Exploring Mon and Karen States

Exploring Mon and Karen States

This off-the-beaten-track suggested itinerary takes in fascinating yet rarely visited Mon and Karen States and the towns of Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Hpa-An. Not only would this be a great introduction to Burma for those with limited time, it would also be an excellent option for those who’ve already seen the country’s main sites and are looking for something a bit different. There are various combinations for this trip south from Yangon, and if abbreviated somewhat it could serve as a one-week tour or by extending it with a few days downtime at the beach, could be lengthened to a two-week trip.

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Moulmein sunset - worth going for the view alone!

Mawlamyine sunset — worth it for the view alone!

Day 1 would be your departure from Yangon Central Station. Trains run all the way to Mawlamyine, and of course plenty of buses make the journey as well, but doing this in one go does makes for quite a lengthy trip. We’d recommend going as far as Bago on perhaps the 08:00 express train. The rest of day 1 and start of day 2 would then be spent in Bago and visiting the Golden Rock. An overnight stay at the Rock allows you to take in both sunset and dawn. Depart the Golden Rock early enough to jump on a southbound bus for Mawlamyine.

Bago Station

Bago Station

Now Mawlamyine happens to be one our favourite spots in the whole country and we’d quite happily spend a week there. But for the purposes of this itinerary, we’re suggesting three nights.

Having arrived in town in time to catch the sunset on Day 2 (we’d recommend either from one of the hilltop temples or a riverside cafe), try one of our hand-picked guesthouse options for Mawlamyine.

Sunset from a waterfront cafe, Mawlamyine

Sunset from a waterfront cafe, Mawlamyine

On day 3, take a trip to Bilu Island. The island, one of Mawlamyine’s most interesting attractions, lies a mere 45-minute boat ride out in the Gulf of Martaban, so head down to the waterfront and hop on one of the frequent local ferries that make the crossing to Bilu or ‘Ogre’ Island. On arrival you’ll find youself in a small carpark surrounded by several coffee shops and lined by taxis of various forms: motos, tuk-tuks and trucks. Some of the drivers speak English and serve as island guides; price is negotiable depending upon how long you want your tour to be and which transport mode you select.

Your transport awaits, Bilu

Your transport awaits, Bilu

Bilu is predominantly ethnic Mon and is well known for its traditional culture and handicrafts, so your tour will consist of a visit to various Mon villages to check out some of the local cottage industries. It’s a great and relatively cheap day out, though if you are price conscious check with a Mawlamyine guesthouse such as Breeze to see if they are offering any organised trips themselves.

Note that while there are curry and noodle shops on the island there is no licensed accommodation so do not miss the last ferry back to the mainland or you’ll be in trouble. The last ferry officially departs from Bilu at 16:00 but don’t leave it to the last minute!

Local ferry to the island

Local ferry to the island.

The following day, day 4, we’d suggest an excursion to some of the sites lying south of town. Either sort out a taxi for the day or check with your guesthouse to see if any organised group trips are on offer. You should be able to find a taxi for around $60-$70 so it’s a good deal if you can find some fellow travellers to share with. This is is doable by public transport but a bit fiddly and you certainly wouldn’t have time to take in all the sights without your own steam.

Scenery on the Salween River

Scenery on the Salween River.

Regular buses do the short hop to nearby Hpa-An town, capital of Karen State, in under two hours but if you have time to spare on Day 5, enquire about the daily and highly picturesque boat trip up the Salween River. (At time of writing this cost 4,000 kyat and departed at 08:00 but please check first –things change fast.) You could rush around the area’s sights in a day, especially if you signed up for one of Soe Brother’s Guesthouse’s organised tours, but since the town itself is a delightful place to hang out in and the market one of our favourites in the country, we’d suggest a minimum of two days, three nights here. See our suggested places to stay in Hpa-An for an idea of accommodation options.

Scenery around Hpa-An

Scenery around Hpa-An.

When you’ve wrapped up in Hpa An, you’re looking at a five-hour or so return bus ride to Yangon.

Sunrise at Ngwe Saung

Sunrise at Ngwe Saung

If you’re keen to prolong your trip, both Ngwe Saung and Chaung Tha beaches are accessible by shared taxi or public bus from Yangon at six or seven h0urs respectively. Note that since there are not many direct buses to the beaches, it may be a lot quicker to take one of the frequent Pathein buses and change there for the short final hop to the coast.

Reviewed by

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.

More itineraries

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The region

This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.