Mrauk U is the authentic Myanmar we hoped to find in a country closed to the world for many years, as this nation’s popular spots are starting to get spoiled.
I wouldn’t call the rest of Myanmar “developed” but in popular tourist destinations like Inle Lake and Bagan, the signs of modern development and poorly managed tourism are clearly visible.
That being said, those who make the long journey to magical and secluded Mrauk U will be treated to the fabled Myanmar immortalized in books by Kipling, Orwell and Forester.
Mrauk U is not that easy to reach
One of the reasons Mrauk U is so unspoiled by tourists is it’s not all that easy to get there.
First, there’s no airport. That’s key, because airports open the tourist floodgates and ruin a place faster than a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. The only way to get to Mrauk U is by bus or boat, and neither are all that easy.
The most comfortable (and popular) way to get there is by taking a boat up the Kaladan River from Sittwe. There are flights from Yangon to Sittwe and ferries that run from Sittwe to Mrauk U. The ferries take about 7 hours and cost roughly US $10. For twice the cost and half the time, you can also take an express boat.
The downsides are the flight is pricey and the entire trip can still take two days. That’s because the flights from Yangon to Sittwe usually arrive in the afternoon and the boats from Sittwe to Mrauk U leave in the morning. You can hire a private boat that leaves in the afternoon, but that takes some haranguing and can be expensive, especially if you don’t have a large group to share costs.
For the budget minded, you can take a US $20, 20-hour bus straight from Yangon. We did this, and it was a true adventure with a capital “A”. We were packed in a bus with locals only (whole families were sleeping in the aisle) surrounded by loads of (luckily not alive) goods, had regular break-downs (every 2 hours we had to cool down the engine with water or replace a belt) and stopped at some great “all you can eat” road-side restaurants, where they will keep filling your plate until the bus honks its horn and you have to go.
Important to note: booking the bus from Yangon can be tricky. It travels through Ann, a sensitive military region, which is technically off limits to foreigners. As such, some local travel agents said there was a bus, some said there was no bus, and some said we needed a guide. Long story short, we just went to the bus terminal on the very edge of the city early in the morning and tried our luck. After a lot of back and forth, we finally agreed upon a guide (we hate guides, but it was the only solution). Funny thing is, all the guide did was walk us across the huge bus terminal to another company that sold us a ticket for a tiny bit more than the other guys.
Welcome to the quaint little village of Mrauk U
Mrauk U is a village in the true sense of the word. We came from Yangon, which is very much a city — modern concrete buildings, paved roads, heavy traffic and garbage everywhere.
Mrauk U’s traffic is more ox carts, primitive tractors, bicycles and scooters; the buildings are mostly small wooden huts; the streets are mostly dirt (although very clean) and the highest buildings were the stupas and temples.
Most people still don’t have running water, so you’ll see villagers getting water from the many water holes around town.
The temples and stupas here are very much part of local life. Many of the homes here border the temple grounds and the former palace now serves as a cow pasture. We had a charming encounter with a little cowboy who gave his charges a good wash from the palace’s ancient well, while his trusty sling shot dangled from his neck.
Meet the locals of Mrauk U
The quaint wooden homes and the ancient agrarian feel of Mrauk U were fascinating, but it’s the people here that made the difference. Badly managed tourism and impatient angry tourists have not yet ruined them, and I hope it’s going to stay like this.
One morning, I rose pre dawn to get ready to go with Micha to catch some sunrise shots. The staff at our guesthouse was asleep when I rolled out of bed (as was Micha). So, I wandered the village in search of some coffee, my big addiction. I came across a bunch of men who were up early for work and were sipping coffee at a little street stand. As soon as they saw me drowsily wandering down the dark street, they waved me over and shared with me their morning “repas”. Now that’s what I am talking about.
My only regret was I didn’t try the betel nut they offered me. It would have given me the “bump” I was looking for, but also would have cost me a red mouth and some strange looks from Micha and perhaps the comment, “spinnst du?” (German for “are you crazy?”). Actually, as it turned out, she would have liked it if I tried the betel nut, as she wanted to get a picture of me all red-mouthed … photographers!
Later that morning, while wandering around the village, a woman with a toddler on her arm stopped us just to show her kid how strange looking Westerners look (it’s great when you feel like the subject of interest). She also encouraged us to take photos of her and her child, which thrilled Micha, who does not like to shove a camera in a local’s face, but rather likes to be invited.
In general, it seemed people are very happy and laid back in Mrauk U. Nobody bothered us trying to sell trinkets or a tour, or begged for money. Children routinely hopped on the back of our bikes when we road by, that is when they were not playing the antique game of hoop rolling.
All in all we had so much fun playing with kids at the temples, exchanging smiles with monks and joining street vendors for some local delicacies served on the side of the road, we probably could have gotten all we were looking for during our trip to Myanmar by just hanging in Mrauk U.
Mrauk U temples rival Bagan
It seems that when people talk about temples and Stupas, all you hear about is Bagan. True, Bagan is amazing and we loved it, but Mrauk U is also covered with temples and stupas, and they’re especially spectacular because you have them all to yourself. (Ok, you might have to share them with a monk or two, some playful kids or some local worshipers, but that’s it.)
For those that don’t know, a stupa is a structure that looks like an enormous Hershey Kiss. They are usually solid and supposed to contain a Buddha relic (a hair, a tooth, etc). Temples on the other hand are usually larger, and you can walk in and admire Buddha statues or bas-reliefs.
You are supposed to get a temple pass for Mrauk U, although we didn’t know this until our last day when we had already toured almost all temples. (I am glad because it was well worth the small admission fee and I would have felt horrible if I didn’t pay it.) The place where they checked and finally sold us our passes was at Shite-Thaung, the biggest and most popular temple in Mrauk U. It’s known for containing 80,000 Buddhas, and while I did not keep count, I did see a hell of a lot of Buddhas while I was touring the tunnels that led to the holy center.
Because of the somewhat ridiculous number of Buddhas, Shite-Thaung is the most “crowded” temple we visited (i.e., we met about 10 other people there). I have to admit, except for the murals, it wasn’t my favorite one. I enjoyed the more rustic and mysterious temples and stupas, especially the ones that were off in a corner of a field somewhere. Of course, there are so many temples and stupas in Mrauk U, you’ll have no problem finding your “perfect” spot, and chances are good you’ll have it all to yourself. The best thing to do in this flat village is rent a bike and just ride around all day long like we did.
Witout any doubts, my highlight of my trip to Myanmar (and even my trip to Southeast Asia) was Mrauk U. In fact, as I sit in my office in Bavaria (which is also beautiful, especially in early summer), I dream of my days back in Mrauk U, being chased by kids through the tunnels of an ancient temple. I can only hope to see it again before tourism has staked its claim.
Have you been to Mrauk U or another place in Myanmar where time seems to stand still? Please let us know your experiences and share your memories in the comments below.
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