Having spent 6 weeks living and working with locals in Mawlamyine, we have had a unique opportunity to explore Mon State and Karen State with local knowledge and visit many places previously untouched by tourists.
Mawlamyine is working hard to put itself on the tourist map with many locals racing to learn English and everyone in town going out of their way to make foreigners feel welcome.
Before presenting our guide to Mawlamyine, Mon State & Karen State, I wanted to bust a couple of myths:
1. That it is really expensive to visit Myanmar
This is not totally true. Accommodation is not the cheapest as there are still strict rules on foreigners not staying with locals. You can expect to pay around 30 USD per night for a double room of dubious quality. Travelling alone can also be a little costly due to lack of tourism infrastructure. However everything else around Mawlamyine is very cheap and majority of the sites in the region have no fee attached. See the price guide below for more information.
That said, foreigner pricing is starting to rear its ugly head, despite there being no real infrastructure for foreigners. It doesn’t feel great to be charged 3 times what others are paying for exactly the same service.
2. The internet is impossibly slow
Again, a myth. And one that we were really pleasantly surprised by, being the blogging types. We have found speed in the internet cafes around Mawlamyine to be as good or better than we have received in Thailand. None of them cap upload either! We’re not talking the kind of speeds you would see in western countries, but fast enough to get things done.
We recommend OK Internet and CupidNet on U Zina Phayar Street. They both have wireless so you can use your own device (PCs also available), OK is really fast and Cupid staff speak great English. At 400 kyat per hour it’s a bargain.
3. Everyone smokes – even the children
Fortunately this isn’t happening yet in Mon State. Some people smoke, but no more than any western country. It seems to be older men mostly and definitely not children.
4. I need US dollars, not kyat
Whilst accommodation is generally paid in USD, everything else is in kyat so best to convert your money at the airport, leaving yourself a USD budget of $30 per night. With the usual exchange rates this is likely to make you an instant millionaire.
There are several options for getting to Mawlamyine. See link for more info.
Mawlamyine is not too big and most places can be walked to within half an hour. Walking is a great way to spot little restaurants, happen upon events and speak with locals.
Motorbike taxis are cheap and easy to come by. The roads are in pretty good condition and the driving seems reasonably safe. That said, a helmet won’t be provided and you will likely void your travel insurance by being on a motorbike without a helmet. It’s also a legal requirement to wear a helmet on a motorbike in Myanmar, though this does not seem to be enforced.
Tuk tuks are a really good option, safer than a motorbike and still quite cheap, though harder to come by.
You can hire a motorbike to self drive from the Snooker Hall on Strand Road. You can likely get away with this without a licence or helmet, but remember that this is illegal in Myanmar, travel insurance voiding and of course dangerous.
WHERE TO STAY
There are fewer accommodation options in Mawlamyine than in Myanmar’s popular tourist destinations. The following are well located and a variety of price brackets.
Breeze Guest House
Aurora Guest House
Ngwe Moe Hotel
Japan Guest House
At time of writing 1000 kyat equals roughly $1 USD and £0.60.
Bus from Yangon. 8000 kyat
Motorbike taxi fare around town 400 – 600 kyat
Meal in a high end restaurant 1500 – 4000 kyat
Street food/local restaurant meal 500 – 1500 kyat
Fried rice/noodles 1500 kyat
Internet access 400 kyat per hour
Can of beer 800 kyat
Large bottle of beer 1500 kyat
Glass of draught beer 600 kyat
Can of soft drink 500 kyat
Bag of crisps 200 kyat
1 litre of water 300 kyat
5 litres of water 1000 kyat
With so much to see and do in the region it’s tough to decide what to spend your time on. Based on what we enjoyed, locations and travel required, we’ve laid out our suggestions for a 2, 3 and 5 day visit, as well as listing things to see and do in the area.
Some things are really tough to find in the area. To reduce the risk of getting caught short, check out our Myanmar packing essentials guide.
Make sure you read the tourist dos and don’ts. Myanmar people are too polite to tell you if you are doing something offensive, so it’s up to you to be mindful.
Some other things we discovered that are not listed are:
* You should try to take/hand things with two hands instead of one. If you use one hand then touch the elbow of that arm with your other hand. Failing to do so shows a lack of respect.
* There isn’t much of a depreciating sense of humour about their country or culture in Myanmar and it’s very easy to create offence when it’s not intended. When speaking to a Myanmar remember that what you might think is an amusing cultural observation, they might take as a criticism of their country and take offence over – this was the single most difficult thing for us in our time here.
HEALTH & SAFETY
* The roads are in reasonable condition, but are covered by all manner of vehicles going at a variety of speeds. This can make crossing difficult at times.
* The footpaths are not great and many have unexpected drop offs and sketchy concrete tiles. Watch where you are walking, use a torch at night and remember that at times, walking on the road might be the safest option.
* Power lines hang quite low and people sometimes run poor quality cabling across the foot path. Be careful if walking barefoot.
* Whether there is malaria in the area or not depends on who you ask. We kept taking our malaria tablets and were glad we did as we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Seek advice from your doctor on this.
* We chose not to get rabies shots, but found ourselves quite regularly walking with cut up bare feet through bat droppings. In hindsight it may have been a good idea. Seek advice from your doctor on this.
* If you see whisky bottles by the side of the road and something doesn’t look quite right, these are likely used bottles refilled with petrol. Don’t drink them!!
* Mawlamyine is full of doctors and hospitals, so if something goes wrong help is at hand. Pharmacies do not required prescriptions, so if you’re particularly attached to your doctor at home you could do a phone consultation with them and then go buy your medication.
* This is Asia, so matters of the tummy are never far from the mind. We actually found we got less dodgy tummy than in Thailand, but were still glad to be carrying our Immodium Plus.
Too much of Myanmar’s glutinous rice however can send things the other way. There is a local, natural constipation cure made from lime. They look almost like sugar cubes and usually come in cylindrical container.
FOOD & DRINK
Myanmar cuisine is very unique and not to everyone’s taste. Leckie has put together a guide to Myanmar food and we have recommended some restaurants around Mawlamyine, as well as provided advice on eating etiquette.
There’s a lot of information to take in here, but with so little info available elsewhere, we hope that this will help others heading to the region.