Today I made it out to an island to the west of Mawlamyine (the town I’ve been in for the past few days) called Bilu Kyun. In English, it’s known as Ogre Island. The main draw here is the 70+ traditional Mon villages that dot the expanse of the island. While there, you can see locals making walking sticks, rubber bands, and other hand-crafted niceties. It’s relatively simple to go to and well worth it.
The first step was to catch a ferry. The nice folks at my guest house – Breeze Guest House – drew me a map showing me the jetty to go to in order to catch the ferry, as well as directions for where I would need to go on the island. See, the government has this law in place that tourists can’t spend the night on the island and the last ferry leaves at 3:30. This makes it vital to be in the right place at the right time… no dilly dallying!
The jetty is the one by a hotel with the unfortunate name of OK Hotel. I hear they are opening up a sister enterprise called the Sub Par Resort. Should be a smash hit! Okay, that was really lame, I’m sorry. Anyways, the ferries leave at 9:45 and 10:45 a.m. and (as of a few days ago) cost $2 USD to make it over. It’s not too much and quite a pleasant ride, so I didn’t feel too bad. Despite being many things, I am not a morning person; so I caught the 10:45 ferry.
I opted to do this without a guide, simply because my guesthouse told me it would be $25 to hire a guide through them. Considering how tight my budget is this month, I couldn’t justify it. More on that later, though.
The boat ride was nice, and everybody on board made it safely to Kalwi. During the process of disembarking, a tour guide showing some Austrians around came and made sure I knew where to go. He was very helpful and wanted to make sure I knew where to go to see things (and also when I needed to be at the ferry terminal).
With his assistance, I hopped on an antiquated truck that soon became packed with people and bushels of produce. I was the only foreigner and most of the others were older women. I stammered out a greeting and smiled, and was greeted by a few nods and smiles in return. Still… it was awkward at first.
Luckily, nothing breaks the ice like a little slapstick humor. On a particularly vigorous bump in the road, one of the bushels tipped over and I grabbed it so it wouldn’t spill everywhere. Turns out, it wasn’t a big deal and all the ladies had a laugh at my over-zealous response. Through sign language, they teased me about not being used to bumpy roads, to which I mimed how if I didn’t stay hunched over in my seat, my head would smack the roof. Laughs abounded and before I knew it they were all pressing oranges and these little pear/grape thingies into my hands. Since this is me we’re talking about, I actually was starving, so I was delighted. A trip that started out awkward ended up being pretty darn nice!
At my destination in the village of Ywa Lutt, I waved goodbye to the truckful of new friends and followed a nice elderly fellow to his brother’s house. His brother, whose name is U Mann Ngwe Wynn, is a 65-year-old wood carver who makes walking sticks and other things with his son and wife. I talked with them for a while about their trade, their family, and random things like that. In the meantime, his wife brought me tea, coffee, peanuts, and biscuits. It was really nice and, although they showed me a bunch of walking sticks, I didn’t feel pressured at all to buy one. They seemed genuinely happy to talk with me and show me what they do. I even learned a word in the Mon language (and the corresponding one in Burmese). I’ll probably butcher this, but shiad means ‘eat’ in Mon, as does sa in Burmese. Handy.
Unfortunately, my time there was limited, as the last truck from Ywa Lutt to the port of Nat Maw (my exit point for the island) departed at 2:00 p.m. U Mann Ngwe Wynn was nice enough to give me a ride on his motorbike so I caught the truck in time. I waved goodbye and jumped on board.
Minutes later, I saw the Austrians and their tour guide again. As we rode the truck down more bumpy dirt roads and one paved one, I talked with them about their day. They’d managed to squeeze in a little more than I had: seeing the rubber bands being made and riding in a horse-drawn carriage. I talked quite a bit with the guide as well, to the point where I felt guilty that I was butting in on the Austrians tour. I realized that if I came back to Mawlamyine, I would totally come back to the island and actually invest in a guide.
The guide the Austrians went with was a nice guy named Mr. Myo (pronounced Myoo). He is a Mon himself, and his grandfather lives on the island. He is genuinely passionate about sharing his culture with people and noticeably enjoyed helping people experience his island. I wasn’t even part of his tour, but every time he saw me throughout the day he would come over, make sure I was doing okay, and give me some helpful tips. When I talked to him more, I learned he’s been a licensed guide since 1999, but doesn’t want to work for a tour company. He enjoys the freedom and flexibility of working on his own. I figured I’d give him a little plug here… if you are going to Bilu Kyun (which you should), definitely look up Mr. Myo. You can email him by clicking here or call him at (+95) 09425260072 if you want to set something up.
Mr. Myo has apparently done quite well for himself and also has a junior guide who leads tours when Mr. Myo is busy. The junior guide, Mr. Naing Naing, can be reached at (+95) 09978822339. Thanks, Aaron, for the update!
Anyways, shameless plugs aside, Bilu Kyun was great. I managed to do it on about $8 USD and, while I didn’t see everything, I still had a wonderful time. The atmosphere there truly feels like a world apart. From the bumpy roads where you encounter more horse and ox-drawn carts than motorized vehicles to the stretching fields dotted with houses made entirely from bamboo and woven reeds, this is one place the 21st century has barely touched.