Published: 25th June, 2016
If you’re “Lookin’ lazy at the sea” from Mawlamyine, then you’re looking at the point where the mighty Than Lwin merges into the island-studded Gulf of Martaban. The large, relatively flat island you see directly opposite and west of town is picturesque and fascinating Bilu Kyun (Bilu Island).
Bilu Island is known locally as Ogre Island; we heard several stories behind the name, with our favourite coming from an islander who reckoned that in ancient times locals were notorious for being particularly ugly. They liked to file their teeth to points and preferred to eat their meat raw, so became known to mainlanders as ogres…
These days the island is famous for its well-preserved and distinctive Mon culture. We found the residents charming and perfectly normal looking. Bilu is large, with more than 60 villages on the island. Rice paddies and rubber plantations provide a living for many and the locals also maintain a remarkable range of traditional cottage industries. The boat trip there is worth doing on its own; the scenery is bucolic and people extremely friendly. Visits to the local handicraft displays can provide a handy framework to your visit.
Too large to do on foot, your best bet is to sort out one of the local motorbike taxis, tuk tuks or, if you’re a larger group, hire one of the trucks that wait at the main island jetty at Nat Maw village. By the way: passports may or may not be checked at the Bilu jetty, so take at least a photocopy of yours. Some of the drivers speak some English and act as local guides and invaluable they are, too. Rates depend on how long you’d like to stay on the island, but roughly speaking expect to pay 10,000 to 12,000 kyat a day for a motorbike or around 25,000 to 35,000 for a tuk tuk or truck. For this, the driver will act as guide too.
The various island villages each have their own specialties which give a focal point to each village visit. We found many fascinating but don’t worry: Inle Lake this is not. There’s no hard sell or souvenir shops — indeed many places sold nothing at all and just seemed pleased to have some visitors — long may that last. Note that if you’re on an organised tour, then a contribution by the guide will be incorporated into the tour price, but if you’re on your own ask your driver about a donation.
See what your driver suggests, go with the flow and do note that many of the handicrafts that we initially pooh-poohed turned out to be the most interesting. Don’t miss the backyard rubber band making and other options include classic Burmese bamboo hat fabrication, tobacco pipes, cheroots, walking sticks, weaving and old fashioned slate writing boards. The slate quarries themselves are also sometimes included.
Tong Sone is the largest town. It has several curry, noodle and tea shops along its main street while more can be found at the nearby Nat Maw Jetty car park. There’s even a KBZ bank in Tong Sone with an ATM. Handicraft-wise, it’s known for its weaving. Nee Mote is the hat-making village, Mudon is known for slate and Wya Lut has the wood carving and rubber band making wrapped up.
At time of writing there is no accommodation for foreigners on Bilu Island. Information as to the last boat varied between 15:30 and 16:30, but if you do miss the last boat you will be obliged to hire your own — so don’t miss it!
The crossing takes from 30 minutes to an hour, depending upon which boat you take, and costs 2,000 kyat per person. Both government and private ferries make the crossing. The former departs from the jetty by the main market on Strand Road and the latter leaves from the Chaung Sone Jetty a couple of kilometres south of the town centre. Government ones are larger but slower. For a timetable, see our Mawlamyine travel section.
Breeze Guesthouse organises regular day trips for around $15 per person. Other hotels will find you a driver and vehicle. It is relatively easy to organise on your own, though. Either way, Bilu Island should not be missed.
As of early 2016, a new bridge is under construction to link the island and mainland. While that will make life easier for residents, it will also change the island. Completion is due some time in 2017; visit sooner rather than later.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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