Mawlamyine and Hpa-An

Exploring as much as possible further north of Myanmar, I decided to head south of the country (despite warnings of poor weather due to the rainy season). Mawlamyine and Hpa-An would be my final stops on my Myanmar adventure. 

Mawlamyine is the fourth largest city of Myanmar, although wandering around it feels and looks more like a small town than a city. 

Arriving at 3am after a 19 hour journey from Bagan, the hostel kindly let me check in early and catch a bit of shuteye before exploring (this is usually unheard of). 

Meeting up with my friend Germán, who I had spent the last two treks with, we also made a new friend Agathe, who joined us for the next couple of days. 

Bilu island (also know to the locals as Ogre)

In our busy day of exploring, our first destination was the island of Bilu, which is located directly west of Mawlamyine. Being roughly the size of Singapore, it hosts 78 villages and in turn 200,000 people. Culturally, this island is famous for it’s preserved Mon society – an ethic group of people, who were one of the earliest to reside in Southeast Asia and in turn had a large influence on Burma’s culture. 

This beautiful island is too large to explore by foot, so we opted for a local taxi (or small truck). Driving over the newly constructed bridge, the landscape dramatically changed from buildings and streets to a beautifully lush countryside of trees and rice paddies. Our tour began at a local wood craft house. Unfortunately it appeared the family were resting, so we were unable to watch them at work.We did however stop at a famous roundabout, which pays homage to this key island trade (especially pipe making). Arriving next at a rather bizarre garden of coloured sticks, it took us a while to decipher the trade of this place. Rubber band making! Once we worked this out, it appeared quite obvious. The rubber is sourced from plantations on the island and the process is fairly simple. The rubber is heated so that it becomes a liquid, then a particular colour is added to the mix. Once ready large wicket like sticks are covered with the mixture by slowly being dipped in and out of the pot. They are then left to dry out in the sun. The owner kindly let me try my hand at the dipping part…At our final two stops we saw handmade hats and slate board making. It was nice seeing the various trades, but they were clearly tourist stops for people to buy things. I would have preferred to learn more about the processes and people. Additionally, the island itself is so beautiful, if I had my time again I would have either cycled or walked a section of it. 

In the afternoon after a well needed nap, we headed to the most famous of the pagodas in Mawlamyine – Kyaik Than Lan.The evening was spent at a bar which overlooked the river, where we watched the sunset, drank beer, as well as made friends with a few of the locals (who were eager to share their local brew). 

Hpa-An

Our one day sightseeing tour of the picturesque town of Hpa-An was quite possibly the most memorable of all my trips. Not only because Hpa-An was one of my favourite places, but also because I came away with a severe case of food poisoning. 

Deciding scooters were the best and cheapest mode of transport we set off on our adventure. Roughly 10 minutes into our drive, we learnt the full extent of the wrath of the rainy season. Hiding under a tree, we came to the conclusion it wouldn’t stop anytime soon, so bought ponchos and continued on our drive. Kaw Ka Taung Cave was our first stop and with the rain getting worse by the minute, we decided it was probably a good idea to stop for lunch. 

Luckily during this time the weather cleared and the sun came out, allowing us to walk (or slide because of the wet tiles) around the cave. After seeing many temples on my travels, I wasn’t particularly blown away. However the drive to Saddan Cave made up for this. The countryside was so unbelievably stunning, I had to keep stopping to admire it. It was during this time that I started to feel sick. I decided it was nothing serious so soldiered on to Saddan Cave. 

Unsure what to expect, I was blown away by not only the size of this cave, but also the detail of the statues and carvings inside. The only off putting element were the thousands of bats hanging from the ceiling. Having to walk bare foot, which is the case in all religious buildings/monuments, it became a bat excrement slalom. Emerging at the other side of the cave, we were greeted with a stunning secret lake. Climbing onto a small (and wobbly) boat, we were taken through the cave and around the outside, to soak up the incredible peaceful view.Feeling worse and worse, sadly this is where my day finished. After being sick twice en route to our next destination, I accepted my fate and decided to head back to the hostel. Honestly this is one of the worst illnesses I have ever had and scootering back, stopping four times at the side of the road to be sick, was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced on my travels. 

Despite feeling extremely sorry for myself and at the time not feeling the warmest to this country, Myanmar still continued to show it’s beauty and light. After I was sick once again by the side of the road, I rang my mum. Whilst on the phone, two children who lived in a small house by the side of the road, ran out of their house to see me and to give me a hug. I don’t think they’ll ever realise how much those hugs meant to be. I only wish I wasn’t feeling so horrendous as I would have loved to stay chatting to them. However in the state I was in I urgently had to get back. When I finally did I went straight to bed, where I stayed until the following morning before getting a bus back to the capital Yangon. 

Despite being ill, I really enjoyed my time in Hpa-An. If I wasn’t on a time constraint I would have stayed longer as I felt there was still so much to see. 

It may appear that my last few days weren’t the best of goodbyes to Myanmar. However it didn’t tarnish my time in what I can only describe as a truly magical country. In the words of Rudyard Kipling “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”

Jessica Storm ✌️

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