We start the journey in Hpa An, the capital of the Kayin State and decide to travel by boat down the Thanlwin River to Mawlamyine. Not only throughout, but even after the monsoon season the river is practically unnavigable – therefore it requires some convincing to find a boat willing to take us on the 3 hour journey down to Mawlamyine.
The boat is carried downstream by the dirty brown current as we pass by the constantly evolving countryside, including the chains of sandstone columns that stretch along the river like solemn sentinels. On the riverbanks we are confronted with a kaleidoscope of rural life: fishermen try their luck at the water’s edge, women fetch water, clothes are washed and ox-carts – depending on the season – are everywhere to be seen. It is currently October and subsequently the year’s rich harvest is being collected, hence the abundance of carts. This is the season to revel in the lush and verdant landscapes of Myanmar; nourished by the fertile soils, everything is in bloom – an explosion of colour and form greets the senses. But already in a few weeks’ time the luscious green will come to be replaced by the dry and dusty brown of the winter months. Nevertheless, every now and then the clouds, heavy with rain, still open up and bucket it down upon us with little warning.
By the time it reaches Mawlamyine, the Thanlwin has undergone a considerable expansion, swelling into a vast waterscape; the estuary spilling out into the Gulf of Martaban in the Andaman Sea is not far away now. Rudyard Kipling may have had the expanse of the Amazon in mind when he wrote:
”Moulmein is situated up the mouth of a river which ought to flow through South America”.
The first impression of Mawlamyine, as seen from the river, is that of a leisurely city with few especially tall buildings: only a handful of dilapidated colonial buildings, churches and mosques rise above the horizon. Behind the city lies a ridge of hills dotted with pagodas on every summit, each one asking to be explored; we are more than happy to oblige and over the next few days embark on a kind of “pagoda-hopping tour”, which keeps us busy and leaves us wiser and deeply satisfied. Each and every one of them can boast unique and surprising features; the Kyaikmayaw Pagoda, the Sein Don Monastery and the Kyaik Thanlan Pagoda count amongst the most renowned examples of these.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote:
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
It is noteworthy that Kipling never went to Mandalay. It must have sounded enticing to him, if only for the rhyme and cadences of the name itself that conjured up images of a rare and mystical world. Indeed, these are said to be the lines that lured many a person to “Burma”, amongst them George Orwell, who was similarly unable to resist the siren call of the exotic East, writing in his Letters from the East in the late 19th century: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about…”
During his stay in Mawlamyine, Kipling fell in love at first sight with a girl he met at the stairs leading up to the Kyaik Thanlan Pagoda. An encounter perhaps governed by fate, since there are after all four different covered staircases leading up to the pagoda, one in each compass direction. These “stairs”, however, are not to be underestimated – they are extremely steep and have caught many people out, hoping to swiftly climb the city’s highest pagoda. If you would prefer to avoid the challenge you can always resort to the newly-built elevator that takes the visitor in the blink of an eye up to the platform that runs around the pagoda and alongside the many small shrines strewn about. From here the panorama over the river, the city and the surrounding countryside is spectacular. The pagoda’s predecessor, completed in the 9th century AD, once stood in the same place but was unfortunately destroyed by fire before being rebuilt in the 19th century.
One wonders how Mawlamyine might have looked like during the times of George Orwell. Relics from this period can be found in nearby Thanbyuzayat: a rusting locomotive stands alone, once used on the notorious Burma-Siam Railway, of Bridge over the River Kwai fame. The railway was built during the Second World War by the Japanese (with the aid of countless Asian workers and Allied PoWs) to support their forces during the Burma Campaign. Many thousands of these forced labourers did not survive the ordeal, hence the railway’s grim sobriquet of “Death Railway”; they now lie buried in official war cemeteries which can still be visited today.
Mawlamyine was the home-town of Orwell’s maternal grandmother and was, indeed, where his mother, Ida Mabel Limouzin, grew up. Their strong local roots in the city most probably influenced his decision to apply for a post there as an Imperial Policeman. In his day, elephants were still used for the logging of the great teak forests surrounding the city, bringing considerable wealth to Mawlamyine. Nowadays the elephants have gone along with any indications of seeming prosperity. Nevertheless, the streets of Mawlamyine still exude the spirit of its heyday, managing at the same time to evoke a strong impression of a vibrantly multi-cultural community which best represents the city today.
The streets are lined with old colonial buildings, their once proud exteriors peeling and their colours fading. Billboards now dominate the street scene, and like trees competing for sunlight in thick jungle, each one seeks to outdo the other in size and impact as they clamour for attention – an urban forest of hoardings that has sprouted up from the concrete. Often the advertisements emblazoned on flags and on the sides of trucks and buses seem to be more decorative in purpose than anything else. Calendars and posters displaying other motifs are also highly popular: pop stars of any nationality, animals (preferably horses and lions), city panoramas and landscapes are all on display.
Many an Eiffel Tower stands guard over a table in a corner restaurant. Only a few days after the progressive political changes in October 2011, new calendars and posters sprang up everywhere, depicting Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Aung San, a national hero who is still worshipped even by a generation that only knows him from the history books. Fledgling newspapers and magazines lend the newsstands an almost Western appearance in their variety. Despite content still needing to be censored, the media has had its journalistic shackles noticeably loosened: photos of Aung San Suu Kyi may now be openly displayed; furthermore, newspapers are no longer constrained by size restrictions on these images – a full page spread, as can now be seen, would have been out of the question. Changes can be seen and felt everywhere.
Bicycles, rickshaws, motorbikes, cars and trucks provide a neat arc of the evolution of transport here, even if nowadays each mode is equally used. Dodge, Chevrolet and GMC trucks from the Second World War with chassis and loading beds of teak are still constantly in use. Most are lovingly maintained, serving mainly as people carriers, school buses or cargo trucks.
There is no central port in Mawlamyine as such, but rather one street – The Strand – running alongside the river, which leads onto the many small jetties where boats are loaded and unloaded all day long; it is heaving and bustling, but organized. All cargo is carried on the shoulders of muscular longshoremen who deposit their burdens onto the robust bicycles and cars that are persistently pushed to the limits of their performance.
The city hosts a few markets, all of which are well worth a visit. Small and tightly-packed shops are assembled next to each other, with the women sitting in the midst of their wares, proudly elevated on their raised stools. The hum of the market’s bustle permeates every corner.
Amongst other things, we are particularly impressed by the casual efficiency of the supply chain here: chickens are unceremoniously grabbed from their pens before being killed on the spot and dumped immediately afterwards into a pot of boiling water heated by an open fire. The bird is then plucked and, now ready for sale, is passed over to the next woman who weighs it and hands it over to the customer. The killing and plucking is the men’s business, the selling and buying the women’s. From the pen to the shopping basket it is no more than 5 minutes and 5 metres.
There are two islands near Mawlamyine: one, Gaung Ge, is even visible from the city and subsequently just a short ferry-ride away. The fact that its name translates as “head medicine” and its nickname is “Shampoo Island” provides strong hints as to its role in former times; indeed, the water from this small island was used for washing the hair of the royal family no less. The other island, Bilu, requires a longer journey to be reached. The more than 60 small villages on the island are renowned for their artisanship, a reputation which guarantees their livelihood. Amongst the highlights we visit a rice mill, witness the processing of rubber and admire the skilful production of pipes, hats and wooden writing implements.
Tonight marks the appearance of the full moon. Each one comes with its own name and respective celebrations attached; the full moon in September/October is called the “Thadingyut”. For the people of Mawlamyine, this entails a big celebration that evening. The main festival street is lined with food and market stalls selling everything from toy machine-guns to sandal wood, warm blankets and household items. A bouncy castle and a Ferris wheel take centre stage, with the latter operated manually and thus independent of the unreliable mains power, a courtesy no doubt greatly appreciated by its passengers.
The wheel consists of a simple wooden structure approximately 15 metres in diameter. Although they are wearing their usual longyis and flip flops, the young men still manage to nimbly climb up and swing themselves in an instant to where they are needed, in order to speed up or stop the wheel with their combined weights. Loud Western pop music blares out of large speakers.
On the other side of the street a band is rehearsing with their instruments of bamboo, wood and leather for their concert of traditional Myanmarese music. One like the other sounds somewhat jarring, the former wholly incongruous to its setting and the latter a cacophony of notes for our Western ears; certainly the combination of the two is no improvement! Later in the evening as more and more people arrive, the crowd starts to become impassable. This notwithstanding, whole families crammed together on a motorbike still try to navigate their way through the masses to get as close to the action as possible.
At dawn the following morning we drive to the monastery that has been chosen as the starting point for the Donation Procession taking place the same day. Hundreds of monks and nuns have congregated here and they set out in a long line, filing through the festival street, which is now as quiet as it was buzzing the night before. An established pecking order soon becomes apparent: at the head of the column come the monks, according to rank and seniority, who are followed by the nuns, draped in their pink habits and orange sashes. Next, it is the turn of the lay nuns in their dark reddish-brown garments, and finally the city’s poor at the tail end, who this day, in the spirit of charity, are also granted the opportunity to collect their own alms and donations as part of the procession. Forming a line roughly one kilometre long, they snake past the donors who have positioned themselves along the sides of the street, many of whom have been saving for a long time so that they can buy as many gifts as possible to donate. Such an act is justly considered a highly meritorious deed; subsequently donor families often reserve this privilege for the older and younger members of the family, who need the blessings most. The alms bowls and bags fill up quickly, but such an occurrence has been anticipated and the gifts are swiftly unloaded into the trucks driving slowly alongside the procession.
Naturally it would have been far more practical to hand in the bags of rice and sweets and other presents of household items directly to the monasteries, but this would be to miss the point entirely: by handing the donations over from one person directly to another, it emphasises the strongly personal element of the gift, thereby creating a spiritual rapport. In giving, as well as providing a tangible and important service to the monks, the nuns and the poor, donors also enhance their own metaphysical store of karma, a lifelong objective that is crucial to their chances of rebirth as a higher being.
Buddhists may also gain karmic favour through the donation of Buddha statues, hence their abundance throughout the monasteries and holy sites of the country. The size of the donation is determined by a person’s wealth and more often than not by the state of their conscience; as a general rule, however, the more of the statues and the bigger they are, the better the prospects in your next incarnation. Near the town of Mudon to the south of Mawlamyine, two gigantic Buddha statues are slowly taking shape.
One of them, Winseintawya, the longest reclining Buddha in the country, is in its final building stages. Complete with a swimming pool, it doubles unofficially as a place of public entertainment, although its primary purpose is still the instruction of young monks and pilgrims. At this stage of construction, two dark and dank corridors run through the entirety of the Buddha’s reposing body; it is only once you reach the feet that you are able to glimpse the sunlight again. The Buddha’s carapace also hosts a museum inside, which teaches visitors about the life of Buddha. His story is depicted in colourful, larger-than-life dioramas portraying the Manichean struggle between Good and Evil, Right and Wrong: here the role of the villains is ably performed by huge demons armed with fearsome weapons, who, despite being made out of concrete, seem to prance around the scenes with a manic vitality. Certainly, the building of this particular statue amounts to a very meritorious deed.
The other mega-statue in the area is the largest sitting Buddha in the country, although it is still in the early stages of construction. Its 80¬-metre high shell towers above everything, overlooking the wooded rolling hills. We meet the architect, a friendly elderly gentleman who only has one eye. He never went to university but has vast experience building many bridges throughout the country; despite his visual handicap, he certainly seems to be the master his art. He invites us to go all the way up into the Buddha´s hollow head. We are carried up by a generator-driven elevator; ascending what is essentially the Buddha’s backbone, we reach the summit in no time at all. The elevator itself is beautiful in its simplicity: it consists of a single platform with no walls or cage, its brakes are operated manually and to stop you falling out there is just a bar to which you must hold on tightly! Once inside we are struck to by how surreal, and indeed what an honour it is, to be inside the Buddha’s head – once the statue is completed, this part will no longer be accessible. On the way down we prefer to take the stairs, which run throughout the structure like concrete veins; this way we can stop at every level and admire the building of the small altars and shrines, in which monks busily paint the faces and features of the Buddha statues that will reside there.
Those who do not have the necessary means to contribute towards statues go around and encourage others to donate something for them. You often see open-air trucks ferrying around musical bands with the dancers on the roof like some kind of mobile entertainment unit; this on the go theatre is supposed to stimulate people into acts of charity. Indeed, through the loudspeakers passers-by are called upon to donate something for a specific monastery or purpose.
The next stop is Kyaikkami, a beautiful pagoda perched on top of an island just off the coast south of Mawlamyine. Above all, its stunning location makes this site of pilgrimage such a special attraction; linked to the mainland by a covered walkway, it is easy enough to reach – it certainly helps that the locals’ favourite beach in Setse is just a stone’s throw away. A couple of restaurants and stalls are scattered along the beach, serving a very local clientele. Also on the beach lies a small stupa made of sand and palm meshwork, cloaked in gold paper and studded with little, bright flags. Meritorious deeds come in all shapes and sizes, in this case quite literally.
People can rent inner tubes – or “donuts” as they are sometimes known – to play in the water. Women and young girls, as well as the most of the men, go swimming fully-clothed, as is appropriate here. It is a particularly lovely spot to enjoy the setting sun.
This trip has proved time and again that many fascinating sites in Myanmar can be found just off the beaten track. The still pristine parts of the country are surprisingly easy to find and discover. As lovely as Mawlamyine has been, just remember it is the journey that is the destination.