A Travellerspoint blog

Mount Zwegabin

The twenty four hour loud speaker voices from the temples had us up far before our 7 a.m. tuktuk to Mount Zwegabin. We had some taro cookies for breakfast and a few oranges. On our tour, there was a woman from Calgary and another man from the US. He was a bit hungover, but still wanted to climb the mountain.

We drove through Lumbini garden again then up to the corridor that led to the path to the summit. We started climbing right away while the others stopped at the washroom. We knew we didn't have much time to summit and return and wanted to make the most of it. Our other tour mates had set an 11:00 deadline and it was already 7:30.

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The first section was a challenge with a steep climb up many stairs. We kept stopping for water breaks even though it was early and not overbearingly hot yet. From that height, we could still see some of the Buddha statues below though they grew smaller and smaller with each step.

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By the time we reached the first yellow and blue two story temple, twenty five minutes had elapsed and we'd climbed a fair bit. There was a bit of construction being done but overall it was a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

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The climb continued, but grew more horizontal for some sections as we crossed a ridge. Then we climbed even higher. The countryside was beautiful with green karst mountains in hazy shadows and cliff faces lit up in the sun perfectly. Agricultural land spread far in the other direction and the roads wound around. There were dogs up this high as well.

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The last leg of the journey was hot and sunny with plenty of uphill sections. On the way we encountered a monkey or two but kept our distance. The other two members of our climbing party met us near the top, making better time. We managed the summit in an hour and 45 minutes instead of the estimated two. Not bad for two people from the prairies that rarely climb anything.

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At the summit, there were a few pagodas and small community with a coffee shop/restaurant. One of the gold pagodas sat near the edge of the mountain, overlooking the land below. There was a gong and Buddha statues as well. We took off our shoes as it was a temple and the tiles cooled our feet. Around the back, we found shade and a great view of a few other pagodas on the mountain range. Monkeys stirred below us, playing, eating, and watching until a man with a slingshot came by to scare them off.

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Many people asked to be in photos with the woman from Calgary. We and the American guy posed with a friendly monk from Yangon who spoke great English.

Monkeys did attack in the end when we started eating our corn puff snacks. We gave one to the woman from Calgary but soon a monkey came at her. She threw it away but then it grabbed at her bag. She went to scare it but it hissed at her before it took interest in the coffee glass she had yet to return to the shop. It left in the end and Ryan snatched up her things before it could go after them again. They're scary creatures.

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We had another look at the pagoda and rested more before tackling the trail down. The sun was quite hot now, but many people were making the trek up at this time. A few groups of Burmese guys wanted a photo with Ryan and I before they ran off hooting and hollering. Everyone seemed quite happy.

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At the first rest stop, we found some adorable dogs who were a little scared of us. One of the black ones came to play with and chew on my camera bag strap. Ryan and I were slower on the way down too since we kept stopping to take pictures, but we made it down in an hour for 11:15. Chatting on the way back, we got some restaurant recommendations for lunch like the chicken salad or tomato for me. The woman from Calgary had also been trekking in Nepal and spoke very highly of her six weeks there. Everyone we talked with seemed to love it, so we were itching to go even more.

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Back in Hpa An, Ryan and I headed out to Khit Thit restaurant to try the chicken and tomato salads. They were alright, pretty basic, not really living up to the hype. We wandered the market for fruit to find oranges and bananas. The rest of the afternoon was meant for relaxing, reading and lying down. We had climbed a mountain after all.

For supper we had sweet and sour dishes at Lucky and fireworks followed. Music played from the nearby temple. It was a celebration, of what we weren't sure, and we forgot to ask about it the next day as well.

Posted by Sarah.M 07:33 Archived in Myanmar Tagged monkey climb mount_zwegabin hpa_an Comments (0)

Amazing Hpa An tour: caves, temples and bats

semi-overcast 30 °C

We managed to sneak in breakfast before our early tour left. I had rice and lentils, similar to what I'd gotten in Yangon, but with less flavour. Ryan had some toast. We also had what was left of our tasty market fruit.

Our tuktuk had three others, a man from England, a woman with a British accent that said she was American and went to school there but was now living in Thailand and writing articles, and Wendy an Australian-Chinese woman who was travelling with her daughter. Her daughter had done the tour yesterday and really enjoyed it. She'd travelled around Mandalay and Inle lake as well during her time here.

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The first stop on the bumpy tuktuk tour was Kaw Ka Thaung Cave. Accompanied by a temple and reclining Buddha statue, this cave was a good starter size. There were gold robbed Buddha statues and colourful fences outside. The Buddha statues continued along both sides of the cave, usually wearing gold. If you looked up, there were thousands of small Buddhas carved into reddish stone on the cave ceiling.

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Some of the larger statues had yellow cloths around their bodies or umbrellas. Toward the back, there was a narrow pathway to more Buddhist figures including a small green Buddha statue. We ran into the British family from the guesthouse yesterday here who lived in Australia and recognized us as the ones who got the rooftop room. They found another place to stay, Golden Sky who offered tours with comfier looking tuktuks.

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Outside the cave, a procession of red-robed monk statues collecting alms led us past fields of rice, a pond, rock shrine and adorable dogs. There was another cave to reach via stairs but the pathway to it was closed off. Rumour had it that a monk found a condom there and locked it. Ducks ran around the bright green fields. As we waited for the tuktuks to go, one blasted Eminem's Slim Shady which was the last thing I expected to hear at a temple.

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Next was Saddan Cave which required a 1000 kyat donation for the long walk through the cave. Definitely worth it. There were plenty of statues at the beginning, neat when mixed with natural cave formations like flowstone and curtains. There was a Golden Rock with a face on it. Some of the small Buddha statues mounted to the walls created patterns like elephants, temples or frogs. As we went further into the cave, there was a golden stupa lit up wonderfully with the sunlight coming in and statues of monk dressed in gold.

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Luckily, the cave was lit up artificially for the rest of the walk so we didn't lose our footing. There were some man-made staircases too. We came out the other side near another small temple replica built on a rock. There was a wait to see that one.

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Through the cave arch sat a calm lake, fig tree and wooden boats to take back to the parking lot for 1500 kyat. Our paddler was a young boy. He took us through a cave area that lit up quite stunningly and through flooded rice paddy channels. The fields were bright green. The British family with two kids joked that they'd paid their driver an extra 1000 if he beat our boat. In the end, the little boy thanked the driver with the extra 1000 since they indeed won the 'race'. It was sweet to see him insist his parents shell out the cash for their joke. Many locals wanted their photos taken with the young blond kids in the parking lot afterward.

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Our third stop was the lake and waterfall at Yae Ta Khon where some local people seam and we waited an hour for our food to be prepared. That time wasn't exaggerated either. I just wanted a simple egg fried rice. We all ate in the end and we found out more about Wendy's trip.

Lumbini garden came next and it was a nice tranquil spot. A thousand Buddha statues were in rows on either side of the road as we walked. The close ones had pillars and a roof structure while the rest were left to the elements. Some retouching was being done by the locals. We got back into the tuktuk after walking the trail. Our guide pointed out the mountain that we wanted to climb tomorrow, Mount Zwegabin.

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We headed on to Kyauk Ka Lat Temple which looked pretty darn cool from a distance. Across a large manmade moat sat a tall rock. As we've noticed in Myanmar, they tend to build temples on these sites, especially if the rock looked unstable like this one.

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We crossed the bridge, went around and climbed the temple, most impressive from afar. A monk tied pieces of string around people's necks while reciting a blessing. The British boy got one but wasn't too pleased about it. Rabbits hopped around too. An ice cream vendor was set up back at the road and it was too good to pass up. I had strawberry and Ryan's was a white colour.

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The next cave, Kwat Goon, had a 3000 kyat admission charge and online we'd read that the price wasn't worth it. Wendy's daughter had echoed that sentiment to her mom. Out of eleven tourists, only two chose to go in and were out in 25 minutes. If we hadn't already been to so many temples and caves we might have considered it, but instead we snacked and relaxed.

Ya Thae Pyan cave was up a set of stairs. Some of the articles in here dated as far back as the 13th century. Other votive tablets, images and statues were donated in the 17th century. The front had a tiled floor and plenty of statues of Buddha. We walked the different levels and admired the ceiling carvings as well. Toward the back, there was a long path to follow to the end of the cave where rice farmers worked from their boats. This cave had beautiful natural formations as well.

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After braving a bruise inducing tuktuk ride our final stop was the bat cave. We walked a long corridor along the river barefoot before coming to a high temple.

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There were some stairs with very questionable welding to climb. We made it up there safely enough, though the metal would come away from the rock and itself. From the top, we sat around the stupa to watch the sun go down near the steel bridge and mountains.

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Before it got too dark, we climbed down the scary ladder and got a tour of the bat cave. Far too much feces for a barefoot tour, plus the low lighting meant we were in and out. We waited opposite the cave until the locals began to beat on plastic containers and sweep to get the bats out. Thousands or not millions flew out in a black line that slithered on past the river and toward the mountains. They flew over our heads and the lines on either side of us would converge. As the locals hit their 'drums' the bat lines would jump too. The line went on for at least twenty minutes with bats still streaming out full force before it began to thin out. We couldn't believe the number of them going out to hunt. They switched directions later on, heading all the way to Mawlamyine, a tour hour bus ride away for us, and returned at dawn.

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Although it was a supercharged tour that started early and finished late, we were really happy we booked it. It had been run through Soe Brother's Guesthouse but others ran similar ones too. It was probably the best value tour we had during our whole Myanmar adventure, highly recommend it if you get a chance. The driver also offered his services to take us up to Mount Zwegabin tomorrow, which we decided to do.

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For supper, we dragged our exhausted selves to Lucky restaurant for some tasty sweet and sour pork for Ryan and fried kale and mushrooms with lemongrass and ginger. Very tasty. We good cookie snacks from a random shop since most were closed. They'd come in handy for breakfast.

Posted by Sarah.M 11:49 Archived in Myanmar Tagged sunset beautiful tuktuk tour bat_cave soe_brothers kaw_ka_thaung_cave saddan_cave lumbini_garden kyauk_ka_lat_temple ya_thae_pyan hpa_an Comments (0)

Hpa An

Markets and Meals

sunny 32 °C

We ventured down to the Cinderella Hotel again for a bit of a brunch. Ryan had Chicken Kinbao and I had Thai fried rice. Sadly neither could hold a candle to last night's meal but they did look quite fancy.

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Getting a cab after that was fairly easy and only cost 2000 kyat to get to the bus station. From there the ticket to Hpa-An was only 1000 kyat ($1) each. The seats were tight benches. The windows only cooled the vehicle a little as there was no air-conditioning. I was a little worried about my Thai pottery getting crushed in the pile of cargo where my luggage sat. Luckily, I'd wrapped it up well and it was fine. Google Maps helped us find the street the driver had said was just had markets, but we found some cheap guesthouses and the tourism centre. It was a large and busy enough street with lots of buildings and a temple nearby.

We found Soe Brothers Guesthouse and snagged the first and only room that they showed us with a private bathroom for $18. The British family in the lobby hadn't jumped on it as it was a little grubby but our standards weren't as high. Our only issue so far was wanting more hot water, but if we timed the showers right it wasn't as much of an issue.

We went walking to check out the bakery nearby that didn't have much in stock. We crossed another busy street to the fancy supermarket where we could get snacks: Thai sesame nut rolls and another small snack. The non-perishable section made up most of the store and they had a decent amount of imported goods too. The stores were quite different than ours back home. Fresh food belonged at the markets.

Before sunset, we explored the market block around our place. The covered market had fruits and vegetables, but the deeper we went the more raw meat and stinky fish sat out. Flies buzzed constantly. We couldn't get to the end fast enough. Once our nostrils had cleared, we kept our eyes peeled for fruit, seeing only watermelon for awhile. One woman had good looking bananas for 1200 and small mandarin oranges so we got 500 kyat/ 50 cents worth.

We dropped off our purchases and headed down the roads to San Ma Tou restaurant that we'd found recommended online. It was a bit of a walk, but once we arrived they set us up with over ten side-dishes/condiments, half of which we asked them to take away because of the meat. Since the food was prepared in advanced and sat out in pots to be served, Ryan was very much onboard with a veggie set, less risk of food poisoning. We had potato and bean curry, vegetable curry and honey fried potatoes. The potatoes were the tastiest, but the curries could have been better. It was far from the best in Myanmar, as the blog we'd read had claimed, though it could have been on off day for them. For dessert, there were coffee candies, tamarind balls and coconut jaggery, which if you've never tried is quite sweet and delicious.

We walked back in the dark. The clock tower was lit up nicely. Despite being smaller than Mawlamyine, this place seemed to have more life and traffic.

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Posted by Sarah.M 06:07 Archived in Myanmar Tagged restaurant market myanmar an clock_tower hpa san_ma_tou Comments (0)

Bilu Kyun, Ogre Island

sunny 34 °C

We walked over to Breeze Guesthouse to see if there'd be any breakfast served before the tour. They sent us off to the familiar grandmother, grandfather restaurant for the same thing we'd had yesterday. At least my stomach was familiar with what we were eating. After that, we waited at Breeze for awhile to get on the tour, although I had to run back to the restaurant to get the hat that I'd forgotten. Nine of us, including our guide Mr. Kyi, got in the tuktuk to the pier. It was a bit of a drive to reach it.

The boat heading to Bilu Kyun, also known as Ogre Island, had motorcycles stored in the seating undercarriage. We crawled over the top and into the back section. As we chatted with a woman from Australia, the boat fumes drifted over to make it a less pleasant trip. She'd been travelling with two French guys that she'd met and lived with in London. She shared some tips on minimum wage, buying cars and working in Australia, claiming we could get normal jobs and do more than just farm work to earn money. She wasn't super keen on this tour so far.

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We got off the boat and into another tuktuk. We stopped near the rice fields to get pictures. Mr. Kyi shared that Ogre Island used to be populated by cannibals until the Mon people came and got rid of them. Now it was mainly farmers and some handcrafters that resided here.

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There was loud music playing from a home and our tuktuk slowed right down. Mr. Kyi told us to go upstairs and we sat on the floor with the other villagers. Soon they brought us snacks like tea leaf salad, sticky rice cubes, and tea to celebrate the family's new novice monk. He had gone off to the monastery that morning.

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Our guide soon called us downstairs for a table full of food that I could only describe as a vegetarian nightmare. Bowl after bowl of chicken, fish, and pork curries made their rounds. One dish looked like vegetables, but that was only because the meat was very fine and it clung to everything. I ate rice wishing I had eaten a bit more upstairs. I had thought a celebration for a monk would have less meat, but that was a wrong assumption. That ten a.m. meal probably counted as our included lunch, cutting costs wherever possible.

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The house was decorated with a large tent and lines of heart-shaped balloons. They even hired a videographer who came to film us too. The money invested explained the meat, always a sign of wealth. We didn't stay too long.

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Next we stopped to see a woman sewing together pieces of stretched bamboo to make hats. The women's hat had a wider brim like rice hats while the men's hats were smaller like a helmet. I tried one on but I wasn't feeling so great.

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We took a long walk to a quarry to find a small swimming pool they had created. Some of us dunked our legs in but no one swam. It was also near a mine site where the workers would earn only around $20 for the rock they mined in one day. I assumed that wage would be split between them too. I tried to enjoy the stillness in the shade while it lasted. Today was quite hot.

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The tuktuk brought us to a pipe factory where men sanded and made holes in small pipes meant to hold cigarettes. We watched them us tools to chip, shape and sand the wood that spun from a belt powered device. We were shepherded upstairs for a product display from pens to hairclips, massage and pipes, all made of wood. We had some fun trying out the not so obvious massage tools. A Korean woman who owned a restaurant in Northern India bought quite a bit as did a couple other guys on the tour. They gave us tea and coconut crisp snacks.

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We could smell the next item on our itinerary before it came into view: the rubber band factory. Outside, bright pink and yellow rubber stretched over cylindrical rods was drying in the sun. We went inside the garage shop and saw the white rubber in liquid form in a large barrel. One of the workers poured in yellow dye. Another dunked the sets of wooden cylinders into the colourful rubber barrels.

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To the side, two women had the dried tubes, now resembling sleeves, and were feeding them through a mechanical cutting machine. Small elastic bands came flying down to the colourful floor. They were shipped all over the country with the good ones getting sold at the market for 1000 kyat a pound. Not one worker wore a mask for the strong fumes, nor did they have protective footwear. I wondered how their health fared after working here.

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With water and chemical, a man removed the dry sleeves of rubber from the cylinders. They would soon be sent off to the women to cut into bands. The factory also produced sheets of rubber that were used to make slippers or flipflops as we know them back home. Women out front sorted the good rubber bands from the broken.

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On the way to our next destination, we passed a big wooden pipe statue. Fittingly, the next shop we visited was a pipe shop that also made walking sticks. One man told us how his father spent months working on the world's biggest pipe. There was also an Ogre pipe for sale where the smoke came out of its eyes.

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We left shortly after too see a woman weave a rope out of old coconut skin. She'd wet the hairs, roll them into her hand, then twist them together, often adding more pieces.

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Another ride took us to an area where people were cleaning up slate, sanding it then putting it into wooden frames, also sanded to perfection, so they could be used by school children. Most primary school students from years 1-3 used these to practise their writing. The slate pencil served as the writing utensil, a blast from the past.

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Our last stop was a weaving area where women spun thread to make brightly coloured longyis often exported to Thailand. I bought a brightly coloured purple one for 5,000 kyat (about $5). The looms were all worked by hand and foot pedals with long bundles of thread wound and placed to create the pattern ahead of time.

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On the boat ride back, we discovered some sexism in the seating arrangements. Only men were allowed on the top section, women either had to sit in the fumy back or underneath with the motorbikes. We chose the latter for cleaner air alongside some cute babies, women and a few men who hadn't gone upstairs.

For supper, we browsed a few menus where my vegetarian option was the omelette, a meal I couldn't bring myself to eat yet again. We went to the Cinderella Hotel for a fancy candlelit meal. I had tasty Malaysian fried noodles and Ryan had the Chicken Masala. The tables were bamboo and the courtyard was nice and relaxing. Finally, a tasty vegetarian meal.

Posted by Sarah.M 06:37 Archived in Myanmar Tagged weaving monk coconut pipe hats crafts celebration rope slate woodwork bilu_kyun ogre_island longyi Comments (0)

Mawlamyine

Mon museum and Payas

sunny 32 °C

I had a bit more energy in the morning and my appetite came back. We went looking for another place to eat but ended back up at the Grandfather Grandmother restaurant on the river again. I attempted to eat the fried toast and egg while Ryan went for more fried rice. The fried egg came with condensed milk and sugar, a bit like French toast, but far too sweet. I tried to order just an egg after that but I ended up with the exact same dish again. That was the downside to not speaking the same language.

We started the walking tour that we found in our Lonely Planet. We had to use Google Maps and modify it a bit based on where we were and what we wanted to see.

First stop was the Mon museum. It had quite a lot on general Burmese history and held a strong nationalist sentiment displayed by statements like 'Myanmar people come from Myanmar' in the displays of archaeological finds dating back thousands of years. Like in China, pottery was a major trade in Myanmar’s past.

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It could have been due to our inability to read Burmese script, but there wasn’t much background on the Mon people so I went searching for some in preparation for this blog post. Just be advised that I wasn’t always able to find dates or origins that stayed consistent so there will ambiguity.

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The Mon people are thought to have come from Western China thousands of years ago and are also thought to have introduced Theravada Buddhism and other Indian influences to the area. They settled in the Lower Irrawaddy delta and developed a strong kingdom that was eventually conquered by the Burmans in the 11th century. Myanmar wasn’t the only place the Mon settled, they also settled in Northern Thailand not far from Chiang Mai and near the Chao Phraya River in Nakhon Pathom. The island we’d visited in Bangkok was an area where Mon people currently live in Thailand. The Mon regained some independence after the Mongols took over from the Burmans in the 13th century, but the rivalry and clashes between the two groups continued.

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In the 18th century, Burman King Alaungphaya drove the Mon out of their territory and they became stateless. As the British came in next century, the Mon sided with them to try to improve their situation with little results. After the nation achieved independence in 1948, the Mon asked for the recognition of their identity and own state. They faced more percussion, death, burnt villages and imprisonment. Mon people created organizations, first the Mon People’s Front, then the New Moon State Party to fight for their rights. In 1974 they were granted a partially autonomous state, but continued to resist the oppressive military government until a ceasefire in 1996.

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From the archaeological section of the museum, time jumped to the current era where coins, tool and crafts of the Mon people were on display. There was a step by step diagram of pipe making, a common trade in this area, slate making to supply schools, weaving and pottery. There were also Buddhist statues, sculptures, Mon musical instruments like kyam, the crocodile xylophone and the saung harp. Music and dance were important to the Mon people.

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On the upper floor, there were more Buddhist artifacts and furniture from King Thibaw and his family. That royal family was the last of the monarchy as the British took over the country and forced their family into exile in India during the 19th century. Myanmar currently has no monarchy, though their descendants survive.

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On the way out, we passed the cannons and the old Ebenezer Baptist Church that looked pretty quiet. Mawlamyine had been an Anglo-Burmese settlement during colonization and it still showed in the landscape.

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Next we arrived at St. Patrick’s Church built in 1829. It was bright yellow with red trim. The clock tower had been built in 1854 by the French. Groups of Burmese people sat around the church and only two wandered around inside while we were there. There were some statues of Jesus, but it was nowhere near as ornate as their Buddhist temples. It also had no pews just two large mats on the floor.

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We journeyed on to Kyaik Than Lan Paya, a temple built in 875 AD that reputably housed one of Buddha’s hairs. There was a long quiet walkway to explore with a couple dogs lazing nearby. Hardly anyone was around and the pathway was well on its way to decaying. The path slowly climbed until we saw a higher entrance.

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We made our donation to ride the elevator to the paya as there were no stairs that we could find. From the paya site at the top of the ridge, we could see most of downtown Mawlamyine along with the river. It was quite the view, even including the old colonial prison.

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The Paya was a bit strange in the sense that they had someone sitting at the entrances of each shrine with a receipt book to take donations. We just observed from afar as it was likely an activity more suited to Buddhists. We walked around the tall golden pagoda, standing 46 metres. They even had benches to relax on as well. Unlike Shwedagon Pagoda busy with tourists and locals alike, this one only had a few other locals and one older foreign woman. One of the workers led me down a strange descending path to find the washrooms that felt like they were in a construction zone.

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We walked down another corridor to Maha Muni Paya, passing a reclining Buddha on the way. The Paya and Buddha area were under renovations but we were still invited in to look around. A woman was painting the gold back on the mirror tiled pillars while she spoke of her travels through Europe with her husband who was a doctor. Her English was pretty good. She said that the paint she was replacing was a hundred years old. Many of Myanmar's landmarks were getting makeovers, probably to be in good shape for tourists, or maybe it was just the tourism dollars could finally fund it.

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Venturing on, we descended toward Strand road to find lunch.

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We went through a couple of markets and a residential area first, also passing the colonial prison. We found a South Indian restaurant where our options were chicken, pork, vegetable or other meats. At least that made it simple. They brought us curries, crispy bread and rice to enjoy it with. It was nice to eat something with a different flavour than we were used to and Ryan quite enjoyed this one. The vegetable curries had a tomato flavour and a bit of spice, though not too much. The meal was reasonably priced as well.

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We hid from the heat after that. Ryan had been having trouble with his bank card earlier, which was bad news bears considering mine flat out didn't work in this country. We were getting a little worried. We were able to check if his account had been hacked, which it hadn't. When we went for supper, he tried the other ATMs with no luck. The lady at OK Guesthouse found an internet cafe for us, called to ensure they would be open and arranged a driver for us. We weren't even staying there, just planning on eating at the restaurant next door!

While the ride was a bit unnerving, three of us balanced on the driver's motorbike including me in a long skirt, we got there quickly enough. Ryan managed to make the call, surrounded by curious staff and our motorbike driver. It went through much quicker than mine had in Yangon. The only challenge was when the owner of the shop hung up our first call because Ryan had to type in his bank information. The whole process got a bit lost in language barriers. But in the end, we got the issue resolved. Since he'd been pulling out cash for the both of us, he'd reached the weekly withdrawal limit he hadn't reached before.

We walked back to OK guesthouse to eat as a thank you gesture. My omelette and fries were so-so, but the plates of watermelon we ordered thinking they were actually juice were downright delicious. My stomach didn't like the oily main dish however. Ryan hadn't been a fan of his fried noodles that reminded him too much of soap either. We walked back and settled in to get some sleep for the early morning tour we'd booked for the next day.

References
http://monnews.org/mon-people/
http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5a/entry-2997.html
http://www.myanmar-image.com/myanmar/races1/mon/history/

Posted by Sarah.M 07:31 Archived in Myanmar Tagged mon walking_tour mawlamyine mon_museum maha_muni_paya kyaikthanlan_paya st._patrick’s_church Comments (0)

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