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Sleeping beauty: lazy ‘Burmese days’ in Mawlamyine

Immortalised by Rudyard Kipling, the Myanmese city of Mawlamyine is waking up to a new day, writes David Eimer. Pictures by Andrew Chant

 

Come sunset, and the temple of Kyaik Thanlan is the only place to be in Mawlamyine. Its golden pagoda stands astride a ridge lined with other shrines and provides panoramic views across this now sleepy port in southeastern Myanmar's Mon state. But it is the vista towards the Thanlwin River that is the most captivating.

In the hazy late afternoon, as the red sun dips below the horizon, gazing down at Mawlamyine from Kyaik Thanlan is a daily ritual for those city residents who come to the temple to make merit. For visitors, the view appears to be one from the 19th century. Then, Myanmar was known as Burma and was part of the British empire, while Mawlamyine, which the British called Moulmein, was one of the busiest ports in Southeast Asia.

The elephants that once loaded prized teak onto ships bound for England are long gone but Mawlamyine is still home to the finest collection of colonial-era architecture outside of Yangon, Myanmar's former capital, 300 kilometres to the northwest, and teak trees still poke up above the grand churches and houses. Wooden boats bob on the river as they did 100 years ago. Even the notorious prison in the centre of town is a Victorian creation, albeit one that until recently housed political prisoners and Rohingya refugees.

British writer Rudyard Kipling passed through Mawlamyine in 1889 and his brief visit provided the inspiration for his poem Mandalay. "By the old Moulmein pagoda, looking lazy at the sea" remains one of the most well-known opening lines to any poem. Kipling's verses, too, are as suggestive of Myanmar now as when he wrote them, in 1890. Spend any time at Kyaik Thanlan and you'll hear the "tinkly temple-bells" he refers to.

George Orwell, author of Burmese Days and another British writer indelibly associated with the country, took inspiration from Mawlamyine, too. He used it as the setting for Shooting an Elephant, a semi-autobiographical account of an episode that occurred when he was serving here as a colonial police officer in the 1920s.

Kipling was a fervent imperialist; Orwell a fierce critic of Britain's empire, but the association of both men with Mawlamyine is drawing literary detectives to this little-known city.

About two million visitors arrived in Myanmar last year. That number is expected to increase again this year, as people flock to a country that was once a pariah state but is now one of the hottest destinations on the planet. And there are few places more suited to those in search of reminders of the country's still resonant past than Mawlamyine, which feels as if it is only now awakening from decades in hibernation.

Orwell's mother was born here, the child of traders from France who arrived when the port was in its heyday, as the capital of British Burma, which it was between 1826 and 1852. When Orwell was posted to Mawlamyine in April 1926, his maternal grandmother was still living here.

The street that was home to Orwell's family has been renamed Lainmawzin, an approximation of his mother's maiden name, Limouzin. Their house has gone but Lainmawzin Street, a somnolent suburban lane in the south of the city, is typical of Mawlamyine's endearing lack of hustle. The street's affable residents are slowly getting used to people coming to pay homage to the author of the most renowned book ever written about their country.

"Awareness of Orwell has risen among the locals and that's entirely because of the number of foreigners who are coming here asking about him," says Antony, a former civil servant who is now the city's premier guide. "Before 2011, hardly any foreigners came to Mawlamyine. Now, the number of tourists has tripled since last year alone. The lifting of sanctions [that had, until 2012, been imposed by many countries against Myanmar's oppressive regime] is a big reason for that but the Orwell connection is part of it, too."

Not all visitors to the city are on the Orwell trail. Some head immediately to nearby Ogre Island, in the Thanlwin, home not to monsters but to traditional Mon fishing villages and coconut plantations. Others go to Shampoo Island, so called because it is home to a spring once used in an annual hair-washing ritual.

The quiet streets that run back from Strand Road, Mawlamyine's waterfront, towards the hill Kyaik Thanlan sits atop form the heart of colonial Mawlamyine. This area is also the commercial centre of the city, home to markets, shops, teahouses, restaurants and a few hotels. Wandering the area is an intensely evocative experience, one that catapults you back to Burmese Days and the time when the British built Mawlamyine in imitation of the cities they had left behind.

With wide, tree-lined streets, Mawlamyine is laid out like a provincial English town. Churches of every denomination are scattered across it, a few dating back to the early 19th century, along with fading, often unoccupied century-old houses. Substitute oaks for the palm, mango and teak trees and you could be in a Middlemarch or a Candleford - until a monk in blood-red robes appears, padding barefoot and clutching an alms bowl.

Eager entrepreneurs are eyeing the splendid but decrepit mansions that line Strand Road and the streets behind it.

"Most of the big houses are owned by people who live in Yangon," says a local. "That's why so many have fallen into disrepair, because no one lives in them. But they're gradually being sold off and some will become hotels."

None of the city's churches are in need of refurbishment. They remain busy with worshippers, as do the Hindu and Chinese temples and mosques around town. These places of worship are frequented by the descendents of those who swarmed here when Mawlamyine was still a major trading port, but it is Buddhists who make up the majority of the population. Their presence accounts for the many pagodas, the spires of which constitute the only high-rises in Mawlamyine.

A ride south on a creaking bus offers more reminders of how intensely devout Myanmar's Buddhist residents are. A good road winds through rubber and palm-oil plantations, the hills to the left running west towards Myanmar's border with Thailand. Pagodas point skywards from almost every village along the route but nowhere else in the world can you find a reclining Buddha that stretches across a hillside for 170 metres.

Known locally as Win Sein Taw Ya, and 25 kilometres south of Mawlamyine, it is the largest such icon in the world, claim the locals. It is surrounded by smaller pagodas and inside are dozens of chambers depicting beatific scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as grisly portraits of what awaits those whose lifestyles run contrary to the big man's principles.

Travel another 40 kilometres south and you reach a reminder of what was a hell on Earth. The tiny town of Thanbyuzayat was the western terminus of the Japanese "death railway" of the second world war. Some 16,000 British, American, Australian and Dutch prisoners of war died building the 420-kilometre rail line from Kanchanaburi, in Thailand, to Thanbyuzayat. Tens of thousands of Burmese and Thais perished in its construction, too.

A simple cemetery sits by the side of the main Mawlamyine-Thanbyuzayat road. It contains almost 4,000 graves, marked by headstones with often unbearably poignant messages from the loved ones the men within left behind.

"In precious memory of my beloved only child, a dear son and a brave lad. Mother," is inscribed on the tombstone of Lance Corporal J.R. Wootton, of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.

Nearby is a small section of track, all that survives in Myanmar of the railway that inspired the movies The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Railway Man.

Thanbyuzayat sees so few foreigners that its residents go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. And the same can be said of Mawlamyine, itself. Tourists are such a new phenomenon here that you're certain to be approached by someone keen to practise their English, or simply just wanting to say hello.

Inevitably, though, the same apartment blocks going up in Yangon and Mandalay will start to appear here, too, as visitor numbers rise. In the meantime, Mawlamyine remains a place where you can gather on the waterfront to eat fresh seafood and barbecue at open-air restaurants with the locals or perch by a timeless pagoda and look and feel as lazy as you like.

 

Getting there: Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) flies four times a week from Hong Kong to Yangon. There are two buses in the morning and two in the afternoon from Yangon's Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal to Mawlamyine, the trip taking 5½ hours. There is also a daily train that leaves Yangon at 6.15am and takes about 10 hours.

 

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