Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Burmese Days, an ode to Orwell’s Mawlaymine, Myanmar


Destination:  Mawlaymine, Myanmar

Number of days spent: 2 days

Where we stayed:  Sandalwood Hotel - $25/night – Our most expensive hotel in Myanmar…wasn’t worth the money but the alternative was way too dirty looking for girly girl Tracy.  However, the staff was very friendly and the AC ran constantly with 24 hour hot water.  The breakfast was uninspiring…oily eggs & white toast. 

Best Restaurant:  If Mawlamyine has a traveler’s hangout, it would be Mya Than Lwin.  This warehouse looking place along the water has an extensive menu of seafood and even has a computer with printed out receipts - a rare site in Myanmar!  The sweet and sour squid was excellent, the calamari not so much.  Chan Thar restaurant comes with western dressed clubbing teens practicing their karaoke and the entire wait staff huddled around a tv watching cheesy Myanmar produced soap operas.  Despite the ‘atmosphere’, the massive fruit salad (not on the menu so you have to ask for it) and the sweet and sour chicken  both lived up to the Lonely Planet hype.      

Best of:  The lazy, laid back atmosphere is a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of Yangon and the pilgrim heavy site of Golden Rock, despite the fact that it is the third largest city in Myanmar. 

Worst of:  Before leaving town on our rented motorbike, the military pulled us over and asked for our passports, where we were going, how long we would be gone, etc.  It was a reminder that the junta is still alive and well, keeping tabs on everyone.

Most memorable:  Lady cackling when we wanted to know when the truck left to see the golden boulders at Nwa-la-bo (see below). 

Useful Tip:  You won’t find any shops renting them out, but just ask a motorcycle taxi to rent their motorbike for the day.  We did for K12,000 (about $12).  They get the day off, and you save quite a bit on having to hire an expensive taxi for the day.  

Serving as the British capital during the mid 1800’s, Mawlaymine’s importance lies more in the past than in the present.  Only astute readers of George Orwell would perhaps have even heard of this town prior to a visit to Burma.  A quick look around town reveals somewhat of a time capsule feeling – the city seems to be stuck in British colonial times with old decaying facades looking lazily upon the once bustling sea port.  A little bit of imagination and you could just about envision Orwell sitting on one of those verandas writing his memoirs, listening to the waves crash upon the rocks and watching the freighters hauling teak back to England.  To that point, the tourist infrastructure is rather small – a couple of hotel/guesthouses and an equal number of restaurants.  In that lies the best part – no touts, no hawkers – just people carrying about their normal lives in amongst turn of the century abandoned buildings.

Aside from the row of Pagodas lining the hill above the town, the town itself has little sites per se.  It does, however, have a couple of interesting day trips just outside of town.  We decided to rent a motorbike and hit up two of the major ones – the golden boulders, dubbed ‘sausages’, and the world’s largest reclining Buddha.  

About 12 kilometers north of town sits the pagoda of Nwa-La-Bo, famous for it’s balancing rocks.  Somewhat of a pilgrimage site similar to the Golden Rock, we were confident there would be no problems getting to the top.  Wrong.  The base of the mountain is lined with similar coffee/tea stands and across from those stands sits the idle truck.  Just like golden rock, they need 45 people to make the trip ‘worth it’.  Unlike the Golden Rock, the demand is slightly less…make that dramatically less.  When we asked at the booth what time the truck would leave, a lady in the distance responds with a crazy cackle of a laugh followed by a few words in laughter.  Translating body tones and mixing in a few words of my own the answer was something akin to: “Truck?  You want to take the truck?  That truck has not ran up that hill in years!”  The real response was: “ one, two (pointing at us), 45 (pointing at truck)”  Of course, you can walk up the hill or charter the entire truck (about $72).  A demanding 3 hour hike in the middle of the day, no thanks.  We took a picture of the picture and the truck – good enough this time.

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Head south of town and you eventually come to the world’s largest reclining Buddha, and perhaps one of the largest period.  Just turn off the main highway where loud speakers blare music and several people collect money for the pagoda.  Perhaps equally as interesting are the 500 some statues lining the entrance road, A Buddha on a hill pointing out to sea, and one strange lumberjack, err…gold leaf pounder.  The whole scene has a somewhat Disneyland feel to it, but in a pilgrimage-holy-Buddha-site kind of way.

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Perhaps Burma’s most enduring trait is its time warp feeling.  A holdover from WWII, they still use American and Japanese made troop transport trucks as local buses.  Yes you are reading that right, 65+ year old vehicles still plying the roads in everyday local use.  Perhaps GMC should use these as a model of longevity in a commercial as I am sure the miles logged have to be off the charts.


Other than these handful if sites, Mawlaymine is really more of a place to just wander and soak up the atmosphere of town.  Wander through the bazaars, stroll along the seaside at night and just let your imagination take you away!

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