Mawlamyine, Myanmar: Saving the Best for Last…

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The bus pulls into Mawlamyine after an all-day truck from the capital Yangon and I’m immediately flashing back to Saigon, Hanoi, Viangchan, or Phnom Penh, take your pick, c. 1995 or thereabouts, just coming out of the self-imposed shadows, them not me, but wait a minute, let me think, dirty broke-down funky and authentic, before all the development, all the tourists and the humans from the West, all wanting a piece of the action, all wanting a bit of loose change, hopefully for the better not worse…

But there are no money changers here, not yet anyway, just banks and ATM’s, and ‘no beer no alcohol’, say all the signs, in the restaurants at least, unlike Inle Lake, there advertising ‘mojitos caiparinhas gin and tonic’ you name it, but here lotsa Chinese and Muslims, and most hotels close at 10 p.m. or 10:30, three red lights and a rush hour inversely proportional to Yangon’s. But the real action is down on the Thanlwin River, with markets both black and white, Mawlamyine’s lifeline and raison d’etre

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Tourists go native in Myanmar

Sounds like my kind of place. Of course, if you’re staying at the Breeze Guest House here, then you could be excused for thinking that you’re at Backpack Central for this part of the world, and you are! Almost every traveler in town is here, more than half I reckon, all right here, in this one place, like Pension Meza in Guatemala City 1978 or Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong 1997, the place defines the times, last domino to fall in the capitalist conquest of East Asia, in this case, long after China, Vietnam, Kampuchea and Laos…

And like most of those, Mawlamyine (Moulmein) has the colonial architecture to prove it, battle scars on a smiley face, stretch marks on weathered skin. But there’s more to the narrative than tourist overtures and capitalist apertures. For the first time in modern history, Myanmar is mostly—I repeat MOSTLY—pacified, and that is significant. That means the nearby Karen tribal peoples are quiet, and the nearby border to Thailand is open, even if the Shans and Kachins and Rohingyas are hardly quiescent…

And this is a part of Burma that more resembles its neighbor Thailand, central Thailand, what with massive Mon bloodlines on both sides of the border. In fact the original name of the ancient city of Ayutthaya declares it the capital of Thais and Mons, and Mons are the authors of the ancient Dvaravati culture that preceded the Thais in the area, and contemporaneous with their cousin Khmers to the east…

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Chinese New Year in Mawlawmyine

Go back 4-5000 years and all SE Asians are related, 20K and it’s all east Asians, 60K and we’re all related, straight outta’ Africa, not Compton, except for the odd Neanderthal hanging out in caves with Ringo riding out the Ice Ages and waiting for better weather.

But that is history and the Mons are largely forgotten, like Kurds in the bloodline of Asia, except here in Mon state of Myanmar. But even here their influence is limited and largely symbolic. Use of the language is in serious decline, and the future is not bright for one of Asia’s great cultures, largely assimilated into the Thais to the east and the Burmese from the north…

But that shouldn’t concern the average traveler too much. Of more concern might be the squat pots at the Breeze G.H., where they’ve installed handicap bars to brace yourself off the wall instead of western crappers to sit comfortably down upon. But the food is good here, maybe better the heavier fried and greasy food up north, even if you might have to limit your beer and other alcoholic adventures to the higher-end eateries or officially designated pubs and discos, of which there are only few. Don’t worry: it’ll change…

This is tomato culture, Burma is, almost the equal of Italy, or any of the rest. How did that happen, since tomatoes came from Mexico pre-Colombian? News travels fast, I guess. But curry is still king all over Burma, with and without the addition of coconut milk from the Muslim south. I like it. Get me away from the ‘Big Four’ tourist destinations and I’m happy—as long as there are enough tourists to allow for some foreign amenities. I hate to be a sanctimonious prick, but if you’ve seen once-pristine Asian destinations become tourist zoological parks for immediate consumption, then you might understand…

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Market vendor in Mawlamyine

And the best thing about Mawlamyine is that it’s only a four-hour ride from the Thai border town of Mae Sot, albeit over a very rough road. My recent bouts with meditation and kidney stones have prepared me for almost anything. But the Burmese landscape is not as settled as Thai, with large wide open spaces between scattered towns and cities, of which Mawlamyine is fourth largest (and much smaller than the larger ones). I don’t even know where Burma gets those 50+ million people; I only count 43 million (cue laughter)…

But this is a pleasant change from the Thai edifice complex and a level of feverish development there that would rival China, hardly what I bargained for when I washed up on the Asian beach a quarter-century ago. People are walking here in Burma, not riding, except in horse-drawn carriages. And leaving the city, any city, is like going back in time, so you gotta’ take day buses to see it. True, there are markets in the temples and money in the beggars’ bowls, but that’s not necessarily a deal-killer…

And Yangon is not an unpleasant metropolis, clean and green, except for traffic jams that would rival pre-Metro Bangkok, and dirt cheap away from the obvious tourist haunts. I’ll be back. My ten-day meditation schedule last week means that I didn’t get to see all that I wanted, eastern Shan state in particular. And the proximity to Thailand, my second home, means that I can easily come back. And I will. I will. I promise I will…

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