South-east of Yangon, on the Andaman coast, sits Mawlamyine, Myanmar's third largest city and the capital of Mon State. Right on the Salween river delta where it meets the Andaman sea, flanked by lush countryside and pagoda-filled hills, this hidden gem of a city is famed for its seafood-centric cuisine full of sour and spicy flavours. Four or five hours inland, up the Thanlwin River, is Hpa An. This contrastingly quiet town, flourishing with greenery in the tropical climate, is even further off the main tourist radar; a relaxed base for exploring day-to-day Burmese life.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Formerly a busy teak port, and the first administrative capital of British Myanmar, Mawlamyine features many faded 19th-century facades amongst its gleaming Buddhist stupas and monasteries, but is sometimes considered too far off the trail. However, for those who do go those extra miles, the city has plenty to offer. A guided walking tour is a great way to learn more about Mawlamyine’s culture. Wander past some of the town’s most striking buildings, learning more about their history from your knowledgeable guide, and pay a visit to a market to taste freshly grown pomelo and durian and see the huge arrays of freshly-caught fish - the region is famous for its delicious tropical fruit and seafood.
Just north of Mawlamyine is the much-photographed Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, also known as Golden Rock: an incredible temple perched in a precarious-looking position atop a granite boulder, which has been completely covered in gold leaf by visiting devotees over the centuries. It’s definitely not as precarious as it looks, however, as it’s been there for a couple of thousand years! Amongst the many Buddhist monuments surrounding Mawlamyine you’ll also find the enormous, brightly-painted reclining Buddha resting against the green hills at Win Sein monastery. At 180m long and 30m high, this is the largest reclining Buddha in the world, and visible for miles around. As with many religious sites, modest dress is advised, and shoes should be removed before entering the shrines.
Take one of Myanmar’s most scenic river journeys up the Thanlyin River between Mawlamyine and Hpa An, soaking up the slow pace and stunning sights of limestone karsts rising out of vibrant green fields. Once ensconced in Hpa An, challenge yourself to conquer the 725m summit of Mount Zwekabin, one of Myanmar’s most sacred mountains, with over 1,000 Buddha images carved into its foothills. The two hour-long, strenuous hike up a steep stairway to the top is worth every second for the unobstructed views. Back at ground level, plunge into the mysterious Saddar Cave that houses many carved Buddha statues, and trek along an atmospheric underground passage through the mountain.