When you think of ancient temples in Myanmar, Bagan is usually what comes to mind, but that’s not the only site worth visiting in Myanmar. Mrauk U offers travelers archeological sites that more rural, less visited but by no means, less impressive.
In the far western Myanmar state of Rakhine are the rarely visited, but very fascinating Buddhist temples of Mrauk U. The city name is pronounced Mrow OO in the Rakhine state and Meow OO in the rest of Myanmar. From the 15th – 18th centuries Mrauk U was the wealthiest city in South East Asia as it was an important trading port for the Portuguese, Dutch and British. During this time Rakhine kings built a beautiful palace and many pagodas, zedis and temples.
When the British arrived, they moved the state capital from Mrauk U to Sittwe. Because of this, the sacred Buddhist structures in Mrauk U were forgotten. Many became covered in an over-grown jungle. Even today they are still finding ruins that have been covered for years.
Even with this rich history this area only sees 4,000 – 5,000 tourists a year. Mrauk U is close to the border with Bangladesh. With the recent Rohingya disturbance and the way it has been portrayed in the media, tourists are staying away. We found it perfectly safe and very far away from any unrest.
The ruins are spread throughout the town and neighboring countryside. Exploring the sites means walking on the dusty roads between homes, shops, farms and hillocks. This atmosphere makes it feel less like a tourist site and more enjoyable in some ways.
The architecture of these pagodas and zedis (stupas) is quite different from those in other parts of Myanmar and neighbouring Thailand. Most importantly, they often used stone, rather than brick. Also, their shape is different. Some are more rounded like a bell, while others have sharp corners. Some have thick walls making them look like fortresses.
Zedis (stupas) are bell-shaped structures that either contain remains, relics or represent an important event or belief in Buddhism. A few very old zedis in South Asia are said to contain Buddha’s ashes. The belief is that Peisi Daung zedi predates the Rakhine kings and contains the ashes of the right and left testicles of Buddha! The zedi has not been restored and only four Buddha statues remain. Another important site is Andaw Temple. It is said to house a Buddha tooth relic.
Koe Thaung Temple is one of the highlights of Mrauk U. This large temple is surrounded by hundreds of small pagodas. Inside, the walls are covered with 90,000 images of Buddha.
We were able to enter some of the larger pagodas. Inside we found one or sometimes two tight, vaulted hallways that circled around the inside of the pagoda. Each hallway has hundreds of stone statues. One had statues depicting daily chores, dancing, fashion and hairstyles of the time. Another had statues of the animals and mythical creatures that represent some of the previous incarnations of Buddha. It was very interesting to be inside these pagodas as we haven’t been able to do that at other sites.
The rural setting makes for wonderful views, especially at sunrise and sunset. The combination of mist and smoke from open fires added a sense of mystery to the scenes.
The people in Mrauk U were very curious about us since very few tourists visit the area. They would often stare at us until we smiled at them. Then, their faces lit up with a large smile as they said hello in Rakhine. Some people stopped as they rode by on their bikes to ask which country we are from.
Today Mrauk U is far from the wealthy city it once was and the people of Mrauk U have a difficult life. They cook over an open flame, live in very basic homes any many have strenuous manual labour jobs. We saw an example of this hard work when we passed a group of construction workers paving a road by hand.
Chin Tribal Villages
An hour and a half by boat up the Lay Mro River are the fascinating Chin tribal villages. Until 60 years ago their custom was to tattoo the faces of girls. There are differing beliefs on why this was done. Some believe it was for cosmetic reasons, others say it was to distinguish their girls from those of neighboring tribes. Apparently they believed it would prevent the girls from being kidnapped or marry outside of their tribe.
Each tribe had a different tattoo design. We visited two villages who used the spider web design. The tattooed-face women, now in their late 70s and 80s, were only 9 when they were tattooed. These ladies were very friendly. At one village, each one came to greet us and shake our hands. It is now a revenue source for the village, but we found these women much more friendly than those we met at other, similar tourist sites.
We met one family in their bamboo house and it was one of the best parts of our day. The tattooed-face lady was in her 80s as was her husband and family friend. The husband was very interested in speaking with us through our guide. He hadn’t heard of Canada, but was able to understand where it was when we told him that it’s in North America. He said that the three of us must have each done a good dead in our previous lives to meet each other today – what a nice sentiment.
He explained that he had 2 wives, close to his age, but when one died he took another who looked to be in her mid 20s! Polygamy is common in these tribes even though it is not a usual practice for Buddhists.
Getting to Mrauk U – Mrauk U is not easy to access. The nearest airport is in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. Flights leave a few times a day between Sittwe and Yangon or Mandalay. From Sittwe you can take a 6 hour boat ride or 4 hour bus to Mrauk U. Buses are also available from Yangon, but take as much as 12 hours.
Where to stay – There are a few nice tourist hotels in Mrauk U with reasonable prices. There are a few restaurants in town as well as at most hotels.
Guides – We used Hla Thein, a local guide. We found him very knowledgeable, friendly and honest and recommend Hla. You can find him on Facebook or if your interested you can contact us at email@example.com for his contact info. We do not receive compensation for this referral.
Coming up Next – Myanmar’s Rural South
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