When we rolled into Mawlamyine, the sun was shining brightly in the sky and the city was well into its lunchtime rush.
As we went north up Strand Road along the Thanlyin River, the ever increasing sound of trucks and motorbikes honking filled our ears. A once quiet coastal town that turned into a bustling teak port during the British colonial period, Mawlamyine is now a sleepier, more dilapidated reminder of the grandeur it once had. Crumbling Art Deco McMansions stand empty and alone. It's compelling to see. It's also incredibly weird.
It's as if you're in a place that's been overgrown and left to its own devices. But still very charming. And with a gigantic pagoda on top of a hill.
Learning from our lucky escape in Hpa-An, we called ahead for our hotel here, figuring you'll usually get away with just rolling up in more out-of-the-way towns, but with ever-increasing tourism, the more popular spots are under pressure.
There are accounts out there of people cycling for a full day before reaching their destination, only to find that the town doesn't have anywhere to stay, and their only other option is to travel another 30 kilometers to the next town. Either you're exhausted by the time you go to sleep that night, or you break the law and camp illegally. Here are our thoughts on the latter.
The Sandalwood Hotel, at the intersection of Lower Main Road (parallel to Strand Road) and Myoma Tadar Street, is a newish, glass-covered building which is heralded to be the best value in town. At 35,000 kyat/night, it is the most expensive place we've stayed in so far (they have cheaper rooms too), but we got a quiet, clean, large room with both a double and single bed, a decent ensuite bathroom, hot water, and breakfast.
Even better, they offered to take our filthy cycling clothes and get them washed and back to us before we left in the morning. Sold.
After we had checked in, we were starving as usual so we hotfooted it for the May South Indian Chetty Restaurant, which is only a few blocks down on Strand Road heading back south. This nondescript and slightly scruffy-looking place promised something a bit different from the last few days' fare, and would make for a welcome bit of variety before we head for the small towns and take what we can get.
"Meat? Vegetarian? Or Fish?"
"Yes", we felt like responding.
And before we could say, "Mingalaba", huge thali plates stacked with all sorts of goodies were coming our way. Biryanis and curries galore!
We ate and ate until we couldn't possibly eat another bite. And then we ate a bit more. You know, for the road. Incredible flavours and a steal at only 1,500 kyat per dish. Just what we needed after a morning's ride.
Several kilos heavier, we eventually hauled ourselves out of our seats and stumbled along the river, wheezing every so often due to the inevitable curry bloat. But who's in a hurry when the scenery looks like this?
All of the current wealth in Mawlamyine is concentrated at the northernmost tip of Strand Road. There, you see your Strand Hotels (there seems to be one in every major Burmese town and it's guaranteed to be the most expensive joint to stay in), your whitewashed (excuse the pun) restaurants that are catered exclusively towards holidaymakers, and Chinese tourists in their masses who have been told that Burma is the trendy place to be at the moment. Don't get us wrong, there's a long way to go before they experience tourism on the level of the likes of Thailand and Vietnam. But we're already seeing how it's gearing itself up for the influx, and we only hope that in changing to accommodate the visitors, they don't forget what makes the place so special.
One thing that won't be going anywhere is the pagodas. These have stood the test of time for centuries due to the rigorous care that is taken by local monasteries and townspeople. Mawlamyine has a row of them on the crests of the hills which spring up in the middle of the town, of which Kyaikthanlan is the oldest and tallest. This is the place where Rudyard Kipling sat "Lookin' lazy at the sea" in his famous poem Mandalay (which is actually about Mawlamyine, he never went anywhere near Mandalay).
You have to walk up a very steep hill to get there, but it's worth it. Don't be like us and get so lost that you have to walk through the backstreet markets in flip flops through squelching mud, much to the amusement of locals who obviously know better.
Once you get there, 5 long sets of stairs await you. Not exactly the most fun thing to do after a bike ride. But the view at the top is absolutely stunning. We'll let the photos speak for themselves.
We timed our ascent perfectly and had prime seats for the sunset to come. This is the same one that captured the hearts of Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, and others that came before us. It's easy to understand why.
We sat quietly for what seemed like ages, the sun's rays lapping at our faces and our eyes seeing everything turn a lovely reddish hue. There wasn't much to say. We just took in the natural beauty that surrounded us and watched time pass by. It was the first time it really sunk in for us that we were here and we were doing something crazy.
Eventually it was dinnertime, and we made our way down the hill and onto Strand Road again, where the majority of restaurants and eateries are located. Bypassing the ones that looked as if they belonged more in London than in Burma (you can imagine), we settled for an understated beer house serving Chinese food further down.
Burmese women mostly do not frequent such places, as it is unseemly for them to be seen drinking and smoking in public. But really, as we found out, it's also because the men are so liberal with their coughing, burping, and spitting out chewed-up betel nut that it would make any lady cringe. Each table has a little spitoon beside it, like the saloon in an old Western movie. It's unbelievable what passes for "normal" in each society. We're learning new things about this one every day.
We ended the evening with a drink on the river promenade, where stalls serve up street food and beer under the incongruous light of a huge video billboard high above. Our table was right next to the railing, and looking down, we were greeted with the sight of garbage everywhere and rats picking out a living from the leftovers.
It's become apparent over the last few days that trash is everywhere in this country. There doesn't seem to be the infrastructure to dispose of things properly. People do what they've always done and chuck it wherever is out of sight. But unfortunately the plastic and aluminium containers food comes in nowadays don't biodegrade like banana leaves, and some places are getting alarmingly clogged up.
The stall where we stopped for a beer was a family joint. The kid who served us looked around 9 years old, and small for his age. He was dead on his feet after an evening running around serving food and drinks, when in better circumstances he would be resting before school in the morning.
The reality of how relentlessly tough everyday life is for most here brought us down to earth with a bump. But there is hope – we've noticed there are a lot of new schools springing up in every village. It's a joyous sound as you ride past and hear all those kids in neat school uniforms calling back answers to their teachers.
Here's hoping things keep improving for the better. The people deserve it.