It was hot in Mawlamyine. The days lingered in endlessly blue, sunshine washed skies without a sign of the encroaching monsoon season. Maybe it was the heat, or the fact that I was still spending a large chunk of the day working on the Durian Tourist Guide to Thailand, but I felt lazy. All I wanted to do was just walk around, take in the sights and sounds of Myanmar, and eat some Burmese durian.
So that’s what we did.
Mawlamyine is the third or fourth largest city in Myanmar, depending on your source. That doesn’t mean much, because I one morning I walked from one end of Maylwamyine to the other in 45 minutes. The city has a long sidewalk promenade along the river that goes for miles. It’s a nice place to walk in the early morning and evening before it gets too hot.
From here you can see Thanlwin bridge, the longest road and rail bridge in Myanmar.
After the chaos and claustrophobia of Yangon, Mawlamyine felt quiet and still. A single bicycle cab, or seikah, offered us a ride, and when we said no he languidly pedaled away. Teenage boys on bicycles passed by, waving over their heads to us and laughing.
Some kids were selling little fried balls in bags, and asked to have their photo taken. The one on the right is wearing Thanaka, a paste made from dried tree bark that is believed to be good for the skin. I snapped three or four photos of them striking different poses, and after each shot they clambered to see themselves on the screen.
This is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.
The worn city streets are lined with aging colonial houses with narrow balconies and peeling paint. Most men wear the traditional sarong, or lungi, carefully tying and retying it through the day. Sometimes it looked so precariously tied I could help but wonder if they ever lose it altogether.
In the mid-afternoon we took a seat by a sugar cane juicer, listening to the bell go around and around as he cranked the thick stalks through the gears. We sat sipping cup after cup of the sweet, cold liquid and just people watching. We didn’t see any other foreigners.
The vendor didn’t know the words Chanee or Monthong, just that some of his durian was from Thailand. He actually said that none of the durians had a name, there were just Thai durians and Myanmar durians. Luckily, some of his locally grown durian was really fresh. Can you see which stems are pale and fresh looking, and which are dried up and old?
We ate one durian right there at the stall. It was pale cream in color, soft and gooey as the come with a slight, slight hint of a cooling sensation that spread across the back of our tongues and throat. It was the best durian we’ve eaten in a long time. He only had two more that were as fresh, so we bought them both and walked away to find somewhere to eat and watch the sunset.
We chose the hill with the famous Kyaikthanlan pagoda, built in 875 AD and thought to be the site from
where Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem, ‘The Road to Mandalay.’ We sat on some benches directly opposite the pagoda, and watched the full moon begin to appear as the sky darkened. It was a pretty magical place for a durian feast.
It turns out we needn’t have hiked up the hill with our own durian. We could have bought it right in front of the pagoda. So I bought one from these guys too. When I asked to take a photo, one guy whipped out his cell phone and took a photo of me! They seemed to get a real kick out of how carefully we picked through their pile, searching for the best one. Most were old and had obviously been cut off of the tree, but there were a few gems in the mix.
This one didn’t look particularly different from the outside, so I was delighted and surprised when it turned out to be beautiful yellow. It was getting fairly dark by this time, so the photo doesn’t quite do this durian justice. Not knowing exactly what to expect is something I love about choosing durian. There are a few good indications that a durian will be good, but there are so many kinds of good durian that it’s hard to know what you’ve got until you open it. It’s like gambling.
Getting to Mawlamyine isn’t difficult. Once you figure out how to spell it (Mawlamyaing and Moulmein are also correct), it’s pretty straightforward to book through either the bus station or your hotel. Our hotel arranged the bus for us from Yangon, and we paid 5,000 kyat each plus the taxi to the bus station, which is about a 30 minute drive from downtown Yangon with no traffic.
Our hotel must have booked us on a good line, because it took about 5.5 hours on an air-conditioned bus that made automated announcements in a soothing female British voice when whenever we stopped for lunch or breaks. It made me feel like we were on an airplane, not a cheap bus in Myanmar.
“I wonder if they turned that recording on just for us,” I commented to Rob. We were the only foreigners on the bus.
On the way back to Yangon, we didn’t have such great luck. The bus was nearly full, except for two “tourist seats” that cost double the price everyone else was paying – or 10,000 kyat each (~$10). It took nearly 7 hours, and we didn’t stop at a restaurant. Even more disappointing, there was no calm British voice-over to tell us that the jarring ride was nearly over.
We’d actually planned on staying in Myanmar for the entire 28 days of our visa. But after only two weeks, we realized that trying to complete a book in a country that frequently loses power and has internet that only works effectively between the hours of 11 PM and 3 AM (at which point it mysteriously turns off) was a kind of lunacy. That, combined with changes at the Thai border, made us decide to truncate our stay and head back to Thailand early.
I was disappointed. I’d been dreaming for years about long, empty days on the Andaman Sea and treks to find durian in the misty mountains along the border of Thailand. But you know, I’m not certain I would have fully appreciated it before.
Rob’s always made fun of me for being the action-packed tourist, the one with a camera bouncing on one hip, a map in hand and a long mental list of places to go and durians to find. I think I’m starting to realize that sometimes there’s really nothing to see, there’s just somewhere to be.
So whenever we go back to Myanmar, I’ll be looking forward to slowing down, relaxing, and just enjoying the durian.