DAWEI, MYANMAR, 7 April 2016: Only houses in a 100-metre radius are visible from the top floors of Shwe Maung Tan Hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Dawei, Myanmar.
Green foliage covers the town in the morning mist of February, during my visit, hiding most of the buildings from view with the exception of the golden Shwe Taung Zar pagoda.
A journey to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi Region in the southernmost corner of Myanmar, turns the clock back by decades. Time stopped when the military junta isolated the country for half a century. But being 615 km from the centre of development in Yangon and physically separated from the rest of Bamar regions by the Mon State ensures Dawei misses out on most investor interest.
Of course there are some modern buildings in Dawei that have replaced worn out wooden houses. Cars and pick-up trucks roam the streets instead of bicycles and horse carts. But a traditional lifestyle still dominates the city scene.
People are friendly. Traditional Burmese fashion is cherished – men and women wearing shirts or blouses with Longyi, the Burmese sarong.
Today, Dawei is still an agrarian and fishing-based society. It is blessed with rich natural resources in its soil and sea. Located on fertile land sandwiched between the Andaman Sea to the west and the Tanessarim Range to the east, the area is rich in valuable minerals that have attracted mining for centuries.
Currently, tourism is still in nascent state since the government opened the region to travellers just a few years back. During decades of military rule, overland travel was prohibited for foreigners. They could fly to designated towns and this restriction capped tourist arrivals to Dawei ensuring it remained a hidden gem.
The town has fewer than 10 hotels and guesthouses. To get around, tourists need to hire a van (about USD80 a day). Other choices are mini-truck taxis, or motorbikes. Motor bike rentals cost about USD7 a day, but you will need to be a skilled rider. Roads are in poor condition – some parts paved, but mostly gravel and dirt roads which doubles travel time.
However, the town’s sleepy ambience is destined to fade as major developments begin to take shape. One is a deep-sea port and another a special economic zone project that will give birth a huge industrial estate. They are bound to disrupt the peaceful way of life that Dawei residents have enjoyed for centuries.
Ambitious projects, touted since 2010, are still in their infancy struggling to source funding. A master plan undertaken by the Japanese identified major budget increases that would require additional funding. If that was not enough to slow progress, local communities are adamant they will not be uprooted from their land.
The stalemate means Dawei remains a destination for intrepid travellers who want to immerse themselves in a distinct southern lifestyle well off the beaten track.
Touring the Town
Dawei town is compact enough to walk around, but in summer, cycling would be the preferred option. There are no printed maps to assist your navigation. Streets run north-south and east-west in a neat grid system, which helps orientation. Although lacking detail, Google Map is a useful tool to find your way round town.
Wooden houses and brick buildings are a mix-and-match of local, western and Asian architecture. There are plenty of examples of British colonial era buildings as Dawei was one of the first cities occupied by the British after the first of three Anglo-Burmese wars and remained under British military control for over 100 years.
Harmony between local communities from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds is another asset of Dawei. Daweians are in the majority (though officially categorised as a sub-group of Bamar). Other ethnic groups include Karen, Mon, Chinese, Rakhine and Malay.
Buddhists are in the majority, but there are Hindu and Muslims all living side-by-side in harmony. At some spots in town, you can see a temple, a mosque and a Hindu temple located just across from each other. You can hear the faithful praying as you pass different places of worship. There are Christians, too, but the majority are Karen who live in the hill country away from the main towns. Chinese communities also have their own distinct temples.
Zaw Thura, an academic and a member of Dawei Researcher Association commented that Daweians have inhibited in the area since before the Bagan period, 11th century AD. About 200 years ago, Chinese immigrants arrived to work in the mines.
He added that the association has recorded the influence of Hindu and Islam dating back to the 10th century AD, while Dawei was the first Christian settlement in Myanmar.
“We have lived together for a long time. There are no religious conflicts because we know and understand each other,” Zaw Thura said.
What to See
Markets at various city locations are busy from dawn until mid-morning. The biggest one is Sibintharyar Zay Gyi, or just Zay Gyi, meaning big market that sells everything from food to gold. The market was built during the British colonial era.
Dawei’s skyline is dominated by Buddhist temples, the most famous being the Payagyi temple that houses the sacred 250-year old Shwe Taungzar pagoda. The last and fourth restoration was completed in 2013.
The Buddha image Maha Lawka Maya Zain, enshrined in the main vihara, was donated by King Mindon in 1817 to signify his power over the city despite the presence of the British. The temple is on the street of the pagoda name, Shwe Taungzar.
Paya Gyi Museum houses a humble collection of donated art and antiques such as Buddha images, musical instruments, vases, coins and ornaments. Included is a reproduction painting of Daweians from ancient days. The original painting is exhibited in a museum in the UK. There are also rare books about Dawei written by local scholars as well as renowned academics. Handicraft collectors should visit the pottery village in Oe Loat Pyin quarter.
Located next to the Andaman Sea, Dawei boasts stunning unspoiled stretches of coastlines. All but a couple of beaches remain in pristine condition.
The most commercial beach is Maungmagan, 15 km north of town (journey takes at least 30 minutes due to poor road conditions). Despite its popularity it is remains largely undeveloped. There are some thatched-roofed seafood restaurants, resorts, souvenir stalls and a vendors selling goods, mostly fruits or seafood snacks stacked high in baskets balanced on their heads.
Despite being the most convenient beach to visit, the pine tree-lined Maungmagan does not have the best sand and sadly garbage litters the shore.
North and south of Maungmakan there are superior beaches. Just north of Padin-In you will discover long stretches of straight coastline with white sand beaches. Unfortunately it will not remain idyllic for long as the protective mangrove forest has been uprooted to make way for an industrial estate. The attractive coastline and bay will soon be the construction site of a deep-sea port. In a beach shelter, the grim outlook is presented on a notice board with a visual of the master plan.
Besides beaches, there are temples outside ot Dawei worth a visit. One of them, Lawka Tharaphulyaung Daw Mu Payagyi, about 10 km from town, enshrines a reclining Buddha which used to be the country’s largest, until recently a new reclining Buddha, Win Sein Taw Ya, (180 metres long) in Mawlamyine took the record.
The reclining Buddha in Dawei was completed in 1931 and measures 74 metres long and 21 metres high.
Shinmokhti Paya (est 1438) is one of four shrines in the country housing a Sinhalese Buddha image imported from Sri Lanka. The other three are enshrined in Pathein, Kyaikto and Kyaikkami
Daweians are proud of their origin and would like to be recognized as one of major ethnic groups of Myanmar. Academic and cultural enthusiasts are gathering evidence to support claims that Dawei’s history can be traced back 1,300 years. One example is Thagara, about 10 km north of town, and Mokti about the same distance to the south. The excavations are basic and you will need an expert guide to explain their significance.
The best time to travel to Dawei is during the dry season from November to April. For the remainder of the year it is one of wettest regions in Asia. The annual monsoons rise towards the mountain barrier that flanks Dawei, resulting in abundant and relentless rain across the lowlands.
Transport options include plane, train and bus. Overland travel from Kanchanaburi, in Thailand, is difficult due to the rugged terrain on an unfinished road. Subject to future revision, it could ultimately be a four-lane highway from the border at Phu Nam Ron village in Kanchanaburi, Thailand to Dawei on the Andaman Sea coast, covering a distance of 130 km. It takes five to six hours to reach the sea due to the poor state of the road, which becomes poorer but still accessible during the rainy season.
Thai citizens can apply for a border pass with a seven-day validity using their ID card and paying a THB30 fee. Foreigners need to apply for a visa beforehand. Once you cross to Myanmar, you will encounter numerous checkpoints, manned by either the Burmese Army, or Myanmar KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). Usually the driver will take the documents to verify with the military, but at Htee Kee checkpoint, passengers must present their own documents and pay a THB50 fee.
The road to Dawei cuts through the Tanessarim Range and high-country plantations cultivated by Karen villagers. The road follows the Tanessarim River before rising across ridges. There are a few rest areas where you can buy food, drinks and use a toilet. The last section from Myitta is sealed, but littered with potholes.
The one-way minibus transfer between Phu Nam Ron and Dawei costs THB800 per person. Some travel agencies offer full-board tours to Dawei that include the overland transfer.