Extending from the mouth of the Sittaung River to the Isthmus of Kra, Southeastern Myanmar encompasses three states. Mon State is home to the sublime Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, the region’s main pilgrimage spot. Kayin offers visitors the otherworldly sight of karst outcrops rising from lush paddy, while Tanintharyi’s magnificent landscape includes the myriad coral-fringed islands and islets of the unspoiled Myeik Archipelago.
Facing Yangon across the Gulf of Mottama (Martaban) is the heartland of the Mon, who until the rise of Bagan had been Burma’s most powerful ethnic group, but were thereafter confined to an ever- shrinking enclave around Thaton port. Today, Mawlamyine, known as Moulmein in colonial times, is the Mon capital, while the state itself occupies a mere sliver of lowland tapering down the Andaman coast. During World War II, the hills lining the Thai border inland became notorious as the site of the “Death Railway,” built by the Japanese in the 1940s using a slave labor force of Allied PoWs. Overgrown for most of its length, the rail route sees far fewer visitors today than the one lead- ing to the top of Kyaiktiyo Hill north of Mawlamyine, where a golden boulder perched precar iously above a cliff is the region’s principal pilgrimage destination. Buttressed between Mon State and the Dawna Hills along the Thai frontier, Kayin is the stronghold of the Karen, who, since Independence, have been engaged in a war with the Myanmar army that has forced thousands of them into refugee camps. While a 2012 ceasefire promises a long-awaited opening up of this beautiful region, currently Kayin’s only officially accessible area is the karst landscape around Hpa-an, an area of extraordinary limestone rock formations and caves spreading from the banks of the Thanlwin.
Farther south, Tanintharyi extends to Thailand, its pristine coastline of sand and coral tracked by forested hills. Offshore, the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago, where Moken sea gypsies still lead a nomadic lifestyle, is regarded by many as the area of Myanmar most likely to be transformed by tourism over the coming years.