I’ve not headed south-east from Yangon before so, with Mrauk U off-limits due to the Rohingya ‘problem’ and after two lazy weeks in the old capital I took my ‘upper class’ $14 seat on the Saturday morning 7.15am train for the eleven or so hour trip to Mawlemyine.
The train rumbles and bounces along (sometimes lifting us all right out of our seats which must hurt on the wooden slatted seats of ‘ordinary class’), first north towards the great pagoda town of Bago (try the San Francisco guesthouse I’m told) then turning south to run down into the thin stretch of land that Myanmar shares with Thailand and that eventually connects the latter with Malaysia.
It’s still harvest time out in the rice fields which makes for some glorious viewing. Watching the cutting and threshing and sorting and stacking easily passes the time on what is a longer but much more pleasant journey than the same trip by bus. But what really caught my eye was the birdlife. Not just the common sight of oh-so-many Cattle Egrets (otherwise seen by me only in London Zoo and heard of once last year in Milton Keynes), but the Kingfishers, two types that I lost count of, flashing their colours as they flitted above the trackside waters or resting and drying out on the telephone wire. Then later many examples of a green bird with brown on its wing tips that looks a bit like a spitfire and flies as if dogfighting to boot. I will have to look that one up.
On the final run into Mawlemyine the train slows (even further) to cross a really long bridge that connects Myanmar’s fourth largest city (Popn app 200,000) with the land immediately to its north, across the mouth of the Thanlwin River. The sun is setting over islands in the Gulf of Mottama as Mawlemyine comes into sight. The elevated ride continues all the way through town to the station where the normal crowd of taxi drivers and chancers awaits every train’s arrival and before you know where you are you are on your way to your guesthouse.
Accommodation Tip : I hotel-hopped in Mawlemyine. To call Breeze guesthouse ‘the backpacker favourite’ is to call things wrongly. It may be full of backpackers but its cell-like cabins, threadbare towels-for-bedsheets and overnight toilet lockouts (bed-pan anyone?) have them keen to move on unless they are truly budget-conscious $6 a night types. Unless you are really in no position to pay $30 to share a twin room at Cinderella Hotel, one of the nicest and certainly best value hotels I’ve stayed in anywhere in the country, then Breeze is not for you (unless you can bag the one and only old style colonial room). Just the $5 difference between the $25 room at Breeze and the $30 option at Cinderella would cost you about $100+ in Europe. The breakfast alone is worth $5. Book ahead at Cinderella (curfew, oddly, at 11pm), try super-clean and friendly Sandalwood, check-in at OK, which is said to be OK, or blow a good value $50 at Strand View before you settle for Breeze, even though the owner and his family are a delight and it’s where you can book yourself onto the not-to-be-missed boat trip to Hpa An.
There is plenty to see and do in Mawlemyine. The Strand and streets running parallel to it have a Truman Show feeling to them. Every other person offers, in english, a hearty ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. It’s a short climb or a swift motorbike taxi ride up to the pagoda-topped ridge that runs throughout the middle of town and it’s well worth making the trip more than once. Sunset is good. So is sunrise*.
The prime attraction is a monastery containing some pretty impressive carvings that put me in mind of more than one iconostasis I’ve seen in churches in eastern and southern europe, though there were no carved elephant tusks there. I felt the onset of travel-tummy and felt a bit rough while here so I had a little lie down, waking an hour or so later to find a monk had placed a pillow beneath my head. Good guys some of these monks.
En route back to town I had a great full fire, water and flower Hare Krishna time at the Hindu temple pictured above.
Out and about near town there are some sights that I’m told are worth seeing but even my never-hectic schedule prevented me getting to them. Most notable perhaps the longest reclining Buddha ‘in the world AND in Myanmar’. It is 180 metres long and apparently a bit crude in design. I’m sorry to have missed that but you can get the same effect by standing closer to any shorter reclining Buddha.
A couple of hours south of Mawlemyine you can visit something of the ‘death railway’ and a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where a few thousand of those that died building it are buried. I didn’t make it there this time, but I have been (2002) to the larger similar cemetery in the north of Yangon where it becomes abundantly clear that unlike the Allied soldiers that died on the railway (having mostly been captured as the Japanese advanced into Myanmar and down the Malaysian Peninsula) the ‘British’ soldiers that died later ‘liberating’ the country by forcing the Japanese back the way they came, were in large number Indians and Africans, many, many of them Muslims.
It would be a good thing if more of Myanmar’s current residents had some knowledge of this given the deep and long-standing enmity towards Muslims in some large parts of the population, even if it goes only so far as not using their shops, but most currently and more extremely displayed in the questionable attitude of many to the aforementioned Rohingya.
The government position is clearly questionable but so is the near silence of Aung San Suu Kyi. Some say she is ‘a populist’ who reflects the view of the people rather than helping to form it and that, even this far ahead of the 2015 General Election, her party (it was no total landslide back in 1990; the NLD won 392 of 492 seats but ‘only’ 58% of the popular vote) cannot afford to risk ‘Buddhist’ votes by being seen to stand up for Myanmar’s most blighted citizenship-less minority. Because they are seen as illegal immigrants even if their families have been in Myanmar since the British time. Because they are Muslims.
I will certainly return to Mawlemyine given the chance. And I will return to the subject of the Rohingya in a later post when I have found out a bit more about it. It’s all a bit ‘snowball’ as they say here (more Orwell). Who knows who or what to believe?
I asked a Buddhist friend if he believes, as I do, in the free movement of people. If he believes that he should be free to travel to any part of the world, to cross any border, enter any nation, be it on foot, by bicycle. by boat, train or plane, without need of a visa, in search of work or whatever.
He does believe he should be so free. I asked why he therefore thinks, as he does, that the Rohingya should not enjoy the same freedom.
“That’s a tricky one”.
* We call them sunset and sunrise but the Sun does not set or rise. The earth rotates, at “900 miles an hour”, moving the bit of the planet we are standing on into (sunrise) or out of (sunset) the light of the Sun. Of course the Earth moves, at “19 miles a second”, one 365th and a bit of the way around the Sun between each sunrise and the next (and sunset and the next) and, even though “the Sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, are moving at a million miles a day”**, relative to the Earth the Sun, 93 million miles away (though apparently a little closer yesterday than in any other day in 2013) stays ‘pretty much in the same place’. To call them sunrise and sunset is to live on in a pre-Copernican*** age of belief that the Sun orbits the earth, not vice versa. Is it not time we came up with something more accurate to describe the start – and end – of the day? Or do I have too much time on my hands?
** All these speeds taken from Monty Python’s Galaxy Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqtdpuZxvk
*** Copernicus (1473-1543) was not the first person to claim that the Earth rotates around the Sun. In Western civilization, it was the Greek Aristarchus of Samos who around 270 BC became the first astronomer to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system. As referenced by Archimedes at the time: “His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved, and that the Earth revolves about the Sun in the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the orbit.” However, in the East mention of the Sun and not the Earth being at the centre of the Solar System dates back even before the 9th century BC. For instance, the legendary sage of Vedic India Yajnavalkya (9th–8th century BC) wrote in his Shatapatha Brahmana (126.96.36.199):
Don’t get me started on those Apollo 8 earthrise photos. The famous picture was taken as the ship came around the moon’s equator not as it came up over its pole. You see it here, as it was taken, not turned around by 90 degrees as you more ‘normally’ see it. Snowball.