Burma, oh Burma. What a beautiful, humble, wonderful country. Full of beautiful, humble and wonderful people. Unlike anywhere I have visited in Asia, or for the matter in the World, Burma (or Myanmar) leaves you with a feeling that is pretty hard to describe.
Having not given Burma too much thought, it wasn’t until I was walking through the forest in the far flung, far-eastern rural stretches of Cambodia that I first really considered going. The guide, and founder of Elephant Valley Project who we were with, mentioned Burma and how the Burmese value life in all things; his example was that they see a bird and they care for it, others see a bird and will kill it. After some considerable research on the overland situation, it became apparent we could travel to Burma via Thailand. So, after returning to Bangkok to sort out our visas, soon enough we had made it into Burma. As soon as you got to the border, you knew you were somewhere different. It was like stepping back in time which is why I urge you to visit before it becomes developed and changes as a country.
After crossing the border and having one heck of a journey down to Dawei, we had reached destination Southern Burma. I had not read much about the South, given that in very recent times tourists could only visit a handful of places and had to fly into and out of the capital, Yangon. After all this had changed and being presented with the opportunity to visit the country overland, of course we had to head South where few westerners had been before us. As some of you may know, tourists can only stay in certain hotels throughout the country. We wanted to avoid Government run ones, and a friendly local helped us locate a nice guesthouse. And no, he didn’t hold out his hand for a ‘tip’. Whilst not one of the cheapest of places for accommodation in the South East Asia region, Burma more than makes up for it with cheap food, transport and it’s undeniably marvelous way.
Dawei was an absolute treasure. Located just a short-ish (maybe 30 minutes) tuk tuk from a clean, near-empty and just lovely beach, it provided us with a wonderful insight into the life of the Burmese. As there were very few westerners around, we were quite a sight and it seemed all the locals were extremely happy to see us. We ate in the most local places we could find, which wasn’t too hard. Even for veggies, the food was scrumptious. And, of course cheap. We wandered the streets and drank a Myanmar beer on the beach. We got lost en route to the beach, and ended up driving through the tiniest village in the middle of the forest I have ever seen – the children were in awe as they saw us and even more so when we said ‘maingalarpar’ – hello. They ran along behind the tuk tuk whilst huge palm trees with enormous coconuts swayed above all our heads. It was quite a magical experience and I am truly grateful our tuk-tuk driver had taken the wrong turning.
After a few days relaxing in Dawei, we made our way a little north to the town of Mawlamyine. When I say made our way, what I mean is we spent 17 hours on the train traversing the fairly modest 368km distance. It was an incredible experience; long but incredible. Surrounded only by locals, we whiled away the day on trains with open windows, whizzing (crawling) through tiny villages, paddies, forests and mountains. We swayed our way precariously across bridges which led to considerable height-induced fear within myself; these bridges had absolutely nothing to stop the train even slightly toppling off the edge – something which seemed an absolute possibility. The journey involved one change which involved out of one train and following the hordes down the tracks onto another, hoping it was the right one. As the journey took us into the evening, we were rewarded with one of the best sunsets I have ever seen, with rice paddies glistening in the distance. It was a very special and endearing experience and one I am very grateful for having.
Upon arriving in Mawlamyine train station we were immediately greeted by a friendly tuk-tuk driver who definitely spotted the westerners before any of his buddies. We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay so just rocked up to a few guesthouses that he helped us find. We settled on one and arranged with the driver to meet him tomorrow for lunch and a little trip out to see the giant laying down Buddha. The guesthouses in Burma are clean and sparkly (which you would hope for given the considerably higher cost than their other Asian neighbours), whilst they don’t have a great deal of atmosphere they do the job and the staff were great (until Yangon)… A highlight of Mawlamyine was the mere enjoyment of strolling along the river, deciding which bbq joint to settle down with a beer and plastic chair at, and appreciating the relaxed, slow pace of life that southern Burma seems to offer.
Mawlamyine is also the place to visit Win Sein Taw Ya Giant Buddha, also known as the world’s largest reclining buddha. It’s about 20 km out of the town, and once you get close you will go about 2 km down a road lined with statues of monks.
The big bud is quite strange, it houses a museum inside and it’s a little bit unfinished. You have the option to buy a tile (for next to nothing) to help with the completion work. We did and the monk manning the little tile stall inside of bud himself insisted on taking our photo whilst we held up the tiles. Tehehe.
And there you have it. We did very little in the means of touristy stuff (bud aside) in southern Burma. Instead, we spent days roaming these little towns and feeling every inch relaxed with their pace of life. Please visit the south of Burma, it is a true marvel and I still remember the complete happiness we all felt in this little snippet of the World. Burma you are beautiful.