No room tonight at Pann Su Wei Guesthouse. After a 5km walkabout via excellent noddles and fried Tofu, I switched digs to the comfy Pinlon Pann Motel on the edge of town.
Gear ditched, I asked the cheery motel owner about hiring a motorbike. Concerned about time, he picked up the phone in an instant. Ten minutes later, a sinister looking chap knocked on my door, keys in hand, exchanging 100kyat for an antiquated semi-automatic. I hopped on map in hand, eager and ready to explore.
Confession – it had been 2 years since my last motorbike escapade and so my skills were a little rusty. Just 200m up the busy bike and truck laden road, my 2 wheeled companion coughed and splurged as if on its last legs. I stalled at a traffic light, straddled and walked it to the side of the road, attempting each conceivable sequence of button, clutch and throttle.
At last. Accompanied by a gentle bump start, persistence paid off and the beast was alive. I set upon my first destination, quickly discovering the benefits of having an engine strapped to my two wheels.
Stopping to explore a meditation retreat, I turned off the main road, passed several kms of tree lined avenues, up a hill overlooking the region, then back down again; the dirt and heavy machinery signifying an inevitable wrong turn.
Parking my bike and stowing my big round helmet (ahhhhem), I asked a monk with perfect English for information. He explained that the retreat has welcomed many western folk, who can stay for up to two weeks (or more with special dispensation). Amongst the stipulations, are absolute silence within the main complex and a regular 3am wake up call. The location and experience were enchanting, though I for one am not cut out for this silence business. Ironically, 3am is perhaps the one time I’m able to achieve it.
Entering the main building, I tip-toed amongst the surreal sight of silent monks cocooned in mosquito net cages. Then, as I walked down the grand teak stairs to leave, a two opposing bells operated by battering rams sounded the end of the meditation session.
Moving onwards, I climbed a limestone peak complete with mandatory temple atop; quite the challenge in 38 degree heat. Next, the world’s largest sleeping Buddha image, where a road lined with gold leaf statues gives way to the spectacular sight of a truly gigantic 100ft Buddha.
As if one gigantic Buddha wasn’t enough, the locals are midway through building a second larger image just opposite. Other giant and colourful figures surround the Buddha, which itself is nestled into a valley.
After a quick fuel stop, I zipped back to Mawlamyine, turning toward the brand new bridge connecting town with the beautiful Bilu island, an area roughly the size of Singapore. Approaching the bridge, I spotted a cafe packed with locals, flanked either side by fruit vendors. Hunger calling, I popped over to discover what was cooking. Behold! The most delicious French Toast. And the finest coffee I’d discovered in Myanmar.
Tasty treats devoured, I clambered aboard my clapped out companion for 70 kms of island life and luscious landscapes. Wanting to get off the beaten track, I avoided the more frequented boltholes and ventured down rugged roads until could travel no further. Amongst them, a road being built where characterful colourful cyclists queued to pass oxen, carts and Caterpillars.
One hour to sunset and I’d heard the top of Mawlamyine hill makes a perfect view over the town, with seascape and Bilu island in the background.
Stopping to refuel once again, I passed handicraft villages, making clothing and home wares, fields being lit ablaze, tropical trees, forested hills and temples. Traditional bamboo houses and all manner of smiling local folk ending the day’s activities.
Pulling up to the hilltop just in time for sunset, I met two western folk, an Aussie who had been travelling for 8 years and a Dutch chap who claimed to have the best job going aboard a Poole ferry. The sunset itself was stunning, the evening clear. As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, I hopped aboard for the last time and was back to the motel in moments flat.
In search of food but tired from the day’s festivities, I jumped aboard the bicycle, one foot toward the excellent night market, the other toward a restaurant aside the motel’s busy roadside. At first, fatigue triumphed over the fantasy of the night market some 4km away. However, one bout of awkward conversation / confused bumbling later, I found myself market-bound once again, where Myanmar beer and BBQ seafood awaited. Rather excellent it was too.