"By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin' lazy at the sea…," wrote Rudyard Kipling on his 1889 visit and we reckon probably not a lot has changed since in this very sleepy, yet absolutely charming town. Moulmein, officially renamed Mawlamyine, was in former times the British capital of Lower Burma, and is now capital of Burma's Mon State and even officially weighs in these days as the country's fourth largest city (after Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw), though it seems to be barely a city and certainly not large.
Yes, there is the occasional newer concrete construction, notably a truly hideous line of shophouses along the waterfront, but there's few buildings over three or four storeys high, a plethora of Victorian period architecture, a couple of the country's most venerable mosques and of course all Kipling's splendid old pagodas.
The waterfront is lively, with fishing boats and passenger ferries departing and arriving from all points, and a couple of great markets, but otherwise it's a delight to just wander the quiet, tree-lined streets wondering which buildings would have been around when George Orwell was part of Mawlamyine's police force.
Mawlamyine is situated some 300 kilometres southeast of Yangon on the southern side of the mighty Salween, overlooking the river's scenic estuary and Gulf of Martaban. It's very much the gateway to the long narrow ribbon of southern, peninsular Burma wedged between the Tenassarim Ranges to the east forming the Thai border and the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean to the west.
There's a great feel to this cosmopolitan little town. Watch the world go by from market tea shops, check out the sunsets from waterfront cafes, look lazy at the sea from ancient hill-top pagodas and meet what we reckon are some of the friendliest of the country's inhabitants; this can easily keep most visitors happy for a couple of days plus quite a few visit-worthy sites are located within easy striking range of town.
We found enough good and varied cafes and eateries to keep you going for a few days too but nowhere's perfect -- and Mawlamyine's downside is a rather pitiful accommodation choice.
The layout of this town of some 300,000 people reflects the country's geography in these parts, which is to say long and thin, and stretching north-south along the coastline. The sea -- the Gulf of Martaban -- forms the western limits and the Salween River (spanned by the spectacular Than-Lwin Bridge) prevents Mawlamyine expanding northwards, with the central and oldest part of the town being sandwiched between the sea and a range of low wooded hills atop which sit the string of famous old pagodas.
Strand Road runs along the busy waterfront with three more parallel roads behind it: Lower Main Road, Baho Street and Upper main Road. Much of the commercial and market areas are concentrated along Lower Main Road while the Upper version already has a suburban feel to it, with larger old villas and colonial period administrative buildings set among trees and with lanes leading off upwards to access the hilltop pagodas.
Behind these low hills spreads the newer part of town, which includes the train and bus stations. At present it's still limited in size but development is afoot, with new industrial zones and shopping malls planned. Beyond the Rangoon-Dawei railway line paddy and rubber plantations stretch off to the eastern horizon, where the spectacular limestone hills of Hpa-an can be seen.
Mawlamyine certainly stretches a long way down the coast to the south, but the central district which contains most of the sites visitors would be likely to visit is relatively compact and much can be done on foot. The town's low on traffic, high on greenery, has plenty of old buildings scattered about and makes for a very agreeable spot for a wander.
By Mark Ord