Myanmar is a pretty big country, I soon discovered, and with a maximum 28 day visa it doesn’t leave you much room to explore the country extensively. I had spent most of my time in the northern half of the country, as most people do, and so I decided for the remainder of my days in the lead up to New Year’s I would see at least a little bit of the south.
From Inle Lake I caught an overnight bus to Hpa-An, the capital of Kayin State, east of Yangon and on the bank of the Thanlwin River. It is the main jumping off point for the popular Thai border crossing and there were quite a few foreigners on the bus. I was groggy, having had maximum four hours sleep, and yet when I arrived at my hostel and the receptionist said, “We have a day tour of the area leaving in half an hour if you would like to join?”, I found myself saying, “Sure, sign me up”.
There were six of us in total travelling in the back of a small truck, with bench seats. The place had a completely different feel to Northern Myanmar; a much more tropical, laid back vibe. Hpa-An is most known for its numerous caves filled with old temples and we visited a number of them over the course of the day. The most impressive was Kawgun with thousands of small buddhas carved into the rockface around the temple. We also visited a pagoda that sat perfectly on top of an oddly shaped limestone mountain. Although we couldn’t climb to the top, it still makes for an interesting photo. Our last stop for the day was at an unimpressive cave, except for the climb up to the mountain above it, which gave us 360-degree views of the surrounding area.
That night I was exhausted and almost didn’t bother going out for some dinner, but luckily I did because I stumbled across the night market at the northern end of Kan Thar Yar Lake. It had all sorts of street food on offer and I was thrilled to discover it even had South Indian dosa. The highlight, however, was finding Bein Mont or the Burmese pancake which is made from rice flour, jaggery, peanuts and coconut. Basically, the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in a while. I bought one and then quickly went back for a second one, hoping the lady would just assume I was buying it for a friend.
I’m usually up for the cheapest option for anything, be that accommodation, food or transport, except for the trip to Mawlamyine. I took the more expensive and longer option being the boat. It used to be the main form of transport between the two places, although now with the new bridge constructed no one takes the boat anymore. And I mean no one. There was just me and one of the girls from the day tour I had done the day before on the boat leaving at 1pm.
We watched as the driver used a small bucket to tip some water out near the motor and then with some tools in hand adjusted some things. Then he looked up at us, smiled and said, “Okay let’s go. Some bananas there for free, please take.” So we were off down the river and only a few times did the boat cut out and our chances of making it look questionable, so I would say it was probably worth it.
The view along the way included the uniquely shaped rocky mountains in Hpa-An disappearing behind us and the riverside villages with children playing in the water while the women washed clothes. Our boat certainly didn’t look in as bad a shape as some of the other, larger ones and so we were pretty happy with our ride in the end.
Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon state, still has some of its more traditional colonial style buildings that are missing in places like Mandalay and the riverside city has a pretty laidback, tropical feel about it. Apparently, it’s Myanmar’s fourth largest city, but you wouldn’t know it by walking around its streets, it feels much more like a small town than a city.
There are some impressive monasteries and Buddha statues scattered around the area, but renting a taxi on my own was expensive and I was starting to think I may have seen enough temples and pagodas for one country. So I enjoyed walking around the town instead and eating at a restaurant that was probably one of my favourite from the whole country.
I did, however, walk up to the top of the hill behind my guesthouse which had various pagodas and monasteries scattered across it. It also offered a great spot to watch the sunset and a place to contemplate the journey that has been, as my time in the country was soon coming to an end.
For both nights that I was there I did the exact same routine: I walked down to Daw Yee restaurant for dinner and then on the way back stopped at the same bein mont stall on the corner for my dessert. The lady at Daw Yee took me to show me all the cooked food on offer so that I could choose exactly what I wanted. For $3 I got rice, one meat dish and two veggie side dishes, which were delicious. The first night I think I gave the lady who had the small bein mont stall a fright, as she wasn’t expecting a foreigner to be standing in front of her asking for a pancake, but she gladly made me one with extra coconut and a huge smile on her face. I was one happy girl too.
Where I stayed
Hpa-An – Soe Brothers 2
There are two hostels run by Soe Brothers, one in town and one a couple of kilometres out of town. I stayed at the latter one and it didn’t bother me as I only stayed one night, plus it was walking distance to the night market.
Mawlamyine – Golden Rose Guesthouse
This family run guesthouse was really nice and the owner was extremely friendly and helpful. He can suggest and arrange day trips and he rang around quite a few bus companies for me to get me a ticket to Yangon on New Years Eve. It was also in a perfect location.
Where I ate
Two of my favourite Myanmar food experiences were in these two places: Hpa-An night market and Daw Yee Restaurant in Mawlamyine.
How I got in
From Inle Lake, the night bus to Hpa-An took 16 hours and cost around $22, including hostel pick up in Nyaung Shwe.
The boat to Mawlamyine from Hpa-An cost $8, left at 1pm and took around 3 hours. It also operates in the other direction too, but leaves in the morning.
How I got out
I took a bus from Mawlamyine to Yangon, of which there are many options in terms of departure time and cost. It took around 7 hours and cost $8. The main bus station in Yangon called Aung Mingalar is painfully 25km out of the city centre, near the airport. A taxi goes for around 10,000kyats or $9 and takes around an hour.