Also known as Bassein, Pathein is the capital of the Delta region and one of Myanmar’s most populous cities. Its enduring prosperity comes from the flat expanses of green paddy fields spread across the surrounding wetlands. In the British era, hundreds of thousands of acres of jungle, swamp, and marsh in the area were cleared to create cultivable land. As rice became Burma’s main cash crop, people poured in from across India and the rest of the country to cash in on the bonanza. Exports from the Delta supplied Europe during the American Civil War and fueled the growth of Calcutta and Straits Settlements plantations in what was then Malaya. By the 1930s, half of the country’s rice was sold overseas. However, rice production has plummeted since Independence due to antiquated agricultural practices, impoverished soil, and the vulnerability of local farmers to periods of drought and also flooding.
Pathein’s pride and joy is the 153-ft (47-m) Shwemokhtaw Pagoda, whose golden, bell- shaped zedi (stupa) soars above the bend in the river at the center of town. Believed to have been founded in the 3rd century BC, it has since been enlarged many times, notably by the peripatetic king of Bagan, Alaungsithu (1089– 1168), who sponsored the construction of many major temples, ordination halls, forts, and reservoirs across his domain. Shwemokhtaw’s crowning glory is a particularly resplendent hti (finial) made of three layers: the first layer is made of bronze; the second of silver; and the third layer consists of solid gold weighing 3.9 lb (6.3 kg), with 843 rubies, 829 diamonds, and 1,588 semiprecious stones.
The nearby waterfront is a good spot for a leisurely stroll. Dotted with Chinese and Burmese temples, its banks are lined with wooden boats used to transport pottery and other goods and merchandise around the Delta and to and from the city market.
Also worth a visit is the Settayaw Pagoda, on the northeast edge of town, where a Konbaungstyle Buddha image cast in bronze presides over a footprint of the historical Buddha, Gautama. The temple can be reached via a pretty redand- white bridge, which is also a favorite backdrop for local wedding photographs.