Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea
– Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay
Visitors to Myanmar complain bitterly – and not unreasonably – about the country’s accommodation. Overpriced and under-supplied, it’s different from other south-east Asian countries in that reservations are strongly advised, prices are double what you might expect, and the quality half as good. Fearful that we’d end up on the streets if we didn’t book ahead, we temporarily switched tactics and planned our itinerary day-by-day, knuckling down for six hours to research train times and book hotels. For future Myanmar visitors, this is definitely a recommended approach.
It would be good, we thought, to spend one night in Mawlamyine (pronounced and previously-written as Moulmein), mostly just to break up the long journey from Dawei to Yangon. But online, there were no hotels available. Quite literally none. We considered alternatives. Maybe we could stay in Ye instead, another town a few hours further south? No accommodation there either. Or at least, there was one place whose reviews suggested it wouldn’t be infested with bedbugs and cockroaches . . . but it was fully booked. Did any other towns or villages even exist along the route? Eventually, with written instructions and in a fit of unbridled optimism, we asked the receptionist in Dawei to call Mawlamyine’s Cinderella Hotel direct. Miraculously, one room had been kept back, and we could have it. Note to self for future reference: never trust the internet.
The bus from Dawei left at 6am; our tuktuk at 5:30. We puttered through the silent, pitch-black streets. Unlike other Asian towns at this hour, Dawei slept soundly, with no 24-hour neon or street lamps to disturb the snoozing residents.
Bags stowed and seats found – to our delight, on a rather upmarket coach with air conditioning, no less, and blankets to counteract the icy blast – we settled down for the eight-hour journey. We’d opted not to take the train, since that stretch is notoriously the slowest in a country already known for its glacial railway. But the bus on its narrow, winding journey turned out to have unexpected benefits, heading through thick jungle and tiny villages, crawling over bridges of frankly worrisome age, and skirting what we eventually twigged were rubber plantations, hidden deep within the ancient forests.
We stopped at a group of roadside stalls for breakfast and realised how rare foreigners were in these parts as everyone stopped and gaped at our presence, beaming when we offered a “mingalabar”.
Lunch was at a similar set-up, although the restaurant in this equally tiny village immediately stood out thanks to its beautifully-carved glossy teak furniture. Like those we’d seen in Bali, I’d usually expect this sort of thing in some posh hotel off Trafalgar Square yet here they were, a whole bunch of gorgeous tables and chairs minding their own business at a delightful but undeniably out-of-the-way roadside restaurant.
Here we met Htetsan, an engineer who was helping out at her family’s restaurant but actually in town to build a brand-new high school nearby. She showed us photos of her handiwork, deservedly proud. One of the great things I found in Myanmar was ostensibly how equal men and women appeared to be. Both men and women staffed restaurants and shops, walked along the streets, helped the kids, learnt together in school and, apparently, held high-skilled positions.
I told Htet “there aren’t many female engineers in the UK”. She asked “why not?”, and I didn’t really have an answer.
It was only as we were leaving that we thought to ask where we actually were. “Ye” came the answer. This was Ye??! It had been such a big blob on the map! The lesson here is that blobs are not necessarily representative.
Another two hours down the road and we arrived in Mawlamyine. We were almost bang on time and drank in the town’s scenery as we drove through the streets. The colonial architecture and ubiquitous stupas slipped past the bus windows. Lalala. This is nice. Oh look, a cathedral! The bus kept going. We emerged onto a lengthy bridge, spanning a wide, shallow estuary. The bus station’s probably on the other side, we figured. It’s funny how there aren’t so many houses now. It’s surprisingly far outside of town, isn’t it? Peter jumped up and made his way to the front. Attempted communication led to the understanding that Mawlamyine was still to come. Ok. He sat down. We checked the map. Except . . . there aren’t any other 2.5km bridges except this one right here, on the north side of Mawlamyine. We double-checked. He went back, brandishing our ticket, bought through the hotel and written entirely in Burmese. More miming and semi-conversation. Finally it was established that it had, indeed, been Mawlamyine. And we had, indeed, gone straight through without stopping. And this was because our tickets said that we were heading all the way to Yangon. The perils of attempting a route uncommon to foreign visitors is that when you try to buy tickets, they take the liberty of choosing somewhere they think you’re more likely to want to visit!
The driver and attendant swung into action, pulling the bus off the road and clambering out with us, depositing our luggage on the ground. In any other country we’d probably have been awkwardly abandoned with a “good luck!” trailing through the departing dust. But in Myanmar, the entire bus waited with us until they could flag down a passing tuktuk at which point they explained the situation, clarified which hotel we were headed to, loaded up our bags, made sure we were comfortable, insisted we hold on tight, negotiated a fair price, and stood watching until we were safely away.
At Cinderella (why the name? I’m still not sure) we encountered the friendliest welcome of any hotel on the trip so far, a bedroom decorated with local handicrafts and yet more teak furniture, and an open-air candlelit restaurant.
With only a few hours of daylight remaining, we set off into town to explore what we could. Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s third-largest city but feels sleepy and provincial. The quiet streets, wider and better-kept than those in Dawei, are littered with colonial buildings and golden stupas, not to mention the odd mosque and Hindu temple. And, to our astonishment, an archetypal English church, left behind by the British, bizarre and out of place, stately and mouldering in the tropical climate.
It reminded me most closely of Luang Prabang in Laos, despite being considerably younger, and was once again filled with such characterful architecture and friendly people that we kicked ourselves for only arranging to stay one night. This is the downside of too much forward planning! I’d happily have spent several days there, and would particularly have loved to watch the sun rise from Kyaikthanlan pagoda, which famously inspired the opening lines to Rudyard Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay”. Instead, we skimmed past it on our whistle-stop tour of the city’s main sights. Meanwhile super-sweet Htet had dedicated herself on Facebook Messenger to sending me lists of things to try and photos of places to see in Mawlamyine, none of which we had a chance to think about, let alone do. Oh, Htet. I wish I’d met you 48 hours earlier!
But off we set the following morning as planned, on the train to Yangon which turned out to be the bounciest ride of my life (matron). This is primarily due to the standard-size trains riding on narrow-gauge rails, and probably not helped by lines which have rarely been refurbished since the British laid them down some hundred years previously. Whilst we pitched up and down in our seats to such an extent that Peter was forced to sit on his hat to prevent it flying away, and I had to physically hold my boobs down, vendors strolled along the aisles with trays of sweetcorn and rice cakes balanced on their heads, and didn’t even stumble. Meanwhile I was falling over and I wasn’t even standing up.
One benefit of Burmese train travel – and how we were able to justify using it despite its shady ownership – was that, even for south-east Asia, it is ridiculously cheap. For a price difference that to us seemed negligible we had selected seats in “upper class” (later, purchasing tickets on more tourist-frequented routes, we wouldn’t even be given the option to select anything else). As a result we had blessedly comfortable seats, as opposed to the hard wooden-slat benches in “ordinary class”, although the mechanisms were mostly broken and everyone kept sliding back into almost horizontal positions whether we wanted to or not.
Still, the cushions, ancient though they were, gave some protection from the carriage’s mad swinging; and the open windows, though perhaps less desirable than AC to some, allowed for considerably better photos and interaction with the world outside. Trains in that part of the country are infrequent enough that children lined the tracks waiting for each one to pass, lightly flapping their hands until someone returned the wave and then waving ever more vigorously.
Mawlamyine was quickly left behind as we trailed back over the long bridge for third time in 24 hours. River became jungle became fields became mountains became dry rice paddies. In just a few hours, the train often moving little faster than a light jog, the scenery changed so many times that it was hard to believe we were still in the same country.
But all the while, for all its isolation, and despite not travelling through settlements larger than small towns, signs of inhabitation never quite disappeared, be they golden stupas poking through distant palm trees or canoes being paddled down the ubiquitous waterways. In villages, thatched cottages on stilts lined the train tracks, some with rickety drawbridges of single bamboo poles reaching across the rice paddies. Industry was frequent, but repetitive; stone-breaking for road construction, more brick factories in the muddy river shallows, and rubber refineries comprising of two men crouched over metal barrels producing plumes of acrid smoke.
We rolled into Yangon that evening: a city of old Asia, filled with bartering and narrow streets, lacking in the western chains and obvious gentrification now so ubiquitous in Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. We were there only in transit; we would return later in the trip. For now we had just a brief glimpse and a single night in a cheap hotel near the station, where we either brought in a massive cockroach on the heel of Peter’s boot or crushed it as we entered the room.
Either way we weren’t too sorry to be leaving the following morning, and headed speedily for the station where we were due to leave Yangon’s spiritual capital for its official one. Not the standard tourist route by any means, but one we were anticipating perhaps more than any other on the whole trip . . .