Kawthaung, Myanmar: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
Kawthaung is a border town in the southern part of Myanmar, in the Thanintharyi Region. Actually, it is the country’s southernmost town. Called Victoria Point during British rule of the region, it is just across the Pakchan River from the much bigger city of Ranong in Thailand. It takes only 20 minutes by boat to reach the Kawthaung Myo Ma Checkpoint, which is very common for those who want to make a so-called visa run from Thailand. Being a home to a pretty big population of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Thai minorities, the town is well-known for its various cultural influences.
Geography of Kawthaung
The southernmost town of Myanmar sits on the shores of the Andaman Sea, right at the place where the Pakchan River flows in. Nature has been pretty generous here, so the town is not entirely nested in a valley; it also stretches partly on the surrounding hills, the Kawthaung Hills. In fact, the entire area around Kawthaung, including the nearby Bokpyin Township, which, together with the Kawthaung Township, makes the Kawthaung District, is mountainous. The Kawthaung Township has just over 140,000 residents, according to the 2014 census. And it is the entry point to the yet unspoiled beautiful islands of the Myeik (Merqui) Archipelago from the south. The Archipelago is virtually untouched, since only 30 out of its 800 plus islands are inhabited. The Archipelago spreads over a 10,000 square miles area, and is an oasis for many species of birds, like eagles, herons, hornbills and parrots and for wild animals such as crocodiles, deer, elephants, monkeys, tigers, rhinoceros, etc. The most famous inhabitants of the Archipelago are the Moken people, a fishermen tribe much better known as the “sea gypsies”, famous for their ability do dive deep under the water surface with no equipment, and having a perfect underwater eyesight. The climate of Kawthaung is tropical monsoon climate, meaning that there is heavy raining from May to September, and very hot temperatures throughout the year.
Population here is mostly of Bamar (the Burmese) and Thai ethnicities. Other minorities include the Shan of Thai origins, Karen, who have lived in Burma and now Myanmar for centuries and are best known for waging a war for independence against the Burmese government until the late ‘70s, Mon people, a native Burmese minority, which have played a crucial role in spreading Theravada Buddhism in Indochina. During the colonial era of Burma, many Indians and Chinese had come to the area for mining and have stayed, now being assimilated into the Burmese Indians and Burmese Chinese. The Moken and Salone people, known as “sea gypsies”, are indigenous, and also inhabit the area. Malays are also a significant minority in this township.
Due to such a mixed population chart, Kawthaung is culturally and linguistically very variable. Thai language is used just as much as the Burmese, although not recognized as official language by the Burmese government. The official currency of Thailand, the Thai Baht is used in everyday trading, even at the checkpoint.
Religion plays a big part in the lives of the locals. Two main religions are Theravada Buddhism, practiced by the Bamar, Thai, Shan, Karen, Mon, Burmese Chinese and Salone people, while the Malay and Thai Muslims practice Islam.
History of Kawthaung
Unlike some other Burmese cities, Kawthaung does not have a rich history. That’s because it’s not that old, really. It is believed that the grounds of the town were laid somewhere around 1865, by some local groups who had traveled to the area for fishing and collecting products from the nearby Merqui Archipelago. Much more important at the time was the village of Maliwan, where the local authorities have had their offices until 1891, when they were relocated to the Kawthaung Village. Today, Maliwan remains a village, and Kawthaung is the capital of the Thanintharyi Region. The town was called Victoria Point under the rule of the British Empire, from 1824 to 1948. It is not hard to guess where the name came from.
Kawthaung has always been strategically very important to the government, because of its proximity to Thailand and its location, at the mouth of the Packhan River and the Andaman Sea. It used to be a big and important fishing port, but its significance has significantly declined since the introduction of government’s restriction to fishing vessels, as an effort to save the unique local wildlife and beautiful islands.
After the liberation from the British colonial rule, Kawthaung hasn’t had any significant historical milestones, and is mostly preoccupied with growing its economy, primarily tourism and forestry. Last time it had some international attention was back in 2012, when the locals protested against the pollution from the power plant built that year.
The town itself is pretty much uninteresting in terms of touristic attractions, but there is a lot to see and explore around Kawthaung.
That being said, there are actually some sights worth seeing in the town. Firstly, when a tourist lands at the Myo Ma Checkpoint, it is followed by the Myo Ma Market, where locals trade mostly fish and agricultural products, but an occasional souvenir can be found here and there. Locals are also known for the production of rubber, so this is something worth buying, as an original product from the area. The currencies used here are the Burmese Kyat, labeled as K locally, or MMK internationally, the Thai Baht (THB), and at some places even the American Dollar. The Market is a unique monument to, at some time in the past, very busy fishing stock and port. It is still important, but only to the local people who make their earnings selling and buying here.
Further up the town, close to something that might be considered the town’s center, a blue clock tower, called by the locals “The Old British clock tower”, rises. Not much else to see here, except the town’s biggest sanctuary, the Pyi Daw Aye, which overlooks the town from the hilltop. This is actually an assemblage of small temples, with the biggest one standing at the very top of the hill. The main temple is called the Third Mile Temple, and it features the biggest Buddha Statue and stupa in Kawthaung.
Another attraction settled on surrounding hills is the statue of the Burmese King Bayint Naung, located on the point conveniently named the Bayint Naung Point, formerly the Victoria Point. The statue is located in a park called, you guessed, the King Bayint Naung Park.
To really enjoy the experience of exploring the area, one must travel out of town. Its surroundings are far more exciting and versatile than the town itself.
Firstly, some 25 miles north of the city are the Maliwan Watefalls. The two-part waterfall is a very quiet and relaxing spot, where locals love to get away, and it is a favorite amongst local monks. It is clear why. Most agencies which organize tours in Kawthaung offer a stop at the hot springs, located only 4 miles from the city. Water temperature is very high though, reaching up to 60 degrees Celsius at some points, so extreme caution is advised. Just do as the locals do, and everything should be fine. Along the way, there are villages where men and women still engage in the rubber production process the old-fashioned way; simply draining it out of palm trees at one of the local rubber plantations. People are pretty hospitable, so they’ll offer visitors to participate in the process as well, and serve them a local drink- htan ye, toddy made from the sugar squeezed from palm trees.
Some agencies include in their offers a visit to the local fishing villages, where very amicable local fishermen will offer visitors their specialty- a freshly caught jellyfish. Many tourists don’t actually take up on this offer, but there is also an opportunity to watch the fishermen fish in their unique, centuries-old manner.
Just north outside Kawthaung, there is an island called Palautonetone. What’s special about this island is that the road to it goes over the bridge of the same name, which is considered the longest teak wood bridge in the world, and a village of the same name.
Now, moving on a little further north, the next must-see sight is the city of Myeik. Much bigger and less isolated, Myeik is right across the Myeik (Merqui) Archipelago, which is by far the most beautiful and worth seeing attraction in South Myanmar, if not the entire country. As for the city of Myeik itself, before heading for the Archipelago, one should take a stroll around the city and climb to the Thein Daw Gyi Pagoda on a small hill. Of course, the next stop is the Merqui Archipelago.
The Myeik, or Merqui, Archipelago is one of the last unspoiled and mysterious places on Earth. Reasons for this are its secluded location and isolation made possible by the strict government measures, in order to obtain it as untouched as possible and as long as possible. Of course, it is becoming more and more open for tourists, but with some strict regulations. For instance, it is not allowed for foreign tourists to go there by themselves, only as part of a group, and even then a special permit is required. Agencies can arrange obtaining the permit, and the whole process lasts for about a month. This is how restricted the Archipelago is. No wonder either, since only 30 out of its more than 800 islands are inhabited, or believed to be. It is becoming increasingly popular with both tourists and marine biologists and other scientist alike, due to its incredible wealth of wildlife and flora. Needless to say that the beaches of the islands belonging to the Archipelago are continually being graded as some of the most beautiful in the world. And those are just the ones we know about!
Last, but definitely not the least, one ought to visit the Andaman Club Hotel & Resort, located on the MacLeod Island, only a few kilometers from Kawthaung. This resort is unique because the entire island belongs to it. It is also the only place where gambling is legal in this part of the Southeast Asia. Many foreign tourists and wealthier Thai and Burmese people gather here to try their luck. Of course, casino is not the only thing this popular 5-star resort has to offer. There are also a spa, pool, diving courses, safari, and other outdoor activities for its guests.
Despite being isolated and still unexploited, or perhaps for that same reason, Kawthaung with its surroundings is a very intriguing and unspoiled place, which also offers a versatile selection of activities; from just visiting the local market and perhaps crossing the border to Thailand, to the yet undiscovered and unexploited world of surrounding islands and local people.