Pathein is a port city and the capital of the Ayeyarwady Region. It lies on the Pathein River, which is a western branch of the Irrawaddy River.
It is the fourth largest of Myanmar situated 190 kilometers west of Yangon and the hub of the Ayeyarwady Delta region.
It was once a part of the Mon Kingdom, and it continues to be a multicultural society today, with a mix of Mon, Karen and Rakhine people, who have brought together their different styles, food and customs, creating a fusion unique to this region.
Pathein’s landscape is vast with rice paddies and fields where crops such as sesame seeds, peanuts, maize, pulses and chilies, as well as jute and tobacco are cultivated.
Despite its distance from the Ocean, Pathein is accessible to large vessels due to its deep ports, and is the most important port outside Yangon. It is also linked to the rest of the country via railway.
One of the earliest Europeans to come to Myanmar was Ralf Fitch, a gentleman merchant of London, who disembarked here in 1586 and described it as” a very pretie Towne, and standeth very pleasantly, very well furnished with all things”.
Fitch called it Cosmin, apparently derived from its Mon name Kawthamin; centuries later under the colonial rule it was called Bassein, derived from the name Pathein.
The city is a rice milling and export center. Aside from several rice mills, the town has numerous sawmills and umbrella workshops. The colorful handmade parasols made in Pathein are widely known throughout Myanmar. Locally they are known as “Pathein Hti.”Pathein is also known for its pottery and colorful hand-made baskets and buckets.
Pathein has a scenic waterfront and many Buddhist temples, including the main sight of Shwemokhtaw Pagoda.
One legend says it was originally built by India’s Buddhist king Asoka in 305 BC as a small stupa called Shwe Arna.Standing 2.3 m tall, this original stupa supposedly enshrined Buddha relics and a 6in (15cm) gold bar.
Another legend says a Muslim princess named Onmadandi requested each of her three Buddhist lovers to build a stupa in her honor. One of the lovers erected Shwemokhtaw, the other the less distinguished Tazaung and Thayaunggyaung paya.
Which ever story you choose to believe, Bagan’s King Alaungsithu is thought to have erected an 11mstupa called Htypayon over this site in AD 1115.Then in 1263, King Samodagossa took power, raised the stupa to 40m and changed the name to Shwemokhtaw paya, which means Stupa of the Half-Foot Gold Bar.
The main shape of the stupa has remained the same since Samodagossa’s reign, although the changing of the decorative hti (umbrella like decorated top) has increased the height to its present 46.6m.
The current hti consists of a topmost layer made from 6.3kg of solid gold, a middle tier of silver and the last tier of bronze. All three tiers are gilded and reportedly embedded with a total of 829 diamond fragments, 843 rubies and 1588 semiprecious stones.
The Thiho-shin Phondaw-pyi sitting Buddha image, is housed in the southern shrine of the compound houses which was supposedly floated to the delta coast on a raft, sent from Sri Lanka during ancient times.
According to legend, an unknown Sinhalese sculptor fashioned four different Buddha images using pieces from the original Bodhi Tree mixed with a cement composite. He then placed the images on four wooden rafts and set the rafts adrift on the ocean.
One landed in Dawei (Tavoy), and is now housed at the Shinmokhti Paya; another landed at Kyaikkami (Amherst), and is now at Yele Paya; the third landed at Kyaiktiyo and is now at Kyaikpawlaw; the fourth landed near Phondawpyi a fishing village about 97km south of Pathein.
In 1445 the Mon queen Shinsawpu is said to have the latter image brought up to Pathein, then known as Kuthima.
A marbled standing Buddha positioned in a niche in the fence running along the western side of the stupa marks the spot here Mon warriors once prayed before going off to battle.
In the northwestern corner of the compound is a shrine dedicated to Shin Upagot, the Bodhisattva who floats on the ocean and appears to those in trouble. Turtles swim in the water surrounding the small pavilion.
Of the several lesser-known ones in Pathein, perhaps the most charming is this paya dedicated to a mythical Buddha footprint left by the Enlightened One during his legendary travels through mainland Southeast Asia.
The auya compound wraps over a couple of green hillocks that are dotted with well-constructed tazaung (shrine buildings) altogether a nice setting and a change from the flat paya compounds near the river. The footprint symbol itself is the usual oblong, 1 m long impression.
Around Pathein, Horseshoe-shape Inye lake, 70km northeast of the city near the village of Kyonpyaw, is a favorite weekend picnic spot. Local fishermen sell fresh fish from the lake.
If you follow the pathein river south till it empties into the Andaman Sea you’ll reach Maw din Point (Mawdinsoun), the site of the famous festival during the lunar month of Tabodwe (February/march) On the sea side of the cape, at its point, is a sandy beach and the revered stupa of mawdin paya.
It is the most famous pagoda in Pathein. If you follow the Pathein River till it empties into the Adman Sea you’ll reach Cape Mawtin (Mawtinson), site of a well-known festival during the lunar month of Tabodwe (February. March).
On the seaside of the Cape is a sandy beach and the revered Pagoda Maw Tin Son.
It is very surprising to note that the pagoda is waterlogged all the year round except in the days of the annual festival.
The seawater is out well beyond the pagoda during the festival and lots of stalls selling a variety of local products, seafood, ornaments made of seashells, and lodging houses built of bamboo for the revelers seem to spring like mushrooms on the beach.
Once the festival is over the water is up and covers the beach. At this time it seems that the pagoda is located on the sea. During the Mawdin Point festival there are special boats running from Pathein daily. Other times, the boats go only once a week or so, leaving the main pathein jetty around 6 am and arriving at 2pm.