From Aung Mingalar bus station the Yangon sprawl quickly changes to rural Myanmar. This is our first trip out of Yangon in several weeks, and it is a relief to be on the road again after the bustle of the city. During the 7 hour journey to Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, we pass through small towns and villages characterised by the more traditional Myanmar wooden houses, small-scale farmsteads, and the glittering spires of golden pagodas.
I have a particular interest in Mon State as it is a region in which my organisation, Loka Ahlinn, works. Currently we are designing a project to support the development of more accountable and participatory legal systems, alongside education programmes for civil society groups and marginalized people.
Mon has a fascinating history and a strong cultural identity. Citizens have suffered due to conflict between the Government and various insurgency groups fighting for an autonomous or independent state that has restricted development and local livelihoods. Yet despite continuing human rights abuses, a 1995 ceasefire and recent government reforms has allowed informal civil society networks and welfare groups to reemerge.
The main approach to Mawlamyine is across a new road and rail bridge, through rolling tropical hills and over the Gyaing river estuary. The small town is picturesque and its character abundant – traditional Myanmar and colonial townhouses rub-shoulders along tree-lined lanes and in bustling markets. Colourful tuk-tuks and old motorbikes fill the streets, and local people stroll along the riverfront promenade at sunset past once grand colonial buildings that have slipped into a romantic dilapidation.
The Kyaik Tan Lan complex of temples and shining spires overlooks Mawlamyine. From here sparsely developed agricultural plains and jungle stretch to distant hills marking the Myanmar-Thai border. It is hot, breathless and quiet. An ideal place to marvel at the magic of Mon.