Moulmein or Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State and the first capital of the British colonial government is a one-hour drive from Hpa-an, Kayin State where I am based. Despite the short distance, I took more than a year to schedule a trip to the place, thanks to a research activity that pushed me to do so.
The travel to Mawlamyine was pleasant. We drove along the tree-lined highway and the green paddies on both sides of the road gave a refreshing air to the trip. The waters of Than Lwin River is still chocolate-colored after a month of flooding. Small boats lazily drifted with the current and I imagined one of them carrying the main character Edgar in the climax of the book The Piano Tuner. So much with romanticism, but it is sad to think that soon, the river will change if the plan to build several dams will push through. There are oppositions to the dam, hoping that it will be stopped just like the Myitsone Dam project financed by China. Well, things in Myanmar are unpredictable.
After the bridge, the first rotunda to the city displayed a set of statues of army and police with rifles flanked on both sides by a farmer with sickle and a worker with hammer, remnant of the socialist days. The funny thing with the arrangement was that the farmer and the worker seemed protect the army and the police instead of the other way around. Reality.
Off we went directly to the market where we hope to get information on the trading activities in the area. The market is medium-sized compared to other markets in Myanmar that I have visited. It has a sizable number of wholesalers of agricultural products. The market is along the bank of the Than Lwin River which empties into the Gulf of Mottama, with several small piers where boats of all sizes dock, unload and take on cargoes. A long stretch of stalls sell nets and fishing gears indicating Mawlamyine is also a major fish port. One can imagine that during the British colonial period, the place is a main port for teak exports. Its importance to the British government waned when the capital was transferred to Yangon after the Second Anglo-Burmese War.
From the riverbank, the Gaungshe Kuyun (Shampoo Island) is visible with the bridge connecting it to the city proper. The bridge is considered as the longest in the country. The name of the island came from the olden time when the yearly royal hair washing ceremony was held.
On the way back to Hpa-an, we go the way where old colonial buildings are still standing. As a student of history, I make sure that in every place I visit, I look for traces and remnants of the past. We passed at the old prison which is still used. By the size of the prison, it can be surmised that the colonial masters really thought of the size of the opposition to their rule.
Farther south was the Baptist church established by Rev. Adoniram Judson the pioneer missionary and bible translator. The building was classic British. It now hosts the Adoniram Judson Language Center. I was excited to be at places where Christian missionaries stayed during their ministries. It always evoke images of selfless people working to being the good news ‘to the ends of the world’.
Near the Baptist church were two catholic churches. The St. Patrick Church was impressive with its brick façade and walls, the same with the Holy Family Cathedral which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in the country.
From the city center, we moved up to the ridge behind the town where a viewpoint showed the whole expanse of the city. It was beautiful, the city covered in green and bisected by the Than Lwin River. It became more beautiful as we moved further up towards the Kyaikthanlan Pay, the highest pagoda overlooking the city. The pagoda has a lift bringing people to the platform where you can see the whole city. At the center was the prison with its chocolate-colored roof buildings arranged like Lego pieces converging at a center point.
We took a detour and passed along several kilometers of road of military camps. It turned out to be the headquarters of the southern command. From the gates of these camps soldiers pass to pacify rebellion in the region, particularly those of the Kayins. The signing of peace agreement with the Karen National Union (KNU) hopefully would make these camps irrelevant.
Our next stop was Win Sein Taw Ya which hosts the biggest reclining Buddha in the country and even the world. The road going inside the compound was lined with pongyi statues. The statue is hollow inside with 4-storey full of dioramas depicting stories of Myanmar Buddhism. It was started by a Sayadaw who died which explains why most of the inner parts were not yet completed. Some areas have no light, some parts are leaking and some without finishing touches.
Across the existing Buddha are frames indicating an effort to build another statue of the same size but reclining inverted from the current one. An unfinished face can be seen across the foot of the current Buddha statue. Construction stopped maybe due to the death of the Sayadaw who pioneered the work.
As we drove back to Hpa-an, I imagine the old glory of old Moulmein and contemplate on the future of Mawlamyine.