Mawlamyine

The first capital of British Burma from1826 to1852, known then by its colonial name Moulmein, offers a unique combination of landscape, charm and history. Its stupa-covered hills, coastal port and neglected colonial architecture beautifully coexist with its diverse religious sites. It is no wonder that famous novelists George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling who once visited the city, fell in love with it. Reachable by a day drive from Yangon, the trip can be combined with Hpa-An, the capital of Kayin which is surrounded by picturesque limestone mountains filled with caves and gives you a rare insight into the cultures of Karen and Mon minorities. A nearby Mount Zwegabin offers a stunning view over the surrounding area and an optional overnight stay at a monastery.

Situated right in between the tidal tip of the Thanlyin River which is surrounded with Islands and a ridge of pagoda-topped hills, Mawlamyine is indeed a refreshing holiday destination. The centre of the town is encompassed by series of astonishing markets, the far off neighbourhoods have scattered within it, flawlessly clean churches and elaborately crumbling colonial mansions(as at 1904, Mawlamyine's atmosphere was referred to by a British travel writer, V.C. Scott O'Connor as being “one of decay”), the town has got very good exploration potentials. Yet, we think your journey will not be complete if you don’t explore the surrounding locations, be it the delightful island of BiluKyun or the various nearby uncommon religious sites. Lastly, Mawlamyine’s good travel connections make it an ideal beginning point for north along the Thanlyin River or forays south to Tanintharyi, to Hpa-An in Kayin State.

Brief history

For the most part of Mawlamyine history, it has been overwhelmed by neighbouring Mottama, one of India’s major ocean trade entrepôt (previously called Martaban), up until the middle sixteenth century, at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese war, which was when Tanintharyi (Tenasserim) was annexed by the British. Mawlamyine - then a little fishing village referred to as Moulmein by the British –became the capital city of Lower Burma between 1827 and 1852. Situated at the converging point of the Thanlyin, Ataran and Gyaing rivers, with a well-protected harbour right on the Andaman Sea, the city quickly turned into a wealthy teak port and home to a significant amount of British and Anglo-Burmese citizens.

The famous writer George Orwell's and several generations of his family - including his mother - were born and nurtured in the city. However, when Orwell himself went to the city in 1926 as a staff of the police there in their headquarters, its best days were already gone as the shipyards and the timber mills were shutting down because trade had moved to Yangon. The town later became a renown retirement destination for British civil servants until the 1962 Ne Win's coup d'état which led to the massive relocation of British, Indian and Anglo-Burmese population.

Kyaikthanlan Pagoda

During Rudyard Kipling’s three-day visit to Burma in1889, one of the few places he visited was the Kyaikthanlan Pagoda, the same “old Moulmein Pagoda” which he eulogized in the first few lines of his poem, Mandalay. The very ancient and tall pagodas that line hills of Mawlamyine's eastern ridge, Kyaikthanlan has a tiled landscape which is a prominent spot where people get to see the sunset over the islands of the Thanlyin estuary and BiluKyun; You also get to see fantastic views of the 1908 prison, which is still being used till date.

The pagoda's name is regarded as an erroneous version of “Kyaikshanlan”, which means “Shan conquering pagoda.” To celebrate the routing of a Siamese army, brick structures were built there as early as 875. The most appealing route from town to the complex is through the Kyaikthanlan Road, which transforms into a covered staircase in the eastwards direction of its junction with the Upper Main Road, after walking past various monasteries. An alternative pleasant walkway is that which joins MahamuniPaya to Kyaikthanlan, which is a few 100 metres to the north.

Mahamuni Paya and around

The highly reflective powder-blue interior of Mahamuni Paya is especially more dazzling at dusk. An exact reproduction of the Mandalay Buddha, Mahamuni Paya is situated right in the central shrine, edged by curved elephant tusks. Constructed with donations from a rich indigenous woman in 1905, the initial set of tiles which were hand-painted with peacock designs are still visible on the corridor walls that encircle the main church.  Just west of Mahamuni Paya which is a few minutes’ walk down the hill from this point is a forlorn, shattering white stupa which represents the final resting place of the highly cerebral and strong-willed youngest daughter of King Thibaw and Queen Supalayat - Fourth Princess who was already an adult before coming home for the first time after she had been born in exile in India. 

Seindon Mibaya Kyaung

The over 100 years old Seindon Mibaya Kyaung, (also referred to as Yadanarbon Myint Kyaung) appears to be seriously devastated from the outside, even judging by Mawlamyine's standards. Nevertheless, the major hall is filled with very rich lively red and gold hardwood reliefs, carved tusks of elephants and a replica of a cobweb-adorned era of a throne, representing the legacy of the monastery's connections with royalty. Queen Seindon, one of King Mindon's several widows, found solace in this spot in 1878 after her husband's death and paid for the construction of the building. Presently, the monastery plays host to just about nine monks, who have settled in the faded garb. In return for a paltry donation and a signature in their visitors' logbook, they'll gladly turn the lights on for you.

UZina Pagoda

The nineteenth-century Uzina Pagoda is situated at the southern end of Mawlamyine's hills, covering a long walking distance from Kyaikthanlan Pagoda. Named after the monk UZina who founded the monastery after he had discovered an inaccessible collection of gemstones right on the same spot where he had seen it in a dream. As at the time of this research, the pagoda was being re-painted with gold, and the stylishly jewelled hti was put on display in an auditorium at the southern end of the complex together with a beautiful collection of life-size hardwood statues of the “four sights” – a sick man, an old man, a dead body and an ascetic –which caused the Siddhartha Gautama to publicly disown his princely status.

The markets

While many indigenes may be able to differentiate between the several markets that exists between Upper Main Road and Strand Road, those visiting may be quick to mistake these different markets as being the same. This entire region is referred to as Zeigyi (not to be mistaken with Zeigyo, which is 6km to the south in a different section of the city,) and separated into both the Upper and Lower markets. The Lower Market consists of a pale-looking modern complex located on the Lower Main Road (constructed after the initial structure was gulped by a two-day fire in 2008) and just to the north we have the atmospheric, dark and a lot more exciting New Market. In the New Market, porters are seen padding on barefoot down the walkways and whole sections are dedicated to betel leaves and ngăpí; you also find the unusual market bar, with local shop owners watching television and sipping through glasses of whisky. A narrow passageway arranged with gold and longyi shops connects the Lower Market with the Upper Market, with stalls mostly dedicated to selling gold, Chinese-made toys and cosmetics.

Mon State Cultural Museum

The two-floor Mon State Cultural Museum displays simple collections even though it may appear unorganized and improperly lit, we still think it’s worth paying a visit (just don’t forget to come along with your torch). The peak moments includes an opportunity to see a Mon crocodile-shaped harp, an eighteenth-century hardwood palanquin, and an awesome palm-leaf fan arranged with patterns of gold and glass, as well as displays that provide information about local industries.

Gaung Say Kyun

It will only cost you little taking a quick boat trip coming from the northern end of Mawlamyine to get to the cute looking island of Gaung Say Kyun which is surrounded by a forest of almost equal number of pagodas and palm trees. Its name, meaning “Shampoo Island”, gets its history from the Ava period, when the water used to wash the King’s hair during the king's annual hair-washing ceremonies was obtained from a spring located in this region and transported 800km away to Inwa. This spring is now being sheltered by a pavilion that is normally locked up, however, you can gain access to a small tank beside the pavilion –indigenes still use this water to rinse their hair sometimes because of the tale behind the myth that it brings good luck.

You'll have to leave your shoes behind by the jetty and experience Gaung Say Kyun on your barefoot. The 19th century Mon-style monastery buildings houses a monastery, a small convent, and a meditation centre (although meditation has become a lot more difficult than it used to be because of the 2006 Thanlyin Bridge about 50m away) and the distant zedi which represents various Buddhist traditions from China to Nepal, however the high point is still the Burmese-style Sandawshin Pagoda located in the centre.
 

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