In conjunction with an invitation to attend the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF 2015) at the end of January in Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital of Myanmar, I decided to take a long-awaited and planned overland trip to Southern Myanmar to explore and survey a land, which is a kind of “Buddha Land” with a myriad of golden glittering pagodas.
To reach the most southern most point of Myanmar at the Malay Peninsula opposite Ranong in Southern Thailand, I had to take a plane from Bangkok to Ranong with Nok Air (2,299Baht), after getting a 28-days tourist visa at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok (1,035Baht). The plane departed from Don Muang International Airport at 8.40 on January 7 and touched down at Ranong Domestic Airport just a good hour later. There was a transport service into town (200Baht), which was 25km away and where I stayed at the new and centrally located Nalin Place for one night (600Baht).
The Ranong provincial town is about 600km south of Bangkok and 300km north of Phuket. Cascading down from the rain forested mountain slopes on its eastern side, there are several waterfalls and hot water mineral springs for people to relax and rejuvenate. Caves abound, while in the west is the mangrove fringed coast of the Andaman Sea with 62 offshore islands, among them Koh Chang and Koh Phayam visited by tourists already. Actually, tourism is now becoming an important industry next to tin mining, forestry and fishery. Naturally, the town has a dominant Chinese population.
Next morning before noon, I went further west in a large “tuk tuk” (20Baht) straight to the port, where the immigration office is located. After stamping out the passport, I was led to a passenger boat (100Baht p.p.) to bring people across the Pak Chan River towards Kaw Thaung, the first big town in Southern Myanmar. Passing an island at the middle of the river with a standing Kuan Yin statue, we reached the mainland at Strand Road within half an hour from the port of Ranong.
Right next to the busy Myoma Pier of Kaw Thaung, there is the immigration border check point, where foreigners get their entry stamp. The staff is very welcoming and gives advice where to stay. Recommended is the Penguin Hotel, where I got a single room for 400Baht. The afternoon I used for sightseeing, taking a “moto taxi” to the top of the hill, where around the town with its big market is build. Old wooden houses abound and colonial architecture is still there to see - even a clock tower. On top of the hill, there are the golden Pyi Daw Aye Pagoda and a holy Banyan tree, where visitors can study the 8 birthday animals, which mark nearly every pagoda in Myanmar, and enjoy the breathtaking views of the entire city and its surroundings.
Another must place to see is the Bayint Naung Point, formerly called Victoria Point, where a bronze statue of King Bayint Naung (reigned 1551-1581) with a sword in his hand is located within a park and only a short walk from downtown.
As there was an early morning speed boat next day to my next destination Myeik, I booked a ticket for 45USD at an office on Strand Road and had a “fried squid” dinner at the popular Smile Restaurant, also tasting draught Myanmar Beer. Some tourists start from Kaw Thaung with a special yacht boat to islands of the 800-island Myeik Archipelago, but for this you need to get a permit and the normal trip lasts 5 days/4 nights to explore the villages of the sea gypsies called Moken, who live most of the time on small boats and make their living by diving for pearls and looking for other sea products.
Early morning (4.30 o’clock) the speedboat from the Hifi Express Company left the Myoma Pier and needed 6 hours to reach its destination Myeik, further up north along the rugged coast. On one of the passing islands, I recognized some stilt houses along a sandy beach, but it was too speedy to take a photo. Arriving in Myeik, a compact town around a central hill and protected by an elongated island in front of the Strand Road, I was greeted by a local German-speaking guide called James Bond. He led me to the nearby new Royal Myeik Guesthouse, where I checked in for 3 nights (13USD per room/night).
Myeik is a busy port town and well-known for its blooming fishing, pearl farming and bird’s nest industry. On the next day, we inspected a local “lobster” factory, “cashew nuts” production center, and a large “dried fish” village. Also, along the Tanintharyi River some 20km north of the town, we visited a huge dock yard, where big fishing ships were repaired or newly produced. Around the central market in town, which is closed on Sunday, there were mosques for the Indian Moslem community in town. Furthermore, British colonial architecture can be seen alongside some Mon-style wooden houses and Chinese merchant villas. Originally, Myeik was a part of the Thai Autthaya Kingdom, when the British freebooter Admiral Samuel White exported elephants from Myeik, formerly called Mergui, to India. Famous British author Maurice Collis wrote a book titled “Siamese White”, which should be read before or after visiting the town.
The idyllic town is dominated by the golden spire of the impressive Thein Daw Gyi Pagoda, which is located on top of the hill and its area is a treasure house of local arts. From the pagoda platform, you can watch a beautiful sunset, while the pagoda is illuminated during the whole night. Interesting to note is that there is a daily night market along Strand Road, where you can taste local delicious food and have some “avocado” fruit shakes.
Other attractions are the Sleeping Buddha Image called Shwethalyaung on the Pahtaw Pahtet Island opposite the port, a British clock tower in town, next to a Bogyoke Aung San Statue and Independence Monument. Also, there is an 18th century old Catholic Church, which can be visited on a Sunday. On the eastern periphery of the town are the Myeik University, Myeik Golf Course and Myeik Airport with flights to Kaw Thaung, Dawei, Mawlamyaing and Yangon. A new projected road is built east via the old town of Tanintharyi or Tenasserim and across the mountains to Mawdaung, where you will reach the Singkhon border check point in Prachuap Khiri Khan in Southern Thailand, but which is not ready yet for international tourists. Surely, soon the time will come, when tourists can use this way to get to the town of Myeik directly from Southern Thailand.
As there were no speed boats going on from Myeik to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi Province some 250km further north, because of bad weather conditions, I decided to take a local bus from Myeik to Dawei on January 12 for 8USD. The bus left 3.00 o’clock in the night from near the new “Hotel Grand Jade” and needed 8 hours to reach the outlying bus station from Dawei. Here too, the road is in some parts still under construction, but leads through scenic mountainous landscapes along rubber and oil palm plantations settled with tiny villages surrounded by betel and coconut palms.
Dawei, along the Dawei River, is an inland town far away from the open sea. The river front is not existent and only a few simple houses are getting built there near a local fish market. Normally, the speed boats from Myeik (25USD p.p.) need 4 hours to reach a port, which is more than 1 hour bus ride away from Dawei. Luckily, the town is protected by a long-stretched peninsula, which goes south and where the sacred and golden Shwe Maw Taung Pagoda marks the cape. There is also Dawei University nearby.
Accompanied by two young backpackers from the Black Forest in Germany, a local “tuk tuk” drove us from the bus station to the town center, where we settled down in nice rooms of the Garden Hotel including breakfast (13USD per room). How nice the town was to explore by foot proves the fact that at the end we stayed there for 4 nights. On my first walk out within the laidback town, I met a German entrepreneur from Gotha, who plans to establish a travel agency in Dawei. He told me about the future tourism potential of the town and that already Thai and foreign tourists filter in along a “highway” going east towards the border check point of Htee Khee (170km) and then further on to Kanchanaburi and Bangkok in Thailand. No wonder that we later had all our dinner at a Thai Restaurant called Joy House.
Next day, after visiting a local Internet Café in the morning, I had lunch at a nice beer garden on the grounds of the old colonial guesthouse named Pale Eikari. Its Myanmar owner U Kyaw Win is nowadays building a seven-storey new hotel beside it and wants to use the old guesthouse as a restaurant. Later in the afternoon, I visited the large local town market and the Dawei tourist office. Its staff officer U Thet Naing Htwe gave me details about the upcoming and already projected deep sea port, which will be built with Japanese support and know-how some 50km north of Dawei and then will surely have a social and environmental impact on the region. Thus, Tanintharyi should become an oil hub and the western end of the so-called “Southern Economic Corridor”, which connects Myanmar via Thailand and Bangkok to Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam in the east.
On January 14, we undertook an organized tour excursion (25USD p.p.) to the nearby peninsula and experienced a rough road passing villages and markets to finally reach a lonely fishermen village at the coast of the Andaman Sea. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a boat ride to pristine beaches and had the opportunity to snorkel, play and swim in crystal-blue waters with no people or resorts around. A break for a coconut drink was in order and we nearly missed the time to go back to Dawei (some 4 hours drive).
Only on the last day of our stay, we had time to visit the beach paradise of Maung Ma Kan, which is some 17km outside of Dawei and one of the best beaches along the coast of the Andaman Sea. The sea is clear and tranquil like the water of a pond. The beach and the beautiful surroundings are still intact and always clean. In a restaurant called “Love Angel” we had a papaya salad like in I-san/Thailand washed down with Myanmar Beer. Also, roasted cashew nuts were enough to wait for the sunset, which really mirrored the strangest colors in the water. There were many straw huts along the long beach and you can walk to watch fishermen hauling in their catch of fish. A little bit further out towards the stony hills, there is the sacred and golden Myaw Yit Pagoda. The story of the place is going back to the time of the Buddha.
When in Dawei, don’t miss to visit and wander around in the compound of the centrally located Shwe Taung Sar Pagoda, which is the highest golden “zedi” in town surrounded by large monastery buildings and even a local Buddhist Museum. Here I discovered some jewelry and pottery, which proves that Dawei originally was a Pyu city in the 8th century. The old site of Thargaya Town (now Dawei Myohaung Village) with its inscribed brick foundations led researchers conclusively decide that Pyu people settled in the area and shaped the population and their local language until today.
The time to leave Dawei came too quickly, but we had to leave by train via Mon State in the north and continue via Mawlamyaing to Yangon. The train at Dawei Railway Station left early in the morning at 5.40 o’clock. The ticket for “Upper Class” was 6,050Kyat in local currency. Along salt and later rice fields, the train went through a mountainous terrain with thick bamboo forests and palm trees. “Golden rock pagodas” appeared in-between. Before the town of Yeh, an armed military commando boarded the train, reminding us that this area was unsafe until very recently and off-limits to tourists. We reached the railway station of Yeh in Mon State at 14.00 o’clock, just in time to have a local lunch and continue in another train to Mawlamyaing, the capital of Mon State, where we arrived at 20.30 o’clock.
Die Kyaikhtiyo Pagode befindet sich auf dem „Golden Rock“, einem massiven, mit Blattgold bedeckten Felsbrocken
As my new German two friends continued to the Golden Rock of Kyaikhtiyo further in the north, I left the train alone and was “moto-taxied” to the local Breeze Guesthouse at Strand Road, where I stayed for two nights (8 USD for a room) and had a late sea food dinner along the Thanlwin River. As I had visited the town before, I used the next day for a call at the Mon Cultural Museum to buy an old translated “Chronicle of the Mons” and visit the golden U Zina Pagoda and famous Kyaik Tan Lan Pagoda with relics of the Buddha. Here now it was: the center of the “Golden Land” or Suvannabhumi, which also reaches further north with all the golden pagodas in Thaton, Bago and even Yangon.
Before leaving Mawlamyaing on Sunday night at 22.00 o’clock, I revisited the Mon Cultural Museum to copy two old gazetteers about Dawei and Myeik from their attached library. Back to the railway station, I took the night train from Mawlamyaing to Yangon “Upper Class” for 4,250Kyat in the local currency and tried to sleep the night away. Via the provincial town of Bago and its huge golden pagoda, I arrived at Yangon Railway Station on January 19 at 7.30 o’clock in the morning, enough time to rest for three nights at the newly opened “Ocean Pearl III Guesthouse” downtown (20USD for a single room).
There was also enough time to see the golden Botahtaung Pagoda down at the Yangon River, golden Sule Pagoga in the city center and the world-famous “Golden Shwedagon”, the 2,600 years old national symbol for the whole of Myanmar. On January 22 early in the morning, I boarded a Myanmar Airways plane from Yangon to the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw to attend ATF 2015, which was scheduled for January 22-29, but this will be another story.