With a magnificent, largely untouched coastline, jungle interior and a sprinkling of islands, Burma’s Dawei region more than anywhere else along this coastline has enormous potential for tourism.
Despite being Tanintharyi region’s capital and administrative centre, old Tavoy town itself is much smaller than either Mawlamyine or Myeik and has a very laidback, almost sleepy feel to it. Arriving from either of its noisy neighbours, Dawei may come as something of a surprise. The town is separated from the Andaman Sea by the narrow, beach-lined Dawei Peninsula. The eponymous swampy river, aside which the town is built, forms the eastern side of the peninsula and runs south to meet the coast in a murky, mangrove-filled estuary.
The compact town lies on flat land and comprises a couple of north-south and east-west running streets in a neat grid system. There’s none of Mawlamyine’s hills or Myeik’s curves – the provincial capital is orderly and one of the tidiest, cleanest towns we’ve seen in Burma. Locals sweep shop terraces and tend villa gardens while municipal workers clean streets and meticulously paint colour-coded curb-side bollards. Neither does the town centre have much of the new construction you’ll see in Myeik. Apart from a few hotels, there’s little to break up the homogenous low roof-line.
Much of the town looks like it hasn’t changed in years; Dawei is considered to possess one of the best stocks of colonial-era buildings of any Burmese provincial town. More than half of the town centre’s buildings date from the British era when it was known as Tavoy and you’ll still hear some locals refer to it by that name today. It does function as a small river port but perhaps lacking the extensive harbours of its neighbours, must have been a tranquil administrative post rather than a bustling trading and commercial port under colonial rule.
All this adds up to a highly agreeable town. Friendly locals aren’t as full on with their non-stop mingalabars as in brash Myeik, nor is there the volume of tourists of increasingly popular Mawlamyine. With a convenient land crossing open to Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province (see below) and word starting to seep through, things will change rapidly since Dawei has a major advantage over ‘M and M’: its beaches.
Although you’ll find fabulous beaches all the way up this coastline, even without counting its islands, Dawei has spectacular sandy bays and kilometres of beach just a short distance away across the peninsula. The closest and main one, Maungmakan, is already highly popular with locals. The central section is lined with beer stations and restaurants and is home to a guesthouse and beach resorts. North and south are pristine stretches of idyllic coastline. Your first reaction will probably be, ‘Wow!’ And your second, ‘What’s this place going to look like in 10 years?’
Offshore lie the Moscos Islands. This is a much smaller archipelago than Mergui but one that does have wildlife sanctuary status, so it is hopefully better conserved than some of the isles further south. For now it remains sensibly off limits. Inland are the hills and forest of Tanintharyi National Park stretching all the way past Myeik, where it backs on to Thailand’s awesome Kaeng Krachan National Park.
Dawei is also the name of the local ethnic group. If we understood correctly in the brand new and very interesting Tanintharyi Cultural Museum, they’re a proto-Burmese group who arrived in the region around the same time as the Pyu in what is now central Burma. Today they make up the town’s main ethnic group along with Bamar and the usual Chinese and Indian minorities. Inland are Karen and up the coast, Mon. Dawei also possesses the eclectic history familiar to other Andaman coastal towns, with Portuguese, Dutch and Thai influences felt before the British arrival in the early 19th century. Being so close to Siam, Dawei fell under their control for lengthy periods. The museum has plenty of information on the ancient settlement of the region, when it played an important part in early Indo-Chinese maritime trade as well as being an overland gateway to the cities of the Chao Phraya lowlands.
A word of warning: Dawei is reputed to be, along with Sittwe, Burma’s wettest area. At the head of a flat, low-lying estuary and with hills lying just east and west, monsoon rains off the Indian Ocean get funnelled onto Dawei. Combined with the swollen river flowing down from the mountainous interior, much of the town centre is regularly under water during the rainy season.
Get to Dawei before everyone else does! Even if you’re not a beach fan, the town itself presents a perfect contrast to Mawlamyine and Myeik. There’s good accommodation and food, motorbike hire plus little traffic so a fine base to explore the region for a few days.
Dawei to Thailand
The land crossing between Htee Klee and Pum Nam Ron in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province is now officially open to foreign travellers.
Htee Klee is four to five hours east of Dawei on a not too bad road while Pum Nam Ron is 90 minutes southwest of Kanchanaburi on a good road. Visas on arrival for Burma are not issued at the border and e-visas are not accepted so you will need a stick-on one in your passport in advance. If you have one then in theory there’s no fee to pay.
Around six kilometres of no man’s land lies between the two immigration posts and though normally Thai minibuses pick up and drop off at the Burmese side if you’re stuck a moto-taxi will sting you for 100 baht or so for the transfer. Arriving from Dawei you’ll find Thai minibus desks in the border carpark – in theory departing hourly but in reality whenever they are full – and which will wait while you obtain your Thai entry stamp on the other side of no man’s land. Be warned that on quiet days you can wait a while.
From the Thai side, minibuses will drop you at Kanchanaburi bus station with its regular service to Bangkok. Leaving early, it’s straightforward enough to do Dawei to Bangkok in a day in either direction. Do not leave it late though since afternoon minibus services get very thin on the ground, or in the Burmese case become non-existent. It’s best to avoid having to stay overnight at Htee Klee’s basic guesthouse.
Though we can’t vouch for the service, the operator Go-Southern Myanmar have a direct Bangkok to Dawei minibus service for 1,600 baht per person departing Khao San Road 09:30 and arriving early evening. We do strongly suspect they have problems filling up their minibuses so scheduling is likely to be erratic, but as visitor numbers to Dawei increase this service will improve too. They accept online bookings.
Go-Southern Myanmar also runs the Explore Dawei Peninsula day trip, taking in various beaches, pagodas and even a waterfall in the interior, plus a guided tour of a local market and fishing villages. A day tour of the peninsula, not including lunch but including drop-off and pick-ups at your hotel costs 62,000 kyat each for two; 51,000 each for four to six or 44,000 kyat for seven or more.
Note too that as of early 2016, Three Pagodas’ Pass further north is not an official crossing point.
Go-Southern Myanmar Thailand: T: (082) 192 2488, (090) 445 5647; Dawei: T: (059) 21341 go-southernmyanmar.com/go_dawei
Tiny Dawei consists of three main north-south streets, Bogyoke, Ye and Pakauku Kyaung (with a variety of spelling) Roads, plus two principal east-west ones, Niban and Arzarni. Filling in the grid between the main axis are quiet, leafy residential lanes, many of which are lined with colonial-period villas. To the west lies the swampy Dawei River; south and east the town fizzles out rapidly into paddy and farms. Newer development is happening north of the centre along the river and close to the bridge. The central area of town is all easily explored on foot.
Arzarni is home to the town’s main markets, as well as some splendid old colonial municipal buildings, and leads down to the riverside jetties. The Myeik highway forks off the eastern end of it. Bogyoke seems to have been the main commercial thoroughfare in earlier times and is still lined with shophouses and old trading company offices. Today it is home to a couple of Dawei’s better restaurants. Its northern extension heads off to the bridge over the Dawei River and on to the coast.
Nowadays the commercial action seems to have moved to Niban, which has a KBZ bank with ATM and change facilities as well as the main airline offices. Shwe Taung Zar Pagoda, the most important in the town centre, is located to the north of the eastern end of Niban. Ye Road, cutting through the middle, has most of the town’s accommodation on or adjacent to it.
The town hospital is to the east along the continuation of Niban while an impressive new one has just been completed as of early 2016 north of town, just before the bridge. Further out, to the northeast, are the bus station and airport. Police are on Arzarni Road while the post office is behind the southeast corner of the junction of Ye and Arzarni.
Over the bridge, the road leads the 12 kilometres across the peninsula’s range of low hills to Maungmakan and the coast, while the Myeik highway takes you a few kilometres out of town to Shwe Thalyaung Pagoda and a giant reclining Buddha. Mawlamyine is 331 kilometres north and Myeik around 250 kilometres south.
By Mark Ord . Last updated on 24th June, 2016.