"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 rather sleepy and charming old town. Moulmein, now renamed Mawlamyine, was in former times the capital of British Lower Burma. It’s now the capital of Mon State and weighs in as the country's fourth largest city after Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, though on the ground it barely seems more than a large town.
There is the occasional more recent concrete construction -- notably a truly hideous line of shophouses along the waterfront -- but few buildings stretch higher than three or four storeys and a plethora of splendid colonial period architecture remains, along with a couple of the country's most venerable mosques and of course all Kipling's picturesque old pagodas.
The waterfront is lively, with fishing boats, river taxis and passenger ferries departing and arriving from all points, and a couple of great markets close by. 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.
There's a great feel to this cosmopolitan little town. In the morning you’ll hear Pali chanting from pagodas, calls to prayer from minarets and pealing bells from both Catholic and Protestant churches. Watch the world go by from the market tea shops, check out the sunsets from waterfront cafes, look lazy at the sea from ancient hilltop pagodas and meet a few locals -- we reckon they are among the friendliest of the country's inhabitants. This alone ought to keep most visitors happy for a day or two, and though the city itself isn’t blessed with too many tourist sights as such, the surrounding area certainly is.
Mawlamyine lies some 300 kilometres southeast of Yangon on the southern side of the mighty Than Lwin River, overlooking the scenic estuary and Gulf of Martaban. It's very much the gateway to the long, narrow ribbon of southern, peninsular Burma, wedged between the Tenasserim ranges to the east on the Thai border and Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean to the west. The population is very mixed with Bamar, Mon, Sino-Burmese and a large ethnic Indian population. Offshore islands are largely inhabited by Mon while the interior hills are home to many Karen villages.
Hpa-An lies a short bus ride or scenic boat trip east while north the highway passes Thaton and Bago on its way into Yangon. Just offshore to the west is Bilu Island. Thanbyuzayat township is around 60 kilometres south with several noteworthy sites lying between, such as Win Sein Taw Ya Giant Buddha and Kyauktalon Taung Pagoda. The bustling little market town of Thanbyuzayat was the terminus of the infamous Death Railway from Thailand’s Kanchanaburi. It now hosts a large Allied war cemetery plus a new Death Railway Museum.
Just west of Thanbyuzayat is the old coastal town of Amherst, now Kyaikkami, with its picturesque Yele Pagoda. A similar distance southwest of town is scenic Setse Beach. It's long been popular with locals but it now also offering a smart midrange resort. Note that Setse is the only spot with licensed accommodation until you reach Ye, a further two or so hours south enroute to Dawei.
The layout of the town reflects the country's geography in these parts, which is to say long and thin and stretching north-south along the coastline. The sea, here the Gulf of Martaban, forms the western limits. The Than Lwin River -- formerly the Salween, and spanned by the spectacular Than Lwin Bridge -- prevents Mawlamyine expanding northwards. The central and oldest part of the town is sandwiched between the sea and a range of wooded hills, atop which sit the string of famous old pagodas. Beyond the hills lies the newer part of town, where a large hospital and the main bus and train stations are found. Across the Dawei to Yangon railway line paddies and rubber plantations stretch towards the karst mountains of Hpa-An, which are just visible on the horizon.
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 has a suburban feel to it, with large old villas and colonial-period administrative buildings set amid leafy gardens. Winding lanes lead off upwards to the hilltop pagodas.
Mawlamyine stretches a way down the coast to the south, but the central district, which contains most of the sights visitors would be likely want to see, is relatively compact. Most can be explored on foot. The old 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.
The post office is on the central section of Baho Street, with the police station close by down on Strand Road. Banks are concentrated on Lower Main Road, particularly in the northern part near the Central and New Markets. Officially Mawlamyine claims a population of 300,000 but that’s the total administrative district, including outlying communities -- it has a decidedly large town rather than small city feel.
Tours in and around Mawlamyine
Since Mawlamyine’s sights are widely scattered, public transport isn’t the best and renting a motorbike isn't that easy and not for everyone anyway, signing up for an organised tour is a good way to maximum your time and minimise your outlay. Breeze has been running organised tours for some time now, both to Bilu Island and sites south of Mawlamyine towards Thanbyuzayat. Elegant Myanmar Tours at the Dawei Jetty propose exhaustive, albeit exhausting looking tours taking in just about every sight we cover here, both in and around town, in a single day tour by SUV. That includes all the in-town sights and temples plus the giant reclining Buddha, Thanbyuzayat and Setse too. Considering everything it includes, the 65,000 kyat per person price isn’t bad. If you have limited time it's ideal, but you may well need the following day to recover. They also have shorter tours by tuk tuk which take in Mawlamyine city sights, venturing as far as Win Sein Taw Ya Buddha, as well as leisurely day trips around Bilu Island.
Breeze Guesthouse: 6 Strand Rd T: (057) 21450, (098) 701180
Elegant Myanmar Tours: Strand Rd, Dawei Jetty; T: (094) 2536 6111, (099) 7882 2339, (094) 2110 7472; elegantmyanmar.travel/
By Mark Ord. Last updated on 23rd June, 2016.