The magic of Mrauk-U

Sunrise in Mrauk-U

Getting lost, getting scared – and loving every second.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d love Mrauk-U (pronounced variably as Meow-Oo or Mraow-Oo, depending on where you are in Myanmar). First of all, the name apparently means “Monkey Egg”, which has got to be a plus. Secondly, the descriptions I’d read about an ancient city of moss-covered temples, seldom visited by tourists for the fact that it’s so difficult to reach, were massively appealing.

Photo by Andy Barker

And I wasn’t disappointed.

After a week or so of constant moving, we were looking forward to finding a proper base for at least 4 days. Even more so after our 22-hour bus journey between Pyay and Sittwe! We only spent a night in Sittwe, not really feeling the need to stick around.

Sittwe is the only place in Myanmar that I haven’t liked. It just seemed to have a negative atmosphere about it – after all, it’s where the hugely oppressed Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee back in 2012 and rounded up into refugee-style camps, an attempt at ethnic cleansing by ultra-nationalist Rakhine Buddhist mobs who were largely ignored by a complicit government.

Since we’d read up on all this before going, perhaps it tainted our impressions before our arrival*.

* Note: a week or two after we left Sittwe, trouble broke out again after an attack on border police in the area, allegedly by Rohingya rebels. This resulted in an ongoing series of brutal retaliations, with the situation for the Rohingya now even worse than in recent times. So maybe our sense of trepidation had been on point, after all.

But even so…there just seemed to be large groups of leering men everywhere. Instead of receiving friendly waves as we had elsewhere, greetings had a more sinister undertone. And this time, my hair attracted outright laughter and mocking gestures – so I was pretty happy to move on!

Our main reason for visiting Sittwe was the 6-hour boat trip to Mrauk-U, which fortunately, ended up being even more gorgeous than I’d hoped.

Photo by Andy Barker

Pulling into the harbour at Mrauk-U, I felt a massive sense of relief. Already I could tell that it was much more relaxed than some of the busier towns we’d been through that week and I felt instantly at home.

As is probably the case with the few travellers who do venture to Mrauk-U, we decided to extend our stay – and even after a week, I was reluctant to leave it behind.

The town comprises one busy-ish main street, with the grounds of the old palace and a sprawling market to the east. The streets around the residential centre can form a bit of a rabbit’s warren. They’re hugely enjoyable to lose yourself in…and luckily, I have a talent for getting lost!

After 5 days there, I decided to visit the market alone in search of a longyi. That was entertaining enough in itself; all the stalls were made for people 2 feet smaller than me, so I’d to shuffle along like I was on the 7th and a half floor in Being John Malkovich until I found the longyi section. Once I’d chosen material and attempted to bargain, I was instructed to sit while a hem was sewn.

So there I sat, pumping sweat while immaculate Burmese girls giggled and pointed repeatedly at my hair – this time, in a more amicable way – but still, I was glad to get out of there! For some unknown reason, I then decided to take a new route home (which should’ve taken 5 minutes). A sweltering hour later, I arrived back at the guesthouse, still charmed by Mrauk-U as a whole, but slightly more wary of delving into its winding streets alone, or at least in the midday heat.

But town aside, it’s what’s on the outside that counts.

Mrauk-U is famous for its temples, and rightly so.

The “northern group” of temples can be found within 10 minutes’ walk of the centre. Dotted among forest-green hills and illuminated by lush ricefields, the silhouettes of their stupas form what looks like a giant chess set.

Photo by Andy Barker

You could lose hours here, climbing from one hill to another for different panoramas, sipping sweet tea in a shaded tea shop while watching monks of every age, resplendent in their red robes and umbrellas, making their way to prayer.

And then you step inside…

Normally, I don’t have a great attention span for museums and monuments. I wish it weren’t the case, but I find the slow shuffling and long periods of standing required to truly appreciate the surroundings to be, well…a bit tiring, if I’m honest! Not so the case here. Each temple has something different to offer but my favourites were the Htukkanthein Paya in the northern group and the massive Kothaung Paya to the east.

Htukkanthein Temple – not bad, right?!

Inside Htukkanthein, the 179 carved statues that line the walls are said to represent the donors who helped to finance the temple’s construction. The Buddhas include all 64 of medieval Mrauk-U’s traditional hairstyles and they make for some pretty interesting viewing – placed through dark, damp and entirely eerie corridors that will make you wish you’d never seen that ‘Blink’ episode with the moving angels in Doctor Who.

Thought the No Face crew’s gaff in Game of Thrones was creepy? This is worse.

Kept expecting them to gang up on me.

I actually went back by myself to Htukkanthein Paya the evening before we left Mrauk-U. Although it had just been closed, the creepy old gatekeeper, blind in one eye and with betel-stained, snaggly teeth, opened the gate for me again. Not wanting to seem rude, I ventured in alone through the gloomy corridors. Racing around this time, convinced I was at the centre of a twisted horror film, I got the fright of my life when something jumped out of the shadows in front of me.

Luckily, it was just a frog.

Still though, it was pretty scary stuff. And I was that convinced this Buddha in particular was smirking at me in a murderous fashion.

I still think it might’ve been.

Anyway, myself and my new amphibian buddy hurried back down the corridor to the safety of outside. I said goodbye to the creepy gatekeeper, silently thanked him for not locking me in forever, and went on my way.

So that was Htukkanthein.

The hugely impressive Kothaung Paya, in a lonelier location to the east, has some pretty spooky elements too. A wall of snarling faces being one of them.

Photo by Andy Barker

Luckily, those in fear can seek respite in the upper corridor, which winds around the temple in the open sunshine. Once you get over the initial fear of that pesky Indiana Jones boulder coming to knock you out (yep, another TV reference!), it’s actually most pleasant.

Oh, and did I mention the sunrises?!

Mrauk-U is worth a visit for its sunrises and sunsets alone. The place is so picturesque that there are around 3 different “Sunset Hills” and “Sunrise Hills” – attempting to find them made for some interesting 5am hikes!

Photo by Andy Barker

Usually worth the walk, though.

Gazing upon these vistas, I wondered what the ancient city would’ve turned into if the British hadn’t decided to move the capital to Sittwe instead, deeming it a more convenient port. I imagined crowded streets and souvenir shops clustered between the key sites, with tourists getting rickshaw rides to each temple rather than having the opportunity to marvel at the stillness between the hills. I’m pretty glad it lost its status as Arakan capital back then – it makes for a far more magical place altogether now.

And there’s lots to keep you busy.

Between temple visits we took a boat trip to the Chin villages up north, rented bikes to explore the countryside while seriously testing our coordination skills/nerves (the roads there are not to be messed with) and got shown around by a lovely local guy that we met in a teashop. His name was Pulau, a self-proclaimed alchemist by trade. Not sure if that part was entirely true, but he definitely appeared to be quite a talented jewellery maker!

By that stage, Andy and I had teamed up with a French guy called Greg and a German girl called Kate, who we’d met at the lovely Lay Myoe River Guesthouse in town. Pulau took it upon himself to be our little group’s guide for the next couple of days. He brought us on a boat trip one morning, swimming in the lake the following evening and up to hidden temples in his souped-up Toyota 4×4 – and refused anything in return.

Day-trippin’ in the boat (photo by Andy Barker)…

As a man of definite means (who appeared to be a bit of a Godfather figure within the community), he said that money didn’t matter to him, but our friendship was so important “to have in his heart”. His English was fairly limited but he seemed happy to just be in our company and to teach us Arakanese phrases when we asked. He spoiled us rotten, paying for everything (including a full afternoon/evening fuelled mainly by whiskey) and wouldn’t listen to any attempts at compensation. I’ve seen so many displays of pure generosity here, it shouldn’t surprise me any longer but still, it does!

…and night drinkin’ in the bar!

But Mrauk-U’s the kind of place that invites these kinds of encounters.

The kind of place in which you find yourself brought to meet someone’s entire family within moments of meeting them, sharing palm wine, or toddy, in a roadside shack with the locals, being mesmerised by the mist curling in over the silhouetted stupas at yet another viewpoint.

It’s a truly magical part of Myanmar.

And it most certainly cast its spell on me.

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