Two weeks in southern Burma

Two weeks in southern Burma

Southern Burma is a fascinating, varied, picturesque and, especially south of Mawlamyine, rarely visited region, and with a couple of weeks up your sleeve, there is a lot you could see and experience. Here are our suggestions for planning what would be a highly rewarding trip.

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To cover the south’s main points we’d allow at least two weeks. As a glance at any map will show, southern Burma is very long and rather thin. It’s some 1,400 kilometres or so long to be precise, taking the distance from Kawthaung at the extreme southern tip of the country all the way to Yangon. The east-west orientation gradually widens as you move north past Mawlamyine and the Than Lwin (Salween) River, where mountainous Karen State sidles onto Mon State, and the central plains of the Irrawaddy open up to the north and west.

Spectacular karst scenery in Karen State : Mark Ord.
Spectacular karst scenery in Karen State Photo: Mark Ord


You have three start (or end) options: the Kawthaung border crossing opposite Thailand’s Ranong, Myawaddy in Karen State (across from Thailand’s Mae Sot) and Yangon.

An additional and more centrally located crossing point lies between Kanchanaburi province in western Thailand and Dawei, from where you can turn north to Mawlamyine or south to Myeik. This makes for a shorter trip for those with less time.

If you’ve already visited Burma’s so-called Big Four — Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake — then the south makes for a great standalone tour. Myawaddy to Kawthaung, or vice versa, is a fascinating route, and it avoids any internal flights.

Myeik harbour. : Mark Ord.
Myeik harbour. Photo: Mark Ord

If you’re planning to include central and northern destinations on the same tour, you can either travel north from Kawthaung or south from Yangon, depending upon whether you prefer to do the south at the start or end of your Burma tour. There are pros and cons to each; saving the famous sites till last is a logical move, though the tourist set up in busy Bagan or Inle can come across as a let-down after super friendly, relatively tourist-free destinations such as Ye, Myeik and Dawei.

We’ll run through a south to north itinerary, so if you’re doing it the other way around — read it backwards!

Save some time

As we mentioned, crossing from Kanchanaburi to Dawei will see you arrive around mid-way through our longer route, so this would be a simple option for a shorter itinerary. Particularly since the crossing is relatively convenient for Bangkok, so an early start in either direction should see you completing the trip in a day.

From Dawei then you can pick up our suggested itinerary south to Myeik and Kawthaung, or north to Ye and Mawlamyine, finishing either in Yangon or the alternative crossing at Myawaddy. That makes two itineraries of around one week each.

Kawthaung with Thailand on the horizon. : Mark Ord.
Kawthaung with Thailand on the horizon. Photo: Mark Ord

Another popular possibility, if you’re considering more time for the centre and north of the country, is arriving by Myawaddy and heading up to Yangon via Hpa-an and Mawlamyine.

When to go

Southern Burma is governed by the same weather pattern as Southwest Thailand meaning the best time to do this trip (assuming you don't like travelling in torrential rain) is between early November and March. April and early May will be most likely uncomfortably warm (we're being polite here) and by late May the rains should have arrived. July through September will see the wettest of the monsoon.

Day by Day

Day 1 — Ranong to Kawthaung
Due to transport connections, you’re pretty much obliged to spend a night in Ranong before crossing over into Burma in the morning. (Rumour has it this was deliberate.) Border procedures are simple and straightforward, though do remember a valid visa is required in advance and there are no visa on arrival facilities. (The procedure is described in detail in our Ranong section.) A morning crossing provides the rest of the day to look around this cute little port town; stroll along the waterfront or take a boat out to the pagoda-topped offshore island. Where to stay in Kawthaung? Penguin Hotel is your best budget option and Honey Bear a good mid-range option.

Palaotonetone at dusk : Mark Ord.
Palaotonetone at dusk Photo: Mark Ord

Day 2 — Kawthaung
There aren’t too many official sights to see in this little town, but a very pleasant day can be had by hiring a tuk tuk to take you out to Maliwan Waterfall with a side trip to Palautonetone on return. Make sure you get back in time for sunset up at the Pyi Daw Aye Pagoda. Kawthaung offers a couple of top spots to eat so you should find somewhere solid for dinner. Don’t forget to organise you’re onward travel to Myeik before you head out to Maliwan. For those with a few bucks and less time to spare you can get a morning flight to Myeik, otherwise count a day on a bus.

Day 3 — Kawthaung to Myeik
There’s always stuff to look at on a Burmese bus ride and the road isn’t too bad at all. An early morning departure should get you into Myeik town in time for sundowners at Grand Jade Hotel. This would also be our top flashpacker option with Sun Guesthouse a good budget choice.

Resurfacing the Kawthaung to Myeik 'highway' : Mark Ord.
Resurfacing the Kawthaung to Myeik 'highway' Photo: Mark Ord

Day 4 — Myeik
We’d suggest a day wandering around town. Check out the hilltop pagoda, bustling local market, colonial architecture and make sure you get down to the port for a waterfront sunset. Myeik has plenty of great eats, fun tea-shops and friendly locals. While you’re exploring, see what day trips are on offer for the following day.

Day 5 — Myeik day trip.
The weather’s going to be your main consideration for this one. If it’s not fine or the sea looks remotely choppy from shore, don’t bother going out to the islands: Coastal tours to mangroves and local cottage industries are a better bet in that case. Either way, a day tour through the surrounding area is well worthwhile. Whichever agent you use to organise this trip should be able to help you out with onward travel too.

Myeik waterfront at sunset : Mark Ord.
Myeik waterfront at sunset Photo: Mark Ord

Day 6 — Myeik to Dawei
Leaving early for the six-hour or so bus ride to Dawei will give you time to settle in and explore this appealing little town on arrival. You could head straight down to the beach at Maungmakan but we reckon the town’s worth a bit of your time. There’s an excellent motorbike hire shop where you can organise some wheels for the following day. Golden Guesthouse is a good option with Shwe Moung Than Hotel being an excellent compromise choice. Plenty of good eateries around too mean you won’t go hungry.

Day 7 — Maungmakan
You can do this as a comfortable day trip, either on a hired bike or by tuk tuk, though there are of course accommodation options at the beach too. Since it’s only a short drive and we enjoyed hanging out in Dawei town with its wider accommodation and restaurant choices, we elected to stay in town and do day trips. Either way, some time exploring the coast south of Maungmakan and on the Dawei Peninsula is not to be missed.

Boat cruise through the Mergui Archipelago : Mark Ord.
Boat cruise through the Mergui Archipelago Photo: Mark Ord

Day 8 — Dawei to Ye
A day hanging out at the beach if you’ve time to spare could be on the cards, otherwise hop on the local train or bus to little Ye over the border in Mon State.

Accommodation options are often limited in these southern towns. If you want your first choice, call in advance—this is particularly true for Ye, where we would make sure to get a bed at Starlight Guesthouse. Without the helpful staff, local maps and decent motorbike hire, rarely visited Ye can be a bit tricky. (Note that when we last visited they were considering moving to an out of town location, so even in low season give them a shout first.) If Starlight is full then Mya Myint Mo Hotel is a decent back-up.

Day 9 — Ye
Assuming you’ve got in at Starlight, then an early start should see you fit in a ride down to the beach as well as Banana Mountain, and with luck leave time for an afternoon trip out to Jaun Yua. If not, don’t despair; explore the little town on foot and take in the riverside market then get a moto-taxi to take you out to Banana Mountain. There’s also a great stroll around the scenic lake to be done.

We’ve split this across two days, but if you haven’t the time to spare, then pick up a bus ticket for the short ride to Mawlamyine on a stroll between the pagoda and market.

Banana Mountain. : Mark Ord.
Banana Mountain. Photo: Mark Ord

Day — 10-12 Ye to Mawlamyine
The largest and most visited town on this southern stretch is Mawlamyine. We’d advise at least three nights here. Spend half day in town seeing the markets and pagodas, take a day trip to Bilu Island, then spend another day visiting the sights south of town towards Thanbyuzayat. The latter includes the Win Sein Taw Ya giant Buddha, Thanbyuzayat Death Railway Museum, Setse Beach and Yele Pagoda. Organised day tours to both Bilu and Thanbyuzayat are available in town and will optimise both your time and money. You’ll see plenty of accommodation and food options in our respective sections.

Day — 13 Mawlamyine to Hpa-an
A scenic morning boat journey up the Than Lwin River or a couple of hours’ bus ride will see you in picturesque Hpa-an, with its riverside setting and surrounding karst scenery.

Lakeside at Ye. : Mark Ord.
Lakeside at Ye. Photo: Mark Ord

Day — 14 Hpa-an
We’d spend a minimum of two days in Hpa-an, so if you’ve travelled up by boat then you’ll have the afternoon of day 13 to wander; take in maybe the Kan Thar Yar Lake and sunset at Shweyinhmyaw Pagoda, followed by a full day to do the Zwegabin tour. The next day should give you time to check out the morning market before heading off on the short ride to Myawaddy. For day 14 either hire a bike and – armed with GPS since the back lanes and numerous limestone outcrops can be confusing – fit in as many sites as you can. Or sign up for an organised day trip including at least Lumbini, Kyauk Kalat, Kawgun and Saddar caves.

Day — 15 Hpa-an to Myawaddy
You can easily reach Mae Sot in a day—even with a walk around Hpa-an’s morning market—but since most convenient, onward transport from the Thai border town departs mornings why not overnight in Myawaddy instead? River View is a decent place to stay and a great place to eat and drink. Plus, the local market’s one of the best we found in Burma. You can then wander across the bridge the next morning to Mae Sot bus station at whatever time suits you.

Reviewed by

Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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