Things to do in Mawlamyine and Bilu Island, Myanmar
I had first heard of the colonial charm of Mawlamyine (Moulmein) in Kipling’s highly inaccurate, dreamy poem ‘Mandalay’, and, fascinated by the images of ancient pagodas and palm trees, I wondered whether the city had more to offer, and whether there were any other interesting things to do in Mawlamyine and the adjacent Bilu Island, in southern Myanmar, to justify the trip.
Having planned a sailing trip to the Mergui archipelago from Kawthaung, we went on to travel all the way across southern Myanmar, stopping at various towns on the way, including Mawlamyine and Bilu Island. We had read great things about the destination, but still we couldn’t find enough comprehensive information about the things to do in Mawlamyine and Bilu Island.
Luckily for you, if you’re planning to do the same, we’ve got you covered in this post highlighting the top things to do in Mawlamyine and Bilu Island, Myanmar!
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Where is Mawlamyine?
Starting off with the basics, Mawlamyine is in southern Myanmar, the capital of the Mon state, and to be clear, it’s not your typical banana pancake trail destination.
Mawlamyine’s old town charm is reminiscent of other places in southeast Asia which have since succumbed to high-rise buildings and western food. Seemingly resisting the test of time, Mawlamyine has retained its characteristic charm, and is still full of local appeal and a fascinating place to explore.
Why should you go to Mawlamyine?
You will find several things to do in Mawlamyine, some of which are right in town, whilst others, at its outskirts. Case in point, we really recommend that you spend a day exploring Bilu Island which offers a different perspective into local life, which is also distinct, no matter its proximity to Mawlamyine.
First on the list of things to do in Mawlamyine should be your visit to the Kyaikthanlan Pagoda, the tallest pagoda in the city, and the one probably referenced in Kipling’s poem.
Like the rest of southern Myanmar, Mawlamyine will feel very different to other faster-paced and more touristic destinations in the country.
Even though we had traveled around the well-known destinations of Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay several years before we made it to Mawlamyine, the people in the south area felt way friendlier and more welcoming, although we can definitely say that we also had a very positive experience on our previous visit too.
How to get to Mawlamyine
Mawlamyine is well-connected, not only to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, but also to the southernmost parts of the country with buses and trains running frequently to and from Yangon in the north and Dawei in the south.
Coming up from the south of Myanmar we took the 10am bus from Dawei to Mawlamyine which we booked through our hotel. There were also buses running at 5am and at 5pm. It was a 7-hour journey along a very good road. The landscape during the trip is similar to anywhere else in rural southeast Asia, except for the MANY golden pagodas along the road!
Mawlamyine is also very close to Hpa-An, which in turn is the first major city connecting this region to the Thai border. The Mae Sot border in Thailand is a four-hour taxi ride from Mawlamyine, and is serviced by an airport with regular flights to Bangkok. Check the flight connections here.
Things to do in Mawlamyine, Myanmar
We actually managed to fit in many of the thing to do in Mawlamyine and Bilu Island, Myanmar, in the few days we were there, since most attractions in Mawlamyine are in close proximity to the city center, whilst others are very easy to reach via tuktuk. We think that the below attractions are the best things to do in Mawlamyine if you’re there for a few days!
The U-Zina Pagoda, on a hill on the east side of town, is one of the most important pagodas in Mawlamyine, and showcases several representations of Buddha’s life. Legend has it that one lucky monk dreamt of a treasure having been buried at one particular location. After some digging at the location, he did actually manage to find a quantity of precious stones, which he later used to finance the construction of the pagoda.
The bronze seated Buddha image which is the centerpiece of the Mahamuni Paya in Mawlamyine is actually an ancient replica of the more famous one in Mandalay. We found the temple itself to be rather quiet and not as grand as the Kyaikthanlan Pagoda, but definitely worth putting on your list of things to do in Mawlamyine.
Probably the most famous temple in Mawlamyine, the Kyaikthanlan Pagoda with its spectacular views, can be reached via elevator (but you need to leave your shoes at the base of the elevator). Sunset viewing from the pagoda is a favourite activity among tourists and locals alike.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Not particularly impressive, and not really one of the best things to do in Mawlamyine, it is worth stopping by this church only if its on your way to/from other attractions. It is mostly an example of colonial architecture which has survived in modern-day Myanmar.
St. Matthew’s Church
St. Matthew’s Church, on the other hand, with its dilapidated charm is worth a look around and we highly recommend that you include it on your list of things to do in Mawlamyine. The gates are very often closed, since it is only used on Sundays, but if you’re lucky you might find the caretaker to open up for you.
Gaung Se Kyun Island (Shampoo Island) and Sandawshin Pagoda
This little island, a 5-minute boat ride away from the mainland, is full of shaded pagodas and Buddha images and was previously used as the location of the royal hair-washing ceremonies, hence its name. There’s a Buddhist meditation centre and the Sandawshin Pagoda too on the island. You can reach Gaung Se Kyun by boat for a fee of 1000 – 2000 Kyat (about €0.60 – €1.20) which you pay on the return journey.
Win Sein Taw Ya Reclining Buddha
Win Sein Taw Ya is actually the largest reclining Buddha in the world, being 130 metres long and 30 metres high, and is located in Mudon, 30km outside of Mawlamyine. We can consider it to be one of the best things to do in Mawlamyine, since it’s so close and can be directly accessed from Mawlamyine, and was in fact one of our favourite attractions.
We initially had no plans of traveling to Mudon, thinking that we would not have enough time to go there, but after having managed to travel around Bilu Island in half a day (we thought we would spend longer), we asked the same tuktuk driver how much he would charge us to take us all the way to Win Sein Taw Ya Reclining Buddha.
We settled on 10,000 Kyat (about €6) each for a return journey to the reclining Buddha which turned out to be one of the best things to do in Mawlamyine!
The colourful reclining Buddha is free to visit, but a donation is much appreciated. The statue is indeed huge (though not yet finished) and another reclining Buddha was being constructed right across the original one when we were there. The reclining Buddha is full of different chambers on several floors, depicting scenes from Buddha’s life, as well as scenes of Buddhist teachings, and a very unpleasant depiction of hell!
Leading the way towards the reclining Buddha, is a single file of 100 monk statues with bowls of alms in hand, which we totally enjoyed photographing, though we must say that some looked a little weird.
If you’re riding your own or a rented bike or scooter, it is easy to drive the 30km to the reclining Buddha.
Pa-Auk Tawya Monastery & Meditation Centre
Our tuktuk driver insisted we stop here on the way back from Mudon to Mawlamyine because he really wanted us to take a look at the meditation centre. Honestly, we only agreed to stop to entertain his feelings, since he was such a great guy, but ultimately, we were very glad to have done so.
Visiting Pa-Auk Tawya might not be one of the best things to do in Mawlamyine, but if you’re traveling in the area, we do recommend that you stop a while. The monastery is a meditation centre, situated in a forest which welcomes residents from all around the world.
During our visit, we met a couple of western yogis who had just arrived to spend some time in the meditation centre, which is also home to a very particular Buddha statue made of bamboo. Some yogis spend 6 months or more at the meditation centre, although some others are happy to improve their meditation skills at the centre by staying for only a few weeks.
Take a walk around the local markets
We love local markets, and exploring Mawlamyine’s indoor markets turned out to be one of our favourite things to do in Mawlamyine! All kinds of dried fish (many of which we had difficulty identifying) were being sold from huge sacks, fresh fish in plastic tubs, whilst large shiny fruits and vegetables graced many of the adjacent stalls. If you’re like to experience markets and just observe the daily local life, be sure to catch the vibes at one of Mawlamyine’s markets!
Organizing a day trip to Bilu Island, Myanmar
And we left the best for last since we felt that a trip to Bilu Island was easily the best of all the things to do in Mawlamyine!
We weren’t sure about how to organize our trip to Bilu Island, but that was easily sorted when a tuktuk driver we met on the previous day offered to take us round Bilu Island for 15,000 Kyat (about €9.25) each, which we found reasonable. We could have probably reduced the price by bargaining hard, but we didn’t have the time to shop around.
Sure enough, he collected us from our hotel at the pre-arranged time in a little truck with bolted car seats at the back, which we found totally amusing and very comfortable! As we crossed the bridge to Bilu Island, we were immediately reminded of Majuli Island in Assam, India, which is also as laid-back and as scenic as Bilu Island, Myanmar, being home to rice fields, sunflowers, fruit farms and palm-lined roads.
Bilu Island is called Ogre Island locally, apparently because the locals were thought to be very ugly by the mainlanders (in the past)! We genuinely couldn’t notice any physical distinctions between the locals on Bilu Island and the locals in Mawlamyine!
The island is not small, but the attractions can be visited in a half to one full day if you leave early enough. Several villages in Bilu Island, Myanmar are home to many cottage industries, the most interesting and colourful of which, we thought, was rubberband making.
We also visited other crafts centers, some pipe-making and blackboard making places, observing how every item was being manufactured by hand. Indeed, the whole island is full of crafts and little cottage industries which you won’t find on the mainland.
In keeping up with the local’s welcoming character, we were also randomly invited to a wedding where we were made guests of honour and given a bit of every food item available at the event!
Mawlamyine Hotels and Accommodation Options
Budget – We totally and highly recommend the K.S. Hotel for which we paid $25 (about €22.50)/a night for a room with private bathroom, which totally exceeded our expectations for a budget hotel. Having arrived from Dawei on Valentine’s day and not having given it a thought, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with chocolates, orange juice and roses which was an incredibly sweet gesture.
Midrange – two mid-range options stand out in Mawlamyine and we’ve heard great things about both! Hotel Suggati Mawlamyaing is the more pricey but in our opinion, the more beautiful one of the two and can be booked here. Cinderella Hotel is a charming, smaller hotel with very friendly staff which can be booked here.