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Myanmar's Mon State

The first time I visited Myanmar (Burma) was in July 2006 and at that time I promised myself that I will be back very soon. Well, it took me almost seven years to return. This time I promised that I will be back in less than a year!  Myanmar has grabbed the title of "Land of Smiles (LOS)" from Thailand as this must be the friendliest country I have ever visited.

While I found in my recent trip more tourists than back in 2006, tourists are still quite scares, in particular around the off-the-beaten places I just visited. My December / January 2013 trip started in the capital Yangon, from where I took a crazy 13-hour train ride to Mawlamyine towards the southeast from where I explored the areas as far south as Set Se Beach. From Mawlamyine I traveled by longboat north to Hpa-An where I stayed a few days and then headed northwest to the Golden Rock near Kyaikhto and after a steep mountain climb I went east to Bago and then back to Yangon.
I choose this route because back in 2006 I did all the main scenic areas such as Inle Lake, Mandalay (and the areas around town, as well as much further north), and Bagan. Now in 2012/13 I decided to venture more off the beaten track to avoid any tourists during the New Year holidays. Well, I sure did come across only a few Western tourists who thought like me!

Yangon has certainly changed over the past seven years. While it is still a third world city, I noticed some new upper scale shops, restaurants and hotels. This makes me think back to my very first visit to Saigon, Vietnam 16 years ago. At that time it looked like the city has not changed over the past 50 years. There were thousands of bicycles and three-wheeler cyclos around town. Its amazing how much Saigon changed since. If you now walk down some main streets you mostly see famous brand stores such as Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Burberry, Polo Ralph Lauren, Cartier, Chanel, Tumi, Bally, etc. And, all those thousands of environmentally friendly bicycles and cyclose have been replaced with smoking motorcycles! Seems like every soul in Vietnam now has a moto!  Yangon is unquestionably heading into the same direction of development and soon famous brands will replace the local Burmese shops. Fortunately, within the Yangon city limits, it is illegal to drive trishaws, bicycles, and motorcycles. In January 2013 the ban was lifted for twenty motorcycles for the traffic police in addition to two other government departments who may use a limited number of motorcycles. In additional, using a car horn in Yangon is also banned since 2003. This ban truly is a blessing (at least to us visitors walking and breathing in the streets). So with these laws in place, Yangon is quite a pleasant city compared with other cities around the world at a similar level of development. 

Walking around the streets of Yangon is such a pleasant experience. People are friendly and curious, lots of interesting shops and architecture to gaze at, and some lovely local eateries. In the outskirts of Yangon are some amazing markets where time truly has been standing still for a very long time. Be prepared for a culture shock. Hop on the circular train and get off at Insein station. Follow your nose and you will easily find this very large authentic market. Get back on the train in the same direction and get off at Danyingon station for the wholesale veggies and fruit market. Another culture shock awaits. 

In Yangon, go for lunch (not breakfast or dinner!) to the Aung Thukha Traditional Myanmar Food Restaurant at no. 17(A), 1st Street, West Shwegondaing, Bahan Township (ph: 525194). I loved the atmosphere and setting. Its a very local restaurant with the occasional foreigner who comes to enjoy Burmese food like the locals do it. 

From Yangon's interesting main train station a nine to 14 hours shaky, very shaky train ride terminates in the interesting town of Mawlamyine. Mawlamyine is famous for the Pa Auk Taw Ya Meditation Monastery. Go in the mid morning to help out with preparing and serving lunch to the approximately 700 monks. Most monks don't mind photography though you should respect them as they are not on display for your happy snappy flash photography. However, be careful not to take any photos of the old German monk. He WILL yell at you. Around town and just outside town are many temples, sitting and lying Buddhas, pagodas, stupas, and more. 

Check out the Kyaik-Than-lan Pagoda, U Zina Pagoda, Mahamuni Pagoda, Gaungsay Kyun. On the hill just above town are some amazing old monasteries with friendly monks. South of town is the Reclining Buddha of Win Sein Taw Ya at Yadana Taung. Towards Set Se Beach is the interesting Kyaikmaraw Paya on the beach. Stay over at Set Se Beach for a night or two. There is one or two places right on the beach that are allowed to accommodate foreigners. In the area check out the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery and the Death Railway in Thanbyuzayat.

From Mawlamyine take a longboat shared with 5 or 6 other travelers. Its about a two hour interesting ride upriver to the town of Hpa-An. First thing after you put down your bags at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse, is to head over to the San Ma Tu Restaurant for some of the greatest Burmese food I have had in Myanmar. 

Hpa-An is a lovely town to hang around for five days or even more. Walk around town especially around the very authentic markets and residential areas to mingle with the very friendly locals. Rent your own motorbike, or better, a guide with moto-taxi to take you around town to the interesting sites such as the caves (e.g. Yathaypyan Cave, Kawtgoon Cave, and Saddar Cave). Around Lat-ka-Na village is great for sunrise or sunset photos. Ditto for Kan Thar Yar Lake just outside town! Do make sure to climb Mount Zwegabin from the east side (start no later than 7am) and then down the west side. You will be sorry if you don't follow my advice. 

From Hpa-An take a bus to the town of Kyaikhto to see the amazing Golden Rock. Now listen carefully to my advice and do not deviate: At 4:45 AM you go to the truck station right in-town. They have large heavy duty tucks to take the pilgrims up to near the top. Do not sit in the back of the truck. Ask the driver to sit in the front, even if he charges a bit more. Some of these drivers have no respect for the people in the back and sitting in the back may be your worst experience ever. The ride takes 45 to get to near the summit from where you walk another 30 minutes or so. Do not walk all the way from the village to the top. Rather walk down the small path all the way back to the village. This is about a 5 hour walk as you likely will stop many times along the route to have a laugh with the locals. This is a great experience!

From Kyaikhto take a bus to the town of Bago which is packed with interesting sites, including, yes, more pagodas, temples, stupas and monasteries. However, even though I thought I had seen enough of these, I found that Bago offered some very interesting experiences. In addition to all the sites listed in your guidebook, check out the normally non-listed ShweGule Maha Paduma Teaching Monastery.

After two or three days in Bago, hop back on that shaky train for another interesting ride back to Yangon. Make sure to go back to the Aung Thukha Traditional Myanmar Food Restaurant!

Please tell the people I'll be back soon!

See HERE for photos from my 2006 trip to Myanmar