“By the old Moulmein pagoda, looking lazy at the sea …”
On arrival in Yangon from Bagan we had a 5 hour car journey to the seaport of Mawlamyine, pronounced Moulmein by the British including George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling! It is Myanmar’s third largest city, some 100 + miles south east of Yangon. To get a more comfortable ride we changed cars and arrived safely late in the evening, our driver having negotiated buffalo carts, trishaws, scooters, lorries, pedestrians all at large in the dark. En route we crossed the busy junction of ‘The Road to Mandalay’ that runs north from Yangon. Mawlamyine is just west of the confluence of 2 major rivers, and the home to the 2nd biggest prison in Myanmar, occupied by political prisoners. There are also has several pagodas on the hills to the east of the town, one of which we could view at night from our balcony at the quirky Cinderella Hotel!
Gaungse Kyun nicknamed ‘Shampoo Island’ is a small island beside the railway bridge at the confluence of three rivers. At the monastery we watched novice monks loudly chanting words that Buddhists must know by heart. We managed to take photos of the children even though they were extremely camera shy. Uniquely, this is the only monastery we know of where monks and nuns live side by side.
To the south of Mawlamyine is Pa Auk Taw Ya Monastery, one of the largest meditation centres in the country. It is set in the hills where foreigners can stay with a special visa for up to three months with no charge, so we found most signs in several languages.
The way monks live does take some time getting one’s head around. Monks wear a maroon habit, nuns wear pink. All have their heads shaven, and generally walk barefoot. Children whose parents cannot afford to support and educate them enter the monastery, as do orphans who wear white. All Buddhist males have to spend two periods of time at a monastery, the second to be ordained. Afterwards they return to their families, unless they want to live the life of a monk. It is a very simple life, with set rules, like not eating too much, not being aggressive, and abstaining from life’s pleasures! Very few monks in the monasteries acknowledge our presence; smiles are rare, presumably because their focus is on a higher plane. To us it seems a rather sad existence.
The 2nd largest reclining Buddha in the world, Win Sein Taw Ya lies 24km south of Mawlamyine near Mudon. Currently undergoing extensive restoration, the 30m high statue dominates the surrounding countryside; the avenue leading to the site is lined with statues of monks carrying their alm bowls.
We visited other pagodas, notably Kyaik Thanlan, whilst here, and watched the sun set across the river and far away mountains, unfortunately marred by the heavy air pollution from open log fires and traffic. It was at Kyaik Thanlan that Kipling found inspiration for his ‘Mandalay’ having been so impressed with the city in 1889 after a stay of only three days. Orwell’s roots run deeper; his mother was born in Mawlamyine and his maternal grandmother, who originally came from France, was still living there when her grandson was posted as a colonial policeman in 1926.
On our last day we were taken to a beautiful teak monastery deep in the countryside at U Na Ouk village, which boasted ornate carving. It was created by merchant who had become rich through teak production in 1920, and built the monastery as a thank you.
On northwards to the Kyauk Ka Lat pagoda on a lake, a nano version of Mt Popa; then 1020 buddhas at the base of a mountain climb to Mt Zwegabin; and finally the impressive Kawgun limestone cave near Hpa-An. Kawgun was constructed by a king in 7thC after he had to take sanctuary there. In more recent times a cement factory was built nearby, which sadly started dynamiting nearby peaks in search for limestone. Consqeuently vibrations caused some of the art to shatter.
Ours was a packed itinerary before starting the 3 hour drive back to Yangon where we had another overnight stay and meandered around Scotts Market before our flight to Bangkok.
This area of the Mon state really is rural and a road less travelled. It was refreshing to be taken to wonderful sights without being amongst crowds. Our guide took us to restaurants where locals eat as opposed to those geared up to tourists – delicious food at a fraction of the price and no ill effects!