Published/Last edited or updated: 25th June, 2016
One day when there’s a souvenir shop in Mawlamyine high street selling Mon handicrafts, maps and postcards, Yele Pagoda will feature heavily among the tourist cliches. The red-roofed, gleaming white and ochre monastery jutting into the sometimes turquoise, sometimes murky brown waters of the Bay of Bengal is one of Mon State’s most iconic views.
The quiet little coastal town of Kyaikkami was for a brief period after the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824-26 the capital of British Lower Burma. Today it’s a sleepy backwater. There’s a few old buildings, including what’s reputed to be Burma’s oldest church, some restaurants and tea shops, but the highlight is the spectacular and unusual Yele Pagoda.
The temple, dating to the early 19th century, perches on top of a natural rock promontory where a Buddha image washed ashore after floating on a raft all the way from Sri Lanka. The main shrine also houses some of Buddha’s hairs, so this is a site of considerable religious importance for locals — and a highly picturesque one for others. The monastery architecture in itself isn’t very exciting, but rather it’s the setting that’s amazing.
Limited to a pile of rocks just offshore, the temple complex is accordingly compact. It’s linked to the mainland by a covered walkway, along which monks’ quarters, annexes and minor shrines are squeezed. The causeway is dry in all but the highest equinox tides or bad storms, though high tide does completely fill the bay to the south. Note that at low tide, the bay turns into treacherous mudflats between the scattered mangroves, so we don’t recommend taking a short cut.
Do also be warned that women aren’t allowed access to the main shrine (this is not uncommon in Burma). Checking out the various vantage points and strolling slowly up the causeway can fill up an hour or so, but as locals will be quick to warn you, take care of the tides. A scenic beach stretches off southwards towards a small fishing village, so if you’ve got time on your hands there’s a decent and safe walk on offer, too. (It’s good for a dip at high tide but turns rather muddy and rocky when the tide ebbs.)
You’ll arrive at a clifftop car park and small stupa that affords great views over the bay and temple. From the stupa a flight of steps leads town to the beach. At low tide this path continues out to sea over rocks leading to a sala and viewpoint, but this is completely cut off by swirling waters as the sea comes in, so take heed or you’ll be stuck on that rock all night.
Otherwise follow the cliffs round to the right and you’ll come to a series of souvenir and Buddhist paraphernalia stores, beyond which you access the main walkway. On the seaward side of the monastery is another small stupa on its own separate rock — another easy spot to get marooned on.
Back by the car park are a series of restaurants and tea shops offering fried rice and noodle dishes as well as pre-cooked curries. You’ll also see the large and brand new Sea View Hotel between clifftop and car park and a cute little converted villa guesthouse back on the main street. As of early 2016 however, neither were licensed to accept foreign guests.
Kyaikkami has no regular direct public transport to Mawlamyine, so unless you’ve hired a taxi or motorbike or are visiting as part of an organised tour then you’ll need to change transport in Thanbyuzayat. The small town is around 10 kilometres from the centre of Thanbyuzayat and a moto-taxi should cost you about 4,000 kyat. In the mornings there may be pick-up buses between Kyaikkami and Thanbyuzayat market. From the market local buses ply the route back to Mawlamyine but watch the time since we were informed the last certain departure was around 15:00. Allow two hours and 1,500 kyat for these local buses.
Busier Mawlamyine hotels and guesthouses such as Breeze may organise day trips down this way including sites enroute and in Thanbyuzayat itself. It’s also a feasible day trip by motorbike. Whichever way you choose, it’s definitely worth the trip.
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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