Events described here happened on the 20th of January, 2020. We visited Gaung Say Kyun Island, also known as ‘Shampoo Island’ on our one full day in Mawlamyine.
Getting to the Jetty
Before traveling by train from Yangon to Mawlamyine, I’d already marked a few spots I wanted to visit in the city. The highlight of those was an island in the Thanlwin (Salween) river delta named Shampoo Island. Its actual name is Gaung Say Kyun Island (ခေါင်းဆေးကျွန်း). I’d already spotted the island and its tallest pagoda and its scaffolding when we crossed the river by train the previous day.
That bridge across the river was Myanmar’s longest bridge until the opening of the Pakkoku Bridge on the Irrawaddy River. Myanmar’s infrastructure keeps surprising me.
I already knew from the vista from the train that they were renovating the main pagoda.
Getting to the ferry to Shampoo Island isn’t difficult, though it might have been even easier to just ask the hotel staff to arrange a tuk-tuk. We’d prepped a little day bag for our hats and water and then left the Thanlwin Seesar Motel to walked to the nearest tuk-tuk.
The guy was napping on the back seat, so we found another one with an older guy. He didn’t understand my pronunciation of “Gaung Say Kyun kyawann” or the written Myanma I’d prepared, so he found a colleague who was younger who understood or was willing. We decided on the price of 2000 MMK to the ferry to Shampoo Island and then drove off.
The area where the ferry leaves from looks a bit sketchy, but it’s just a bit unmaintained and nothing to worry about.
We wanted to make sure we had a tuk-tuk for when we got back, so we exchanged phone numbers with our driver. We told him we’d later want to visit the Kyaik Than Lan pagoda on the hill in the city center of Mawlamyine, and that we wanted his repeat business.
A Mandatory Explanation of the Name Shampoo Island
As every blog and guidebook will say, the translated name of the island is “head washing island”. Someone extrapolated this to become ‘Shampoo Island’ as an English translation. There’s apparently a spring on the island that provided crystal clear water. In the olden days, the royals of the Burmese kingdoms enjoyed washing their hair with this water during the Thingyan new year’s celebrations. You might have heard of the Thai new year’s festival called Songkran, which involves water fights. The symbolism of the water has to do with washing away the sins of the previous year. But this special water was only for royals, not commoners. They’d transport it all the way from Mawlamyine to whichever was the palace of the king.
When the British colonized Burma, they used their imagination to refer to the island as ‘Crow Island’. Because crows slept on the island at night.
Some Drama: Jonas and I “Ruined Myanmar”
Upon arrival at the jetty to Shampoo Island, we saw that it was just a ramp in the water with some long wooden boats. There were several boats stuck on the land as it was low tide. To our surprise, we weren’t the only international tourists this day. Even though Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s fourth-largest city, it doesn’t receive many international tourists; the main attractions are between Yangon and Mandalay. Most people that visit this pagoda are domestic travelers.
I wondered why the two white people seemed to be waiting to cross. There was a ferryman standing nearby that clearly looked like he wanted to get them aboard his motorboat. Were they waiting for more people to show up? Out of environmental concern? Great. In that case, let’s go!
The lady got up when she saw us and started a disjointed plea about the price of the boat. We asked the guy how much it was, and he said 5000 MMK for the four of us, or 1250 MMK per person. We said okay and Jonas grabbed his wallet, but then the lady said that that wasn’t the price. The guy – presumably her husband – approached her to discuss in a loud whisper. They were speaking French.
We were trying to understand what the issue was, so she mentioned the price she really wanted to pay. “What he says is not the price. We know the real price. It’s 1000 Kyats per person, return trip! They are trying to rip you off!”
I’m pretty sure we read the same blog post from February 2014… We’d also read higher prices up to 5000 MMK for one single person, which is just the operating cost for a return trip. Anyway, none of this paying €0.36 more than anticipated made us as mad as it made this woman irate.
She tried negotiating in a condescending manner with the ferryman to agree to a price for all four of us. They seemed to have reached an understanding, but when the guy reiterated the previously mentioned price, she absolutely lost it.
I still wanted to see more than just Shampoo Island this day, so I told Jonas to just go without them if they’re like this. Jonas asked what the price was for just the two of us, which was just 5000 MMK or 2500 MMK per person. I nodded in agreement.
Then the French lady got really, really angry with me. I’d not spoken to her directly so far and just discussed things with Jonas. She said things like “You’re ruining Myanmar.” and “You let these people get away with charging more.” All the while, her husband grabbed her by the shoulders to keep her from actually fighting me.
Jeez Louise, I’m getting some real expat vibes from her. To be honest, as a budget traveler, I never thought I’d be on the side of “let’s just pay the asking price”. But here we are. The whole situation was just so embarrassing. For her. It was painful to watch a woman ten years my senior throw a fit like that. The hill they chose to die on.
Anyway, we agreed with the boatman that we’d be paying him 5000 MMK to get the hell away from her. The husband decided to cut their losses and not visit Shampoo Island at all today. Probably a good idea. But she wouldn’t leave before shouting some final comeback at us.
“Thanks for nothing.”
~ Angry French Karen
Enjoying Shampoo Island
The boat trip across didn’t take very long, but the sun was powerful. We grabbed our hats to prevent getting grilled in those few minutes. Our driver first approached another location on the island, where some construction workers were fixing the edge of the island. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to get out there, so we prepared to move. But it turned out we just needed to deliver a bucket of paint or something to the workers.
We then drove past the little lighthouse-themed shrine on the southern end. Behind the shallow waters on the east side, the anchorage spot of Shampoo Island appeared. Our driver helped us get out of the boat and then turned around to go back to the mainland. We hadn’t paid him yet, so we expected to do that upon return.
We took off our footwear at the heap of shoes and began wandering around. There was a big sign with the paths and the layout of the island, b. A tour of Chinese tourists was just ending. The guide of the tour told us we should take an eye on our shoes so they won’t get stolen. Haha, really funny.
First, we walked to the center of the island where the main pagoda is at. There were still some flaming oils and waxes at some of the Buddha statues from the Chinese visitors, with a donated monk’s robe at a safe distance. The scaffolding around the pagoda is typical Myanma; weaved bamboo encircles the shrine and folds over it quite snugly. It looks incredibly stable and dangerous at the same time. It’s much more aesthetic than western-type scaffolding, which always looks very unharmonious on any type of building. We’d seen in Old Bagan how construction workers would climb onto this bamboo mesh to renovate a pagoda. Barefoot, of course, because a pagoda is a pagoda.
In the distance, we could see that the main pagodas of Mawlamyine were also under construction.
Then we walked around the rest of the island, stopping at several shrines, bells, and statues, and encircling the place twice. It’s strange how we’re quite used to walking barefoot by now, though it will never be normal to me. Especially after stepping into something sticky, which happens more often than you think.
There were several world-themed pagodas, which I loved. Though, my favorite thing on the island was the lighthouse-themed shrine that doubled as a guiding beacon for the big cargo ships. Function and form!
There were plenty of benches to relax on after that batty situation we just experienced on the mainland. The monks on the island took care of a few dogs, though they looked like they need veterinary care. Some of the living quarters looked really nice, like a holiday bungalow or an Airbnb. Perhaps that’s the future of this island.
The more communal living spaces were a lot more lived-in; clotheslines bore monk’s robes everywhere you looked. Other landing spots for boats had logs for firewood piled up. Vistas across the river delta and the huge bridge were pretty good.
One canopied walkway near the mess hall bore messages of what not to do in life. Very happy messages.
A dog carried a rattan ball for chinlone off to somewhere. One section contained a workshop for ornate woodcarving. Being a monk sounds so nice.
During our visit, we didn’t encounter the namesake spring. I have no idea if it still exists or not, or if it’s actually the pond that’s in the middle. The waters from that pond didn’t exactly look clear and pristine, so I’m not sure of anything. It could also be that this was the spring, but then the 21st century with its pollution happened. Something like that, perhaps.
The Return to the Mainland
Altogether, we spent about 1.5 hours on the island before returning to the jetty. A few other people were also waiting to get back, and a boat with two white tourists (not the Frenchies) was just inbound. I really enjoyed the trip to this little island and the overgrownness combined with the gold paint and tranquility.
And, of course, our shoes were still there when we left.
Once we’d landed on the shore, the Myanma visitors brought our agreed-upon 5000 MMK to the ferryman. We got out of the boat, but there was some discussion between the other visitors and the boatman. Eventually, the man who’d argued on our behalf returned us 2000 MMK. So in the end, we only paid 3000 MMK for the return trip between the two of us. That’s the tourist/decent human being price.
Our tuk-tuk driver had apparently done the math that if he’d wait for us, he wouldn’t need any more business for today. He then drove us to the elevators of the Kyaik Than Lan (ကျိုက်သလ္လံ) pagoda in Mawlamyine.
Visiting Shampoo Island Overview
- The minimum cost for the ferry return trip is 5000 MMK for a single person.
- As a foreigner, you can pay as little as 1500 MMK per person return if you’re nice, not naughty.
- Expect higher prices up to 2500 MMK per person return if you’re acting entitled.
- You pay after you’re back on the mainland again.
- The price for locals is usually half of what you pay. If this makes you mad, pick a different sight to visit. There are pagodas in the city where you won’t need to pay entry.
- Bring your own water, hat, and sunscreen.
- Leave your shoes at the jetty once you arrive at Shampoo Island. You’ll probably see a pile of them.
- Donations on the island are welcome, but not mandatory.
- Please don’t misbehave on the island by drinking alcohol or taking lewd pictures or something like that.