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Shwe Taung Street south from the Muslim Quarter of Mawlamyine (also spelt Mawlamyaing) is made up of small houses painted in mint, raspberry and cornflower-blue pastels. These low-slung houses were built to accommodate the Indian civil servants brought over by the British and many of their descendants continue to live there.
Visiting in the 1950s, the British author Norman Lewis described the town thus:
‘Moulmein was a town of strong baroque flavour. It was as if the essence of the Renaissance had finally reached it via Portugal, and after careful straining through an Indian mesh. There was a spaciousness of planning; an evidence of studied proportion about the old stone houses … Crows alighted and perched swaying on the potted sunflowers put out on balconies. Rows of coconut had been suspended from the eaves for the tutelary spirits’ accommodation.’
The town became a popular retirement spot for civil servants of the British Empire. However the coup of General Ne Win in 1962 saw a large exodus of British, Anglo-Burmese, and Indians.
‘By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; …’
Kyaikthanlan Pagoda offers sumptuous views over the town and out to the Thanlwin River. The stair passage that leads up to the pagoda platform, crumbling but retaining its grandeur, is a sight in itself.
On either side of the steps are the lodgings of monks and novices, the former pottering around the courtyard or inside in studious contemplation, the latter more likely to be found scuffling with their unrobed friends throwing snapbangs down the steps.
This is the ‘old Moulmein Pagoda‘ Kipling refers to in his poem ‘Mandalay.’ On walking up to the stupa he later wrote, “I should better remember what the pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever …”.
Up on the terrace of Kyaikthanlan one will see – much as Kipling did – the hillside ‘ablaze with pagodas. From a gorgeous golden and vermilion beauty to a delicate grey stone one just completed’. One can also gaze down at the Mawlamyine Prison just to the north, today vacant and awaiting renovation.
The prison, built in 1908, leads us to the second most famous some-time guest of Little London, presenting a very different picture of British Burma …
George Orwell grew up on Kipling’s exotic stories of the East such as The Jungle Book and Kim, and was inspired by the romanticism of Kipling’s Burma. However when Orwell arrived in Moulmein in 1926 the city was already in decline and cracks were appearing at the seams of the British Empire.
In Moulmein Orwell trained to be an officer in the Indian Imperial Police. His essay ‘A Hanging’ takes place amongst the ‘yellow gravel and the grey walls’ of the Moulmein Prison and the short story ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is also set in the town. Far from the romanticism of Kipling, Orwell’s scribblings in Mawlamyine display the “grubby work” of Empire at close quarters in a place where he “was hated by large numbers of people.”
Not far from the Kyaikthanlan Pagoda is the Seindon Mibaya Kyaung – the monastery where King Mindon Min’s Mon Queen took sanctuary when his son Thibaw, Myanmar’s last monarch, came to the throne – and the U Khanti Paya – a temple built to commemorate the hermit-architect of Mandalay.
A short walk down from the Mahamuni Paya, to the west, is a white stupa that marks the spot where the youngest daughter of King Thibaw (last king of Burma) is buried. Known as the Fourth Princess, the strong-willed girl was born in exile in India and only returned to Myanmar as an adult.
A short distance outside of Mawlamyine is Win Sein Taw Ya, at 170 metres (560 feet) the longest Reclining Buddha in the world. Just off Mawlamyine’s northern end is Gaungse Kyun (‘Shampoo Island’) named due to the fact that during the Ava Period, the yearly royal-hair washing ceremony used water taken from a spring of this island.
Thanbyuzayat, 64 kilometres south of Mawlamyine, was the western terminus of the infamous Burma Death Railway. During the Japanese occupation of Burma in the Second World War, construction began on the line, also known as the Burma-Siam Railway, which was built to connect Bangkok and Rangoon.
Japanese engineers estimated that it would take 5 years to build the 410 kilometre line, but due to the forced, hard labour of POWs, the railway was completed in 13 months. A Japanese ‘comfort’ train inaugurated the track which was in use for 21 months before being bombed by the British Royal Air Force.
It is estimated that over 80, 000 Asians died in the construction of the railway line, as well as over 12, 000 Allied POWs, the majority being British and Australian.
Only one prisoner is known to have escaped; a Briton named Ras Pagani who was to take refuge with pro-British Karen guerrillas. He was later caught by the Japanese and taken to the horrific prison that they had established in the Rangoon New Law Courts. He did however live to see the British recapture Rangoon. The New Law Courts – nicknamed by the British POWs “the Rangoon Ritz” – have now been renovated as the Rosewood Yangon Hotel.
After the war, 111 Japanese and Koreans were charged with war crimes. The horrors of the Burma Death Railway are recounted in the book by Pierre Boulle and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai. More recently there has been the book The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan and the film The Railway Man.
At Thanbyuzayat there is a war cemetery with the graves of 3, 771 POWs, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
On the way to or from Thanbyuzayat one can climb Kyauktalon Taung, a hilly crag which offers a serene vantage point to look over the environs of Mawlamyine at sunset.
When at Mawlamyine one can take the boat to visit Bilu Kyun which translates as “Ogre Island”. Here, either by bicycle, horse-and-cart or pick-up truck, one can explore this island and its 78 villages, still very much in the grips of jungle.
A highlight of Ogre Island is the large village of Mudon, famous for fashioning Myanmar’s best pipes. Mudon has excelled at this craft since the days of the British and true to the eccentricities of that nation, in the middle of the town, in pride of place on a plinth sits a gigantic rendition of the town’s favourite handicraft.
Ogre Island is also well-known for creating Myanmar’s slate drawing boards, often referred to as the “Burmese iPad.” Once common in schools, now more often seen proclaiming Specials and Happy Hour in hip bars and cafés in Yangon and Mandalay.
One of Bilu Kyun’s two swimming pools is situated in a glade in the woods next to a small café made out of used coca-cola bottles. When Sampan last visited teenagers yelped and made back-flips into the water. We joined them while the industrious proprietor of the pool tinkered away on the blue piping that emerged from the depths and webbed its way out towards the trees beyond.
A few hours drive south of Mawlamyine is the little town of Ye, which is as delectable and charming as its name suggests. There is little of the spectacular to be found here and it offers only two cosy but simple guesthouses.
However with the lake at the centre, the collection of little pagodas and monasteries upon its circumference, and the broad willows stooping over its twisting lanes, Ye makes for a charming lunchtime or overnight stop for those travelling south from Mawlamyine.
There are a handful of basic but flavoursome eateries on the banks of the lake, after which one can take a stroll around its circumference and visit the small shrine at the centre. Feeding the frantic fish that will flock to the jetty as you approach is a curious albeit slightly unnerving activity. Into the writhing cacophony below one can drop titbits, attempting to find the gullets of the larger fish that appear moronic and gaping above the surface.
After this excitement, on one of the wonky lovers’ benches situated around the lake one can take a cup of sweet Myanmar tea in the shade of the willows, responding to the habitual cries of ‘Hey you!’ from the school boys riding three-a-bike home.
At the centre of the town, just below the park and only a 5 minute walk from the lake, sits a pagoda which is notable for the chinthe that guard its entrance, painted in a rich scarlet as opposed to the conventional white.
Tarnishing the idyllic image of this little town and with the sour taste of history repeating itself, are the reports made in 1996, Myanmar’s ‘Year of Tourism’, that the military government was using forced labour to build a railway line from Ye to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi Division.
The claims were made by the Australian journalist John Pilger, who worked undercover with his director David Munro in filming Inside Burma: Land of Fear. In the documentary there is footage of children as young as 10 working in 35 degree celsius, shifting loads of clay, and crawling into the holes under grinders to collect more.
At one point in the documentary the scene suddenly cuts off and Pilger later explains that his cameramen had to drop their equipment so to rescue one young boy who was being sucked into a hole by the clinging, churning mud.
Kipling, the man who created the romantic veil, and Orwell, who tried to rip it away.