In January 2020, Josh and I spent 20 days travelling up through Southern Myanmar by motorbike and bus.
The trip was incredible.
This is an area of the world only recently opened up to foreigners and is still well off the beaten path. In all the time we spent in Southern Myanmar (or as some still call it, Burma), we encountered only a handful of other foreigners.
The south of Myanmar covers a truly huge area.
The logical travel path to take, beginning at the southernmost port city of Kawthaung, works its way north through the quaint seaside city of Myeik, through the biologically diverse Myeik Archipelago (made up of hundreds of islands with coral reefs and beaches), the beach-lover’s paradise of Dawei, quaint and charming Ye, hectic Mawlamyine and finally picturesque and cave filled Hpa An (pronounced Pa An), where many travelers opt to cross east into Thailand at the Mae Sot border crossing.
Though still undiscovered, we found Southern Myanmar a vibrant, complex and intriguing place worthy of exploring.
Gorgeous tropical weather, ancient Buddhist temples and pagodas, vast unspoilt white sand beaches, unique local cuisine, graceful colonial architecture, Burmese hip hop music blaring from market stalls, warm welcoming people and the endless symphony of motorbike horns—combine these and you get a melting pot of curiosities.
Speaking only English sometimes felt like a handicap here to be sure, though we felt totally safe throughout our journey. Even when English was useless, a smile and a gesture was always enough—the Burmese people are some of the most truly warm, genuine and gentle hosts we’ve encountered.
Passing through various towns and markets we felt like superstars, smiles and waves and even occasional shouts of “Hi, I love you!” coming at us from the Burmese children who would do a doubletake to see us passing by.
The industries here are mainly agricultural and fishing—rice, rubber cashew and betel nut operations are bustling throughout Myanmar. And of course, the religion is predominantly Buddhist.
We set off on our journey in early January 2020, entering Myanmar via Thailand’s Ranong. We got ourselves set up with 28 day e-visas in advance online (you must do this), and packed lightly, bringing just one small bag each.
This article covers our itinerary, highlights, and overall tips for travelling in Southern Myanmar on the cheap and without guides. It was written in February 2020.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Table of Contents
Feel free to skip ahead to the part that interests you!
Day 6 – 8: Dawei Myanmar
Where to Stay in Dawei
Motorbike Rental in Dawei
Popular Things to do in Dawei
Shew Taung Zar Pagoda
Tanintharyi Region Cultural Museum
Massage at Hotel Dawei
Daytrips from Dawei
Visiting Dawei’s Southern Peninsula Beaches
Sin Htauk Bungalows
Violin beach Dawei
Paradise Beach Bungalows
Brief Southern Myanmar Itinerary
Our Southern Myanmar | Burma Itinerary in brief looked like this:
- Day 1: Ranong to Kawthaung Border crossing, Explore Kawthaung
- Day 2: From Kawthaung to Myeik
- Day 3-4: Explore Myeik
- Day 5: Myeik to Dawei
- Day 6-7: Tour and Explore Dawei
- Day 7-8: Dawei to Ye
- Day 8-9: Explore Ye
- Day 10: Ye to Mawlamyine
- Day 11: Mawlamyine to Hpa An
(You can also do this route the opposite way if you prefer to begin north and travel south)
We came to Southern Myanmar with only a sketch of a plan and while we definitely wanted to hit some hot spots, we also wanted to see where the wind took us and what we found on our own while exploring and talking to people.
Here’s an overview of our route through Southern Myanmar, travel tips and awesome highlights that opinion, you really shouldn’t miss along the way.
Southern Myanmar Itinerary Day 1: Ranong to Kawthaung Border Crossing
Pro tip: have a photocopy of your passport and any Myanmar visas printed, they need these in paper form, showing your phone screen won’t work, this aint a Taylor Swift concert 😉
We started our journey to Southern Myanmar at the border crossing via Thailand’s Ranong.
When you get near the border/ pier area in Ranong, at the gas station just outside immigration a bunch of guys walk around, waiting to sell tourists tickets for the longboats to Burma.
They’re a bit (okay a lot) pushy, crowding you and asking “Burma? Burma?”, but the best thing to do is walk past them, as you can get a much cheaper boat ticket by going straight to the boats on your own. These first guys try to sell you tickets at 300 baht, but if you pay directly at the boat it is 100-50 baht per person, depending how hard you want to haggle.
When you get into the building, It isn’t totally obvious what to do (or it wasn’t for me), but you should look for the small immigration desk.
At the immigration desk you’ll hand your passport and the little paper they gave you when your plane landed in Thailand over and the agent will take your fingerprints and a photo of you.
From there, walk down to the boats on your own. Again people will try to sell you tickets again here, remember you should be paying 50 baht, or if you’re in a rush and don’t want to haggle, 100 baht per ticket. Ask the boat drivers directly.
Pro tip: ask the boat drivers for a ticket price directly, don’t listen to the middle men. The boat drivers can’t leave until they fill their boats, so an almost full boat will be eager to take on new passengers.
Once you’re on board, your boatman will want a copy of your passport and may need you to fill out some forms. The longboat ride is about 20-30 minutes.
When you hit the shore, you’re in Myanmar. Welcome to the start of your journey!
When you get off the boat at Kawthaung, walk the promenade to the immigration area; there are people there to show you where you’re going. Hand in your pre-arranged visa and a copy of your passport and the visa at the immigration office.
Kawthaung (pronounced “Cowsong” and known previously as Victoria Point), is Myanmar’s southernmost town.
We only wanted to spend one night in Kawthaung as there isn’t a TON to do, but we found some neat markets and used our time to get set up with SIM cards and ATM access. We booked the last room at the small, clean and pleasant Penguin Hotel for around $40CAD per night.
The front desk agent at Kawthaung’s Penguin hotel was nice and spoke decent English, and our room came with free breakfast and wifi. You can rent a motorbike from the hotel for $10/6 hrs.
After dropping off our bags off in our simple but tidy room, we went wandering through the nearby market and picked up two Burmese sim cards.
Best SIM Card for Myanmar
For your sim card, MPT has the best country-wide coverage, and for the sim and a data package of 10GB each it was roughly $13 for each of us.
We inserted the MPT cards into our phones and boom – we were in business with fairly decent internet that was good enough to stream Netflix movies and for me to tether my computer to to do some work occasionally.
In retrospect we should have added a bit of money to make voice calls, we only did a data package and regretted that a few times when a local call would have helped out.
ATMs in Myanmar
Then it was off to the ATM. There are ATMs in almost every city in the South of Myanmar and depending on the machine, where you can take a maximum of the equivalent of $300- 400 CAD out each day. The ATM fee is usually $6.50.
Palautonetone Day Trip
While in Kawthaung, we went to a small fishing village called Palutonetone.
Palautonetone is a really cute peninsula a few kms north of Kawthaung linked to the mainland by a (freakin’ sketchy) wooden bridge.
We hopped on our motorbike and were soon on our way, arriving at Palautonetone in about ten minutes.
Palautonetone was worth the nerve wracking drive over the creaky old bridge though – this is a really beautiful and super rustic area where you feel like you’ve walked into a time machine and popped out thirty years in the past.
The east side of the island has a flat of mangroves and the other side faces the sea and has a long sandy beach. Past the wooden bridge you’ll find a fishing village that sees very few tourists, we saw none at all the day we were there.
Dirt roads, goats and plentiful cats, dogs, chickens and puppies wander on the road, and we got lots of smiles from the villagers.
We were starving so stopped for a quick tea and bite to eat at one of the roadside tea shops and then continued down toward the beach for another 5 minutes or so of driving.
The beach area has some really cool colorful little seaside restaurants, statues, art and beer gardens.
We got a bag of homemade potato chips and two Myanmar beers and had a nice cat come eat chips with us. Some locals came over and wanted to share their fried squid with us – it was delicious.
Organizing A Bus Trip from Kawthaung to Myeik
Then, knowing we wanted to head to Myeik the next day, we gathered our things went to the bus station to get a ticket. Myeik is a 10-11 hr bus ride away from Dawei, and there’s really nowhere to stop and spend the night along the way.
We’d heard about a bus company called Toe Bagandan, which was supposed to have nice roomy busses, but we couldn’t for the life of us find it, so we finally relented and bought two tickets on another bus company to Myeik, leaving the next day at 12:30pm, for $23 (23,000 kyat) each.
From there, we went exploring again, just occasionally looking at Google Maps and trying out different roads and areas. We took our underpowered little scooter up and down crazy hills (Josh had to get off and push me up one especially gnarly hill. Pushing someone with a hurt foot up a hill on a bike in 30 degree weather is true love).
At the top of the big hill, we found a really beautiful monastery and friendly monk. After taking in the view, we drove some country backroads through local towns and headed back to our hotel, where we arrived at around 5pm. I’d advise anyone to explore a bit in Myanmar – people don’t mind when you wander onto their property as long as you’re respectful.
That night we grabbed some fruit at the market (definitely try a pomelo!) and settled down for some internet time and to charge our devices and get ready for our long bus journey the next day.
Day 2: Travel From Kawthaung to Myeik
After starting our morning in Kawthaung with a simple free breakfast at the Penguin Hotel (coffee, banana, toast and egg), we wandered down to the market to pick up some snacks for the big 11-12 hour bus ride to Myeik.
I figured a pillow, blanket, some snacks, and a cheap zippered bag to hold everything in would make the bus ride more comfortable (your big backpack goes down below so you don’t have access to it during the trip).
We strolled up and down the market aisles where there’s no shortage of clothing, bags and local food. I managed to find what I needed fairly easily.
Then we took a taxi from the Penguin to the bus station. Our bus to Myeik was set to depart at 12:30.
And then my Bus Ride from Hell, Aka Bus Ride from Kawthaung to Myeik, began
Now, let me say upfront the bus itself wasn’t that bad.
It was a big bus that had air con and the seats were an okay size, and they even gave us a blanket, pillow and bottle of water.
The driver offered us barf bags and anti nausea patches, which I waved away with a smile. Thank you good sir, but I don’t get motion sickness.
Well. I think you know where this is going.
I don’t know what it was, maybe the relentless blaring Myanmar pop music and flashing disco lights that were on for the entire ride, maybe the weird chemical air freshener smell, or maybe the ungodly number of twists and turns in the road – but for whatever reason I was ready to puke the whole bus ride from Kawthaung to Myeik.
I popped two anti-nausea stickers behind my ear, which did nothing. I held my temple and did deep breathing. I counted the minutes.
I’m proud to say I made it through the 12 hour bus ride without tossing my cookies, but just barely.
We made one stop in the tiny town of Bokypin. Earlier when doing our research, we’d considered trying to break the long bus trip to Myeik up by staying at Bokypin, but had busses will let you off here but curiously don’t want to pick you up. Though we were sure we could have gotten on a bus eventually if we’d spent the night, upon seeing Bokypin we decided was pretty much a one horse town (actually a 26 dog town) so I wasn’t sad to carry on. I was sad to get back on the bus though.
Finally, around 10pm, we rolled into Myeik.
Day 3 - 4 Myeik
Myeik is located on an island in the Andaman Sea, just off the coast.
It’s the largest city in the Tanintharyi Division with an estimated population of 250,000, colonial era buildings, and long proud nautical history.
Among other things, Myeik is famous for its great archipelago across the Andaman Sea consisting of hundreds of islands and coral reefs that you.
Most of the activity in Myeik proper is happening around Strand street and the waterfront, though there is also a bustling market in town.
The night market in Myeik happens on Strand street, and the port area is full of fishing boats and lots of hustle and bustle during the day. We found some great places to eat in Myeik.
There are very few foreigners wandering Myeik and a total of 7 (!) expats live here, according to one expat we met named Andre, who runs Life Seeing Tours, which offers a variety of daytrips and food tours.
There is a large food and clothing market in the middle of town that we had fun exploring. Locals were so kind and smiling, and even gave me a piece of ginger for free when I tried to buy it in preparation for my next bus ride (it helped!).
While there are a few hotspot type things to do in the town of Myeik such as tours of the cashew factory and food tours, it seems that mainly people like to get out on the water and explore the Mergui Archipelago islands, which Myeik is one jumping off point for.
To reach the Mergui Archipelago there are liveaboard multi-day trips that range around $200 USD per night, or organized day tours where you don’t spend the night for $80 USD per day.
We also found out there are also some more ‘under the table’ type tours (at about ¼ the price) as while we wandered the night market, we were approached by a fisherman with good english who offered us a one night stay at an island and showed us photos of his boat and tourists enjoying the islands with him on his phone; these types of tours certainly aren’t licensed so buyer beware.
Things to do in Myeik Other than the Archipelago
We decided that while the Islands sounded very interesting, the going rate was rather steep for us and since we live on an island half the year, we would try to get out to these islands again at another time.
Instead of island hopping, we rented a motorbike and spent our days wandering the twists and turns of the city, watching rubber being processed, viewing pagodas, seeing what delicious Burmese eats we could find and what other trouble we could get up to.
We found that the 280 year old Thein Dawgyi Pagoda in particular offers brilliant city views, if you can get your butt up the stairs! Bring your shoes with you as you may want to exit from the other side).
We sampled local foods, drank cold beers and visited many motorcycle shops—we almost bought a new bike to ride up north to Mandalay and sell, but opted out at the last minute.
We also thoroughly enjoyed kicking back at our hotel pool (we stayed at the Regent), which at around $40 CAD a night offered tremendous value, with it’s perfect location, high end, sparkling clean rooms and free gourmet breakfast spread that came complete with an omelette chef on hand to make eggs to order.
Also, unusually for the area, some of the rooms (but not all, as the website wrongly claims) have baths. I personally loved having long baths in our deliciously warm water and deep tub.
Never underestimate the power of a hot bath to help you feel reborn when you’ve been travelling, sweaty and a particular brand of ripe for days.
Day 5: Myeik to Dawei
The bus ride from Myeik to Dawei took about 6 hours and while the road is fairly well paved, it does have many twists and turns.
Although there isn’t much information online about which busses depart from Myeik to Dawei when, by asking around we found that there are generally busses every day at 5am, 12:30pm and 5pm, and possibly more in between (not just 5am and 5pm as many folks think).
You can book your bus through whatever hotel you’re staying at or at any of the bus station ticket counters you see all over town. Usually a small van will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus station, this is included in the bus ticket price.
We booked on to the Shew Wei Thu bus through Life Seeing Tours and were super happy with it’s size and comfort (and lack of blaring music and flashing lights).
Happily chewing ginger, and this time sensibly taking anti motion sickness medicine an hour before the trip, I had a much better time on this bus ride , even though it was equally twisty, turny and windy and our driver was going pretty fast.
Day 6-8: Dawei Myanmar
Dawei, also sometimes called Tavoy, and is located about a 6 hour bus ride from Myeik.
Dawei is a mid-size city dotted with a clutch of pretty and famous historical pagodas (that locals claim are the best in Burma) and is considered a beach lover’s paradise.
You’ll find some cool dining options in Dawei: a handful of expat run swanky bohemian restaurants dotted throughout the town, as well as two markets and many traditional noodle and tea houses.
We found Dawei to be a bit more cosmopolitan than Myeik, boasting slightly more modern clothing and dining offerings.
Dawei’s main local markets are both located on Arzarni Road.
The vivacious riverside morning market concentrates mostly on seafood, fruit and vegetables and it’s fun to sit and watch the action from a nearby teashop.
Where to Stay in Dawei
While in Dawei we initially stayed at the Shwe Moung Than Hotel, which unfortunately I can’t say I recommend.
It is aged, the rooms a bit dirty and grubby, bedding not totally clean, and has flashing neon lights on the exterior and is right next to a school that blares party music most of the night. It does actually seem to get good reviews though, so perhaps we had an unusual experience. The staff were very nice, I will say that.
We switched over to the Best House Guest House, and though it has a shared bathroom situation (there are numerous shower stalls and toilet stalls though) and no free breakfast, it was quite clean, affordable and pleasant, and I would recommend it.
Motorbike Rental in Dawei
You can rent a motorbike easily in Dawei, usually through your hotel, or go straight to the source and walk into Focus Bikes.
Our rental was $10,000 kyat per day, we got a discount as we rented for 3 days. It’s a great way to get around the city. Do be sure to wear a helmet, first to protect your noggin, second to avoid the $50 USD fine.
Focus Bikes was great to deal with and even kind enough to take good care of our bags when we did an overnight trip to the Southern Peninsula.
Popular Things to Do In Dawei
Shew Taung Zar Pagoda
For our exploration of Dawei, we started with the Shew Taung Zar Pagoda. This temple is set within lush tropical forest and the main building is comprised of a chedi and large reclining Buddha statue. We wandered around then sat and enjoyed the some quiet moments at a local teashop.
After that it was off to Maungmagan Beach (a 40-minute drive out of town) for some toes in the sand and a seaside seafood lunch.
This is a local’s favorite beach and rather busy with restaurants and cafes and traditional Burmese tea shops. There was more garbage on the beach than I was expecting though.
There are some other neat areas right near Maungmagan that you might miss if you don’t do a little exploring. If you walk along the water to the north, you’ll find the less busy but stunning, Nabule Beach.
If you walk south, you’ll find the Myaw Yit Pagoda, to get there you will need to follow a scenic track which will then lead you to a bridge that crosses over onto the island. As well as the main pagoda here you can also enjoy the boardwalk on this island, which makes a great place to go for a stroll and take in the pagoda and azure sea views.
Tanintharyi Region Cultural Museum
If you’re into learning about Mon history, the Tanintharyi Region Cultural Museum is definitely worth a visit. Here you can wander around and learn more about the story of Dawei and the traditions and cultures of the Dawei, Moken and Mon groups.
Massage at Hotel Dawei
On our second day in Dawei, we decided to start things off right with a massage at Hotel Dawei, a very cool old colonial building with a beautiful swimming pool. For $25 you get an hour long massage and access to the pool all day.
Daytrips from Dawei
If you’re keen to see some sea and village life, there are a variety of daytrips you can book to the local islands from Dawei.
From the busy fishing village of San Hlan you can hop on a boat to spend a day out on the ocean swimming, snorkeling and taking in the sun.
Many people claim the coral here is a much better quality than that found further south around the Mergui Archipelago.
Visiting Dawei's Southern Peninsula Beaches
Dawei’s southern Peninsula is vast and full of isolated expansive beaches. It’s about a 2-3 hour drive from the city, and the best plan is to stay there for a night or two rather than attempt a daytrip as the journey is a bit taxing, particularly on a motorbike, and when the sun goes down there is of course no road light.
We set out early on our motorbike to check out two offgrid bungalow operations, Sin Htauk Bungalows and Paradise Beach Bungalows.
The journey to the first, Sin Htauk, was a bit more than we bargained for. It was a long and dusty ride on the bike, and the side road to get to Sin Htauk was bumpy and a bit nerve wracking, but doable. I wish I had gotten a bike helmet with a visor, for all the dust.
Sin Htauk Bungalow
When we arrived at the area Maps.me said was Sin Htauk Bungalow (note: Thank god we downloaded the Maps.me maps, as there was no signal out here), we realized you were supposed to park your bike at the parking lot at the top of the road and do a 6k walk down to the bungalows – not super awesome in the blaring sun with backpacks.
So, we drove about 7 minutes more to the end of the road where there was a beach and beach parking, grabbed our bags and walked up along the beach with the sand in our toes and ocean water lapping our feet instead of on hot pavement.
We arrived at Sin Htauk Bungalows hot and a tad bedraggled, and were a little irked to see that the prices of bungalows were higher than we expected (60,000-90,000 kyats depending on the level of bungalow you want) and a simple meal was around 8,000 kyats, far more expensive than in town (about double). Not that these prices are high in comparison to home, but in relation to the other offerings and going rates, they were steep and felt a bit like they took advantage that people arrive tired.
Still, we *were* tired, and the beach *was* beautiful….
But, after having lunch and interacting a bit with the disinterested and not particularly friendly staff we decided the vibe wasn’t what we were after, and we’d get back on the bike and search out Paradise Beach Bungalows next, about an hour and a half away.
But before leaving the Sin Htauk Bungalow area, after looking at our maps, we decided to explore the area a bit, since it appeared there was a second beach nearby.
Boy, were we glad we did!
A five minute walk took us to Violin beach – 7kms of totally isolated gorgeous sandy beach.
We did what anyone would do – got out of our gross sweaty clothes and went for a quick refreshing skinny dip!
After that we were back in business. We were cooled off and ready to get back to the bike and continue onwards to Paradise Beach Bungalow, where we hoped to spend the night.
Paradise Beach Bungalows
When we got to Paradise Beach Bungalows (again some difficult motorbike riding on the sideroads, but nothing impossible, even with two of us and our bags on one small bike!), we decided this was much more our speed.
Paradise Beach Bungalows is set right on a giant beautiful beach and is full of warmth and smiles and had a really welcoming atmosphere, the restaurant is lovely and the bungalows are really nice.
Sadly, when we arrived they were full – but they offered to set up a tent for us, right on the beach for 35,000 kyats. We decided to go for it.
The tent was decent – though maybe not the “Arabian nights” experience we had hoped for haha.
In the evening Josh made friends at the bar with some English travelers, and I, ever the introvert traveller at times, decided I needed a solo recharge and walked the dark beach, amazed at the phosphorecents that lit up the sand around my feet. It was magic.
The best part about our Paradise Beach Bungalows tent experience was waking up with the ocean and beach directly in front of us.
It seemed like people generally spend 2-3 days here to unplug and relax.
Paradise Beach Bungalows has 16 bungalows and will also rent snorkel gear (we heard the snorkeling was pretty good but nothing amazing).
The restaurant is yummy—breakfast and all the coffee you can drink is included in your room rate. There is no internet signal at all, but there is a signal in the nearby town.
Day 8: Dawei to Ye
We did a minivan trip from Dawei to Ye. It cost 8,000 kyats each, and was definitely snug with three of us crammed into each of four rows on the minivan. The van spent way longer than we expected in town, making random stops for who knows what (the bus was already full) with no air con turned on. I was ready to get to Ye asap. Finally, about 3.5 hours in, we arrived in Ye.
Day 9 - 11: Exploring Ye Myanmar
We super loved Ye!
Ye (which is pronounced “yay”) sits south of Mawlamyine, halfway between it and Dawei.
Ye, with a small population of just 40,000, only opened to foreigners in 2013 and is certainly what we’d call well off the worn travel path.
This cute and walkable town sits near a lake (that has fish you can hand feed in it) and is a great area to explore.
There are numerous pagodas and temples, two markets and a gold market, and out of town many things to explore. We recommend you rent a motorbike in town (or a tuk tuk) so you can get around to see and do many things. About 2-5 days in Ye seems ideal.
It was just the right size for exploring and full of interesting sights and friendly people. We definitely got the small-town vibe here and there are almost no tourists at all.
Where to Stay in Ye
There’s pretty much only one great place to stay in Ye, so book early!
It’s the Starlight Guest House, run by American expat David and his Burmese wife Winny. Prices here are reasonable and the grounds are beautiful.
The rooms are supercute standalone bungalows with great décor, aircon, and gardens all around. There’s a restaurant on site that makes great Thai food at good prices. We rented a motorbike here and thoroughly enjoyed our stay and meeting David and Winny.
Banana Mountain in Ye
We liked Ye so darn much we wrote a whole separate article about Things to Do in Ye, but if you do only one thing, go to Banana Mountain.
Though Ko Yin Lay (the local name for it) means Banana Mountain, it is not a mountain—it’s a uniquely-styled Mon temple complex different from typical pagodas in the south with many domes featuring a 9-story, 4-seated Buddha you can walk up inside.
This is a sacred monument to the Mon state locals. At the top (there are a lot of stairs.. brace yourself), there is a 360 degree view of the surrounding area.
If you arrive at 10:30-11:00am you may be invited to sit down for a traditional Mon/Burmese lunch. All the food is vegetarian, and delicious; you won’t be asked to pay for the food but a donation to the temple is appreciated. There is a very large reclining Buddhas at Ko Yin Lay as well as a private school.
No guide is required