Mawlamyine (formerly known as ‘Moulmein’) is described in Lonely Planet as a “quintessential go slow tropical town”, which conjures up images of a seaside town fringed with palm trees and a beach. You could understand the disappointment when we arrived to find no beach, no palm trees and muddy brown water filled with trash. It is Myanmar’s third largest city but still feels quite small but filled with people and activity at all hours. It may not have been a tropical paradise like LP described, but the friendly smiling locals seemed very happy to have us and there were a few diamonds in the rough in this little city.
Here’s what we did while visiting Mawlamyine (Moulmein):
The bus station is located 2.5 kms from the waterfront where the action is, so you’ll either have to navigate the bumpy streets or there are many willing trishaw drivers who can take you into town for a small fee (2500 kyats for three people in a trishaw). It is a bit overwhelming at first as they surround you when you get off the bus but you can seek refuge (and have a cold beer) in one of the shops at the station. There are a few beggars here who have obviously received money from foreigners before and though they don’t speak English, are quite persistent. Resist the urge and give money to communities in creative ways rather than individuals. Myanmar is the first country I’ve visited in Southeast Asia that generally sees me as a person instead of just a walking money bag, so let’s try to keep it that way!
We stayed where every backpacker seems to stay – Breeze Guesthouse. It was the cheapest option and included free breakfast and wifi. There are a few different rooms to choose from – we obviously chose the cheapest at $14/night for a cell-like room with rock hard beds and paper thin walls. We shared a bathroom that had a hot water shower and Western toilet. We didn’t sleep well at all here – there were locals in the lobby watching TV at full blast until late then back at it early in the morning. I’m not sure if they lived there or were just visiting, but it was loud. The breakfast was good though – toast with butter and jam, a hard-boiled egg, coffee and a banana. The owners were friendly but I don’t think I’d go back to Mawlamyine again, but if you’re in town this place might be an option – maybe check out different rooms and/or different hotels to compare.
There were a few other accommodation options in town – from a fancy looking hotel at the north end of Strand Road to some other backpacker guesthouses (Aurora). There were also two others on Strand Road – Japan Guesthouse didn’t have a license to accommodate foreigners (it was WAY nicer than Breeze) and OK Guesthouse looked quite new, though I didn’t inquire about prices and if foreigners could stay there.
We rented a scooter from Breeze Guesthouse (10,000 kyat/day) and went over to Ogre Island (“Bilu Kyun”). Lonely Planet encourages you to take a tour with the guys at Breeze Guesthouse, but we prefer to do our own thing and went over by ourselves. The tour is apparently quite interesting though as they take you to where they process rubber, among other things – so if you’re into tours that’s an option. But if not, the ferry to the island leaves from the dock at the northern end of Strand road at 10:45am. It takes 45-60 minutes to get to the island and costs 2000 kyat/person. We were the only tourists onboard amongst locals bringing fruits, vegetables, chickens and other goods to the island. We were able to load the scooter right onto the ferry and didn’t have to pay extra for it, though someone said it might cost 500 kyat.
The weather turned on us while we were on the island and we spent some time hiding beneath a shelter from the rain. We didn’t have too much time on the island as the last ferry back to the mainland was at 3pm but we managed to get around some of the island and through a few villages. It was a smiling and waving frenzy and most of the locals seemed really shocked to see us! Kids came running from their yards to wave to us or the really little ones just stood there wide eyed as they probably haven’t seen a tourist before. The island itself was quite nice – forested with dirt roads that led to rice paddies, had some hills with stupas on them and villages with people going about their lives. It was a short visit and soon enough we had to race towards the jetty to catch a boat back to the mainland. Instead of a ferry we had to board a long-tailed boat back and had to fit our scooter on the small boat as well – no problem. This boat was open to the elements as it started to downpour; thankfully a lovely local lady insisted that we share an umbrella. The trip back cost us 5000 kyat since we had to pay extra for the scooter and tip the people who helped us load and unload it from the small boat. It was an adventure!
After hiding from the rain for an hour, we ventured out again on the scooter to check out some interesting-looking pagodas that topped the hills on the other side of the bridge. With some help from the locals, we were directed up a steep paved path and to the top of the highest hill that offered some great views of Mawlamyine and beyond. Unfortunately there wasn’t a sunset, but I can imagine that if there were one this would be a great spot to watch it from.
We ate at Beer Garden, as suggested by Lonely Planet, and found it pretty average. The Tiger beer on tap was ice cold though and served in frosty glasses. The lemon chicken was delish, but the hot & sour pork was not. We also ate at the restaurant on the water called Grandmother & Grandfather (though it’s only written in Burmese characters). They have an English menu and serve Burmese/Chinese dishes. It wasn’t too bad – we ordered sweet & sour chicken and fried chicken (aka really fried crispy bits of chicken and onion) and some lime juices.
Getting There & Away: buses from Yangon’s Aung Mingular bus station leave at 6am, 9am, noon and 2pm and are said to arrive in Mawlamyine 6-8 hours later, but we arrived very early. To get away, you can take the same route by bus back to Yangon or for a more scenic route, take a boat from Mawlamyine to Hpa-An (what we did). The public ferry does not run anymore to Hpa-An and instead Breeze Guesthouse arranges a charter boat for tourists wanting to make the journey. It cost us 9000 kyat each (entire boat cost split between 8 of us) and takes about five hours to reach Hpa-An. Read more about my experience taking the boat from Mawlamyine to Hpa-An here – I’d recommend it!
Overall, I can’t say I’m keen to return to this town nor would I really recommend others to visit other than for the boat ride up to Hpa-An. If you do end up in Mawlamyine, rent a scooter and explore the outskirts. There’s apparently some nice pagodas south of the town that offer great views and some caves even further down, getting out of town is crucial to enjoying the area of Mawlamyine.
-Rent a scooter. Although it’s not cheap by Asian standards (cost us 10,000 kyat), to make the most of this place it’s worth it to take a look around the outskirts.
-There’s not much accommodation-wise, so plan before you get there to avoid overstaying.
-Plan to take the boat from Mawlamyine to Hpa An! It’s worth it.
-Food and beer is cheap in Myanmar, just stick to local/Chinese dishes and you’re guaranteed a meal under US$3.