Easily overlooked by tourists in the rush to head north from Yangon, southeastern Myanmar more than justifies a diversion. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing the holy sites of Bago before heading up to Mandalay – easily done given the city’s location at a major junction – but further south you’ll find more riches in store.
The most iconic attraction in the region is the boulder-and-pagoda balancing act at Kyaiktiyo, although the walk up the mountain and the experience of being among believers at the top are likely to be just as memorable as the Golden Rock itself. Further south, you can search out old colonial buildings and a ridge packed with pagodas in the former British capital of Mawlamyine. Don’t miss the boat trip from there to Hpa-an, a town that makes a great base for day-trips or for an overnight visit to a mountain-top monastery.
Top image © Gimas/Shutterstock
A plethora of pagodas, outsized Buddha statues and monasteries attest to the historical importance of BAGO, which was at the height of its influence following the decline of Bagan’s empire in the thirteenth century. Its location at a major junction, 80km northeast of Yangon, helps to make it a convenient stopover or day-trip destination.
Kyaik Pun Paya
The Kyaik Pun Paya, located down a road off the main highway, 3.5km south of the centre, consists of four large back-to-back statues representing the four Buddhas who have appeared so far in the current era. This back-to-back arrangement seems to have originated among the Mon before spreading to Bagan and Thailand.
The holiest site in Bago, Shwemawdaw Paya, around 2km east of the centre, is the tallest pagoda in the country at 114m. It’s said that the original stupa was built here during the lifetime of Gautama Buddha, but it has been destroyed many times (most recently by an earthquake) and the current one dates back only to the 1950s. A column of bricks on the south side is all that remains of a fourteenth-century gateway.
A five-minute walk east from Shwemawdaw is a smaller pagoda, Hintha Gon, most notable for its nat (spirit) shrine in which ceremonies are often performed to bring good luck to worshippers. Look out for the buffalo-horned female nat, Nan Karai, worshipped by the Mon alongside the usual 37 nats.
Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha
To the west of the centre is the elegant Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha, over 54m in length and said to have been built by King Miga Depa in 994 to mark his conversion to Buddhism. A ten-minute walk further west is the Mahazedi Paya, completed in 1560 under King Bayinnaung, a reformer who is said to have put an end to human and animal sacrifices by animists. It was reconstructed in the 1980s.
The riverside town of Hpa-an (pronounced “Pa-an”), small and welcoming enough to become familiar quickly, is a pleasant place to hang out. There isn’t a lot to see in the town, but it makes a great base for exploring the surrounding area.
Good sunset views with a limestone karst backdrop can be enjoyed at serene Kan Thar Yar Lake, a twenty-minute walk south down Thitsa Street; at sunset, the riverside Shweyinhmyaw Paya, a pagoda in the northwest of town, is particularly popular. Fabulous views of the Thanlwin River and its surrounding fields and limestone hills can also be enjoyed from the pagoda on Mount Hpar Pu, reached by taking the ferry across the river from near Shweyinhmyaw Paya; once across, a twenty-minute walk through a village and another thirty minutes uphill will lead you to the pagoda.
Kawgun and Yathaypyan caves
Over on the other side of the Thanlwin River from Hpa-an and Mount Zwegabin, the Kawgun and Yathaypyan caves are notable for their Buddhist art, some of which dates back to the seventh century. The most impressive art is at Kawgun (aka Kawthon), 13km southwest of Hpa-an, where thousands of gold-painted Buddha figures are attached to the walls. Yathaypyan, a couple of kilometres further west, is deeper and requires a torch if you want to reach the viewpoint at the far end.
Lakkana village and Kawka Thawng cave
Scenically located Lakkana village, on the eastern side of Mount Zwegabin, is a delightful place to wander, while at nearby Kawka Thawng cave there is a cool spring-fed outdoor pool where locals swim (with women keeping well covered). There’s also a cave where you can swim, although you’ll probably need a torch to get down to the water.
For the few travellers who make it up there, a stay at the monastery on top of Mount Zwegabin (725m) is one of southeastern Myanmar’s highlights thanks to the stunning views back towards Hpa-an and the chance to spend a night in relative isolation.
Lumbini Garden, on the western side of the mountain, is the most popular place to start the ascent, and is home to over 1100 Buddha statues arranged in photogenic rows – from here, it takes two hot and sweaty hours to climb the relentless steps. You can either buy meals at the top or bring your own food, but if you do that, then keep it well hidden from the monkeys.
The vast and atmospheric Saddan Cave, to the south of Mount Zwegabin, requires a torch to explore (or donate K3000 and they will switch on the lights) – it’s a fifteen-minute walk through the cave, and slippery in places, so carry your shoes past the pagodas at the entrance then put them back on. There’s a lake on the other side, where local fishermen take visitors for a short boat trips.
One of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country, Kyaiktiyo Paya draws large numbers of non-believers among its throngs of pilgrims, primarily thanks to its spectacular location. The small pagoda was built atop the Golden Rock, a boulder 15m in circumference, coated in gold leaf, which is itself perched on a larger rock; it’s a pretty precarious-looking setup. The name Kyaiktiyo means “pagoda on a hermit’s head”, as it’s supposedly kept in place by one of the Buddha’s hairs, brought here by a hermit in the eleventh century who insisted it be enshrined in a stupa on a rock resembling his own head.
While the rock itself is impressive, getting up to it is a large part of the experience. The starting point is the town of Kinpun and the full 11km hike takes at least four hours. Most people shorten the walk by cramming into the back of an open truck; these leave Kinpun when full and take 45min to reach the Yathetaung terminal. The trucks cannot progress any further, and it takes around an hour to walk up to the top, a winding route that takes you past innumerable teahouses and souvenir stalls. It’s even possible to be carried up by sedan chair (from K4000 each way).
Men can join the pilgrims beside the Golden Rock itself, and even add to its lustre (five sheets of gold leaf K1700), while women must stay a short distance away. Note that women are not supposed to wear trousers, shorts or miniskirts; men should also dress appropriately.
It’s worth pressing on past the rock for fifteen minutes to reach Kyi Kann Pa Sat, where you can join locals throwing coins up onto a ledge for good luck. They don’t see many foreigners on this side of the mountain.
The capital of British Lower Burma from 1827–52, when it was known as Moulmein, Mawlamyine remains a busy port. Visitors looking for vestiges of colonial atmosphere may initially be disappointed by Myanmar’s third-largest city, but a wander around reveals many (mostly neglected) old buildings. The city is also the base for day-trips to attractions ranging from a colossal Buddha – big enough to walk into – to a sobering war cemetery.
The waterside Strand Road is the city’s most important thoroughfare, and towards its northern end are three busy markets. For colonial-era buildings, however, a better bet is Upper Main Road, running inland, parallel to Strand Road.
Dotted with pagodas, the central ridge of hills makes for a great sunset trip. Start at Uzina Paya at the southern end, head north to nearby U Khanti Paya and then continue for about half an hour to the impressive Kyaikthanlan Paya. A covered walkway runs back into town, but it’s worth pressing on to see the mirrored interior of Mahamuni Paya.
Around an hour out of town by ferry, Ogre Island is home to 200,000 people, most of whom are Mon. Breeze Guest House organizes trips to the island, charging around $11 per person, where you visit small workshops making things like coconut fibre doormats, rubber bands and walking sticks.
Quiet little Shampoo Island (Gaungse Kyun), just a few minutes by boat from the city, makes an easy escape from the busy streets. The island is home to a collection of small stupas and is inhabited only by monks, nuns, and their dogs. The boat runs from a shack beyond the abandoned Mawylamyine Hotel at the northern end of town.
Thanbyuzayat, 64km south of Mawlamyine, was the end point of the Burma–Siam “Death Railway”, built for the Japanese army by forced labour, including Allied prisoners of war. There’s a locomotive and piece of track on display to commemorate it, and also a sobering war cemetery. In 2012, plans were announced to reconstruct the line, to facilitate trade with Thailand.
Win Sein Taw Ya
The 170m-long reclining Buddha, Win Sein Taw Ya, situated 24km south of Mawlamyine near Mudon, is remarkable both for its scale and for the fact that you can wander around inside it. Still a work in progress, it contains dozens of chambers with sculptures depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and grisly images from Buddhist hell.