesting shops and architecture. Take the famous circular train up north to Danyingon station for the wholesale veggies and fruit market. Another culture shock awaits here!
In Yangon, go for lunch (not breakfast or dinner) to the Aung Thukha traditional Myanmar restaurant. It is a very local restaurant with the occasional foreigner who comes to enjoy Burmese food like the locals do.
From Yangon’s beautiful (exterior building) main train station a nine to 14 hours shaky, very shaky, train ride terminates in the interesting town of Mawlamyine.
Mawlamyine is famous for the Pa Auk Taw Ya Meditation Monastery. Go in the mid-morning to help out with preparing and serving lunch to the approximately 700 monks. Most monks don’t mind being photographed though you should respect them as they are not on display for your happy snappy flash photography. However, be careful not to take any photos of the old German monk. He will yell at you, though he may be gone by the time you arrive. Around town and just outside town are many temples, sitting and lying Buddha statues, pagodas, stupas, and more.
Check out the Kyaik-Than-lan Pagoda, U Zina Pagoda, Mahamuni Pagoda, and the Gaungsay Kyun. On the hill just above town are some amazing old monasteries with friendly monks.
South of Mawlamyine is the famous and very large Reclining Buddha of Win Sein Taw Ya at Yadana Taung. Also check out the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery and the Death Railway in Thanbyuzayat.
From Mawlamyine take a longboat shared with five or six other travellers. After checking in at the popular Soe Brothers Guesthouse, head over to the San Ma Tu Restaurant for some of the greatest Burmese food in Myanmar.
Na village is great for sunrise or sunset photos. Ditto for Kan Thar Yar Lake just outside town! Do make sure to climb Mount Zwegabin from the east side (start no later than 7 AM) and then down the west side. You will be sorry if you don’t follow my advice.
KYAIKHTO OR THE GOLDEN ROCK
From Hpa-large heavy-duty trucks take the pilgrims up to near the top of the mountain. Do not sit in the back of the truck. Ask the driver to sit in the front, even if he charges a bit more. Some of these drivers have no respect for the people in the back and sitting in the back may be your worst experience ever, though some travellers have reported it as “the experience of a lifetime!” The ride takes 45 minutes to get to near the summit from where you walk another 30 minutes. Do not walk all the way from the village to the top. Rather walk down the small path all the way back to the village. This is about a 5-hour walk as you likely will stop many times along the route to have a laugh with the locals. This is a great experience!
From Kyaikhto take a bus to the town of Bago which is packed with interesting sites, including more pagodas, temples, stupas and monasteries. However, even though I thought I had seen enough of these, I found that Bago offered some very interesting experiences. In addition to all the sites listed in your guidebook, check out the normally non-listed ShweGule Maha Paduma Teaching Monastery.
After two or three days in Bago, hop back on that shaky train for another interesting ride back to Yangon. Make sure to go back to the Aung Thukha traditional Myanmar restaurant!
Travel all over Myanmar is improving slightly as more tourists are arriving. At this stage, it is best to rent a car and driver to reach some areas. Between main cities take the shaky train for a surreal experience. Flying remains expensive as foreigners are charged a steep premium fare though it is the best option for long-distance travel.
Myanmar is quite safe. Remain street-smart and you should be fine. Crime against foreigners has been (and hopefully still is) severely punished.
Currently Myanmar has a major shortage of tourist accommodation in some areas. If you travel to popular destinations such as Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan, you need to book well in advance during high and peak season. Most, but not all, people love to be photographed, so go ahead and make their day.
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