In conjunction with an invitation to attend the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Nay Pyi Taw at the end of January, I decided to take a long-awaited and planned overland trip to southern Myanmar to explore and survey a “Buddha Land” region with a myriad of golden glittering pagodas.
To reach the most southernmost point of Myanmar opposite Ranong in southern Thailand, I flew from Bangkok to Ranong after getting a 28-day tourist visa at the Myanmar embassy in the Thai capital (1,035 baht).
Ranong, the capital of the province of the same name, is about 600 kilometres south of Bangkok and 300km north of Phuket. Cascading down from the rainforest mountain slopes on the eastern side of the province are several waterfalls and hot mineral springs for people to relax and rejuvenate. Caves abound, while in the west is the mangrove- fringed coast of the Andaman Sea sprinkled with dozens of islands, including Koh Chang. Tourism is becoming an important industry in the province, after tin mining, forestry and fishery.
After overnighting in the town, I took a tuk tuk (20 baht) to the port and after clearing immigration I was directed to a boat that for a fare of 100 baht ferries passengers across the Pak Chan River, to the southernmost Myanmar town of Kawthaung. The boat passed an island in the river with a standing statue of Kuan Yim before we disembarked at Strand Road within half an hour of leaving the port of Ranong.
Next to Kawthaung’s busy Myoma Pier is the Immigration checkpoint. The staff are welcoming and give advice on accommodation. They recommended the Penguin Hotel where I took a single room for 400 baht. I used the afternoon to go sightseeing and took a “moto taxi” to the top of a hill that affords a view of the town and its big market.
Old wooden houses abound and the many examples of colonial architecture include a clock tower. On top of the hill is the golden Pyi Daw Aye Pagoda and breathtaking views of the town and surrounding area.
Another sight worth seeing is Bayint Naung Point, formerly called Victoria Point, where in a park a short walk from town is a bronze statue of King Bayint Naung (who reigned 1551-1581).
At an office on Strand Road I booked a ticket for a speed boat trip early the next morning to Myeik (US$45) and had a “fried squid” dinner at the popular Smile Restaurant. There are yachts for hire that take travellers from Kawthaung to explore the 800-island Myeik Archipelago, for which you need a permit. Most trips are for five days and include stops at villages of the Moken people, sometimes referred to as “sea gypsies”, who depend on the sea for their livelihood.
The Hifi Express speed boat left Myoma Pier at 4.30am for the six-hour journey along the rugged coast to Myeik. It is a compact town built around a hill with an elongated island just offshore. I was greeted on Strand Road by a German-speaking guide called James Bond who led me to the new Royal Myeik Guesthouse, where I checked in for three nights ($13 a night).
Myeik is a busy port town and is well-known for its booming fishing and pearl farming industries and trade in birds’ nest. There’s a huge dock on the Tanintharyi River, about 20km north of the north, where big fishing vessels are built and repaired. In the area around the central market, which is closed on Sunday, is an interesting range of buildings, including mosques, British colonial architecture, Mon-style wooden houses and the old villas of Chinese merchants. Myeik was once part of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and a British freebooter, Admiral Samuel White, exported elephants from the city to India. His adventures are featured in a book by the British author Maurice Collis called “Siamese White”, that is recommended reading for those interested in the town’s history.
Myeik is dominated by the golden spire of the impressive Thein Daw Gyi Pagoda and its hilltop site is a treasure house of local arts. The pagoda platform is a fine vantage point to watch a beautiful sunset. A pleasant way to end your day is the night market on Strand Road where you can enjoy excellent local food and the drinks options include “avocado” fruit shakes.
Other attractions in and around Myeik are the Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha image on Pahtaw Pahtet Island opposite the port. In town is an old British clock tower, a statue of Bogyoke Aung San and the Independence Monument. There is also Roman Catholic church dating to the 18th century. On the eastern periphery of the town are the Myeik University , Myeik Golf Course and the airport, with flights to Kawthaung, Dawei, Mawlamyaing and Yangon. A new road is being planned that will travel east via the old town of Tanintharyi and across the mountains to Mawdaung and the border checkpoint at Singkhon in Thailand’s Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. When the road is built it will provide a link to Myeik from southern Thailand.
There were no speed boats travelling the 250km north from Myeik to the Tanintharyi Region capital, Dawei, because of bad weather so I opted for a local bus which cost $8. The bus departed at 3am from the new Hotel Grand Jade and took eight hours to reach Dawei. The road, which is still being built in places, winds through a scenic mountainous region and passes rubber and oil palm plantations and tiny villages surrounded by betel and coconut palms.
Dawei is on a river of the same name and is some distance from the open sea. There is no river front and only a few houses near a fish market. The speed boats from Myeik ($25 a head) take four hours to reach the port that serves Dawei. The bus ride to the town takes about an hour. Dawei is protected from the sea by a long peninsula at the end of which is a cape graced by the Shwe Maw Taung Pagoda.
Accompanied in a tuk tuk by two young German backpackers, we travelled to the town centre, where we took nice rooms in the Garden Hotel [$13, including breakfast]. We discovered that Dawei is an interesting town to explore on foot and stayed for four nights. On my first stroll through the laidback town I met a German entrepreneur who plans to establish a travel agency in Dawei because of its future tourism potential. He told me that Thai and foreign tourists were already using a road that heads east to a border checkpoint at Htee Khee, about 170km away. From the border the road leads to Kanchanaburi and beyond to Bangkok. We dined together that evening at a Thai restaurant called Joy House.
Local boat building. Photo: AX
That afternoon I visited the big town market before proceeding to the Dawei tourist office where staff officer, U Thet Naing Htwe, briefed me on plans for the ambitious deep-sea port and special economic zone about 50km north of Dawei which will surely have a social and environmental impact on the region. The plan calls for Dawei to be the western end of an east-west corridor linking southern Myanmar with Thailand and southern Vietnam.The next day, after a visit to an internet café, I had lunch in a pleasant beer garden in the grounds of a old colonial guesthouse named Pale Eikari. Its owner, U Kyaw Win, is building a seven-storey hotel next door and wants to use the guesthouse as its restaurant.
On January 14, we joined an organised tour ($25 a head) to the nearby peninsula and travelled a rough road through dusty villages and markets to a lonely fishing village on the Andaman Sea coast. In the afternoon we enjoyed a boat ride to pristine beaches where we snorkelled and swam in crystal-clear water. We had the beach to ourselves and it was wonderful. After quenching our thirst with a coconut we took the four-hour return journey back to Dawei.
On the last day of our stay, we visited the beach paradise of Maung Ma Kan, which is about 17km from Dawei and said to be one of the most beautiful beaches on the Andaman coast. The water is crystal clear and tranquil, like a pond. In a restaurant called “Love Angel” we had a Thai-style papaya salad, washed down with Myanmar Beer.
A spectacular sunset mirrored strange colours in the water. Along the long beach are palm huts used by fishermen whom you can watch hauling in their catch. A short distance away, towards stony hills, is the Myaw Yit Pagoda.
A must-see attraction in Dawei is the centrally-located Shwe Taung Sar Pagoda in the compound with the town’s highest zedi, as well as monastery buildings and a Buddhist museum. Exhibits in the museum include ancient jewellery and pottery found in the area that are cited as evidence that Dawei was a Pyu city in the 8th century. Inscribed brick foundations at the former city of Thargaya, now Dawei Myohaung village, have led researchers to conclude that the Pyu people settled in the area.
We left Dawei by train, bound for the Mon State capital, Mawlamyaing, and eventually, Yangon. We travelled upper class for K6,050 on a train that departed Dawei at 5.40am. The scenery ranged from salt farms and then paddy fields, to mountainous terrain with thick bamboo forests. There were many boulders topped with golden chedis. The train was boarded by a security detail of soldiers before we reached Yeh, a reminder that this part of Myanmar was unsafe until recently and off-limits to tourists. We arrived in Yeh at 2pm, which was just enough time for lunch before we boarded a train to Mawlamyaing, where we arrived at 8.30pm.
I farewelled my new German friends, who were continuing their journey north, took a moto-taxi to the Breeze Guesthouse on Strand Road ($8 a night) and had a late seafood dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Thanlwin (Salween) River. My itinerary the next day included a visit to the Mon Cultural Museum to buy a translation of the “Chronicle of the Mons”. Then I strolled to the U Zin Pagoda and the famous Kyaik Tan Lan Pagoda, which has relics of the Lord Buddha. This is the region described by the Mon as Suvannabhumi, or “Golden Land”, and it includes gilded pagodas at Thaton, Bago and even in Yangon.
Before leaving Mawlamyaing, I revisited the Mon Cultural Museum to make copies of old gazetteers about Dawei and Myeik in its library. I travelled upper class on the night train from Mawlamyaing to Yangon (K4,250), departing at 10pm and arriving in the commercial capital via Bago the next day at 7.30am.
I checked in to the Ocean Pearl III Guesthouse ($20 a night] and lost no time visiting some of Yangon’s finest attractions. They included the Botahtaung Pagoda on the Yangon River, the golden Sule Pagoda near the City Hall and the marvellous spectacle of the huge, shimmering chedi of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered of all the Buddhist sites in Myanmar.
On January 22 I caught a flight to Nay Pyi Taw to attend the ASEAN Tourism Forum. It took place from January 22 to 29 and will be another story.
This Article first appeared in the March 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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