I often think that I was born a decade too late. As a child of the 1980s and a teenager of the late 1990s, I feel that I arrived just too late to appreciate what may have been the apogee of Western culture. Many of my favorite bands produced their best work well before I left for college and could have seen them on tour. The fashion of the 80s and early 90s gets a bad rap, but who didn’t love Claire Danes’ oversized flannel shirts and chunky boots in My So-Called Life? The revival of the X-Files, my favorite TV show of the 1990s, has made me nostalgic for a time when the worst thing that we could worry about was a government conspiracy of an alien invasion. I would prefer that to the all-to-real economic instability, threat of terrorism, and looming environmental collapse that have darkened the 21st century.
I also suspect that, in many ways, travel was more rewarding a few decades ago. Paul traveled extensively in Latin America and Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the advent of mass tourism in much of this area. He has amazing stories of his travels, most of them centered on how cheap, un-crowded, and authentic everything was back then. He paid $50 on the spot for a 4-day trek to Machu Picchu (these days, you have to reserve months in advance and it costs hundreds of dollars), had the temples of Bagan to himself at sunset in 1995, and enjoyed the karst scenery of Vang Vieng before it became overrun with drunk, drugged gap year students. After hearing the words “Disneyfied” and “tourist trap” a few too many times to describe Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s big four tourist attractions, I made the call not to go there. I didn’t want to be disappointed by the area’s overdevelopment and have to listen to Paul’s tales of visiting the lake’s stilt villages in 2000, when there were only 10 other tourists.
The good news is that it is still possible to have adventurous travel experiences by finding places that are a bit too far away, or a bit too rustic, to appeal to package tourists and people on short holidays. Some of these places are in areas that have been recently opened to tourism, or where getting there has become easier. Mrauk U, a former royal capital turned sleepy village in western Myanmar, is one of those places, where travel feels like how I imagine it was like twenty years ago.
The historical zone of Mrauk U encompasses a number of Buddhist temples constructed by the short-lived but powerful Arakan kingdom (1430-1785) that once extended across parts of present-day Myanmar and Bangladesh and controlled trade across the Bay of Bengal. Paul didn’t visit Mrauk U on either of his previous visits to Myanmar because the road was closed to foreigners. The only way to get there was to take an expensive flight to Sittwe, followed by a boat upstream. The current Lonely Planet says that foreigners are still blocked from taking the overland route to Mrauk U, and the roundtrip flights would have been much too expensive.
Like I had done with the Maluku chapter in the Indonesia guidebook, I kept flicking back to the Mrauk U pages of the Lonely Planet. It was tantalizing but, we thought, inaccessible on our budget. On a whim, I typed “How to get from Bagan to Mrauk U” into Google. The search turned up several posts on the Thorn Tree and Tripadvisor forums where travelers reported that as of late 2014, the road to Mrauk U was open to foreigners. A bit more searching revealed that there was a direct bus from Mandalay. This was another reminder not to rely too heavily on the Lonely Planet. In rapidly changing countries like Myanmar, the most accurate information is usually crowdsourced.
23 hours on a bus going nowhere fast
The journey to Mrauk U could be described as old-school travel. We took the comfortable Academy Express VIP bus that departs Mandalay daily at 4:00 PM and, in theory, arrives in Mrauk U 18 hours later. The bus pulled out of the dusty Mandalay station more or less on time and trundled into the night. We were the only foreigners on the bus: always a good sign! As darkness fell, the road twisted and turned through the low mountain range that separates Mrauk U from central Myanmar.
At around 5:30 in the morning, we came to a stop at a tiny village. The bus remained stationary as the sun rose, and we could see several buses in front of us. When it was light enough to see, we went to investigate the delay. We walked past a long line of buses and trucks lined up on the road leading to the river, where a bridge had collapsed. We later learned that the bridge was damaged during the catastrophic floods in the summer of 2015. In the meantime, an ancient car ferry shuttled vehicles across the river, but only during daylight hours. All the vehicles that had arrived during the night were lined up in a backlog, and we were nowhere near the front. We settled in for a long wait.
The process of transporting the buses across the river was painful to watch. The crossing took no more than ten minutes, but maneuvering the huge buses on and off the ferry took a good twenty minutes on each end. The ferry wasn’t a roll-on/roll-off, so the drivers had to painstakingly back onto the ferry on makeshift planks. Each round trip across the river took about an hour and could only carry three or four buses. It was 10:30 before it was our bus’s turn, and we still had many miles to go to Mrauk U. We arrived at about 3:00 in the afternoon, 23 hours after we left Mandalay. We will never complain about 12-hour bus journeys again!
The temples of Mrauk U
We spent four nights and three full days in Mrauk U, which was just the right amount of time to see everything and revisit a few of our favorite temples at a leisurely pace. We normally prefer to explore historical sights on our own, but Mrauk U is one place where it helps to have a guide. We hired Myint Zaw (firstname.lastname@example.org), to take us on a bicycle tour of the temples on our first full day, followed by a trip to the Chin villages up the Lemro river the next day. We enjoyed spending time with Myint and would recommend him to anyone visiting Mrauk U. We helped him set up a website advertising his services: mraukuguide.wordpress.com.
Mrauk U’s temples offer a pleasing contrast to Bagan. Bagan’s temples have ornately carved exteriors with graceful silhouettes, but their interiors are mostly unadorned and fairly uninteresting. On the other hand, the temples of Mrauk U tend to be solid and blocky, but the interiors have intriguing layouts and decorations unlike any other Buddhist sites we have visited. Many of them feature long, echoing hallways or tunnels with carved stone Buddha statues. The atmosphere in many of them is similar to a medieval European castle or cathedral.
Several of the most interesting temples are located to the east of town. The massive Kothaung temple, or ‘temple of 80,000 Buddhas’, is where most tourists begin their exploration of the site. It spiked with tiny stupas on the exterior and has inner walls covered with thousands of small, carved Buddhas.
The small Laymyatnya Paya is unremarkable from the outside, but is one of the photographic highlights of the temple zone. The interior has four perfectly proportioned entrances with seated Buddha statues illuminated by natural light pouring in from the archways.
Resembling a fortress from the exterior, the Httukanthein Temple features a spiral hallway with back-to-back Buddha statues in niches opened in the inner walls and a cathedral-like atmosphere.
The mighty Shittaung Paya has a hodgepodge of architectural styles. We particularly enjoyed the long hallways adorned with stone relief carvings illustrating the Buddha’s life, and the main hall with a multitude of gold Buddha statues against pastel blue walls.
Sunrise and sunset spots
For photographers and sunrise/sunset junkies, hilly Mrauk U has an advantage over pancake-flat Bagan, offering many elevated vantage points over the misty hills. Every morning and evening, smoke from cooking fires rises above the village and snakes up and around the hills, changing color with every minute. The two best places we found were Shwetaung Paya for sunrise and Discovery Viewpoint for both sunrise and sunset.
Shwetaung Paya is set several kilometers east of town and is accessed by a short, steep path. The stupa offers a nearly 360-degree view of the entire area. Several soldiers were sleeping in a shelter to one side of the pagoda, but they didn’t mind our presence. This was one of the best sunrises we’ve seen on the trip: the misty hills turned purple, then pink, then blue and green as the sun rose.
Discovery Viewpoint, located down a paved road through the village behind the Ratanabon Paya, gives an iconic view of the Ratanabon and nearby pagodas. The hill and path are privately owned by a local photographer who charges 500 kyat ($0.40) per person. We came here for two sunsets and one sunrise (it might not usually be open for sunrise, but we talked to the owner the night before and asked him to open the gate for us in the morning). The owner is a talented photographer with beautiful prints for sale that we might have bought if we were on a short trip.
Tattooed grannies and Tatmandaw gunmen
We took a day trip up the Lemro river north of Mrauk U to visit several villages of the Chin tribe. In the past, Chin girls got tattoos of intricate spiderweb patterns covering their faces. It’s not clear how or why this started, but the popular explanation is that the purpose was to mar the women’s beauty so that men from rival tribes wouldn’t kidnap them. I don’t buy this theory because the type of men who kidnap women for sex slaves are not going to care what the women’s faces look like. In any case, this practice was banned in the 1960s, and now the only living women with facial tattoos are a few elderly ladies in each village. This generation of tattooed women has decided to use their unusual adornments to attract tourist income to their villages.
The only way to visit the Chin villages is with a guide who will organize a taxi to the boat dock and charter a boat for the two-hour ride to the villages. At $110 per group, it’s not a cheap trip, but it was well worthwhile and we got an unexpected look at some of the struggles between the Tatmandaw (Burmese military) and the separatist groups that are active in some remote areas (don’t worry, we were never in harm’s way).
Myanmar as a unified political entity didn’t exist until the British took over the territory of present-day Myanmar in several stages in the 19th century. Until then, it was a shifting patchwork of small kingdoms, often dominated by the Bamar kingdom in central Myanmar whose language and culture are what is now thought of as mainstream Burmese. Apart from the Burmese, Myanmar has a host of diverse ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures. When Myanmar gained independence, many of these groups campaigned for their own independent states. It makes me wonder how many more sovereign countries there would be in the world today if the colonial powers had never brought so many disparate states and kingdoms into their vast empires.
There are still a number of armed insurgencies fighting for self-determination in remote regions of Myanmar, including, as we found out, the Arakan Army in the hills beyond the Lemro River. The Arakan Army is a Buddhist armed force agitating for a separate nation for the Arakan people incorporating the former territory of the kingdom of Mrauk U. You can visit their website or read an article about the conflict in The Diplomat. There had recently been some activity in the hills beyond the Chin villages. As we boarded our chartered motorboat, we noticed a boat full of soldiers disembarking. It turned out that we were headed in the direction of activity by the separatist Arakan Army. Myint assured us that any military activity was well beyond our destination for the day, so we jumped in the boat and headed upstream.
The broad, muddy Lemro River won’t win any awards for scenic beauty, but it offers some interesting glimpses of truly remote rural life. We passed temporary camps at gravel mines along the river, where workers spend their days hauling stones out of the riverbed to be turned into gravel and sent to the cities. Further upstream, we passed many flotillas of bamboo poles. Bamboo is harvested every dry season, lashed together into rafts, and floated downstream to sell. The fast-growing bamboo plants grow back every wet season, offering a renewable harvest.
We pulled in at the farthest Chin village and were immediately greeted by a stream of heavily armed Tatmandaw soldiers filing out of the forest. They gave us a few odd looks but didn’t seem to mind us being there. Myint led us through the village, which was a charming collection of bamboo stilt houses shaded by palm trees. Many of the houses had solar panels, which I thought was a sign that this culture had made an admirable technological leap. These remote villages would never have had a connection to electric mains, so they had gone straight from no electricity to renewable energy.
Here we met our first tattooed Chin woman, a charismatic grandmother. Following Myint’s advice, we each gave her 1000 kyat (just under $1) to take her photo. It felt a bit odd to pay an “exotic” local person to take their photo, and indeed that’s against a lot of travel advice. But the women of the Chin villages have chosen to take advantage of their tattoos to make a few dollars from tourists while they can. This village has a school that was built with money from tourism. I have to wonder how the fortunes of these villages will change when the last generation of tattooed women is gone.
We continued our stroll through the village and came to a vantage point on a bluff overlooking the river. Tourists usually have their picture taken at this spot, and so did we… even though a group of soldiers were camped there! We figured that the army was lodging in the village since the Arakan Army wouldn’t attack there. The soldiers were actually quite jolly, invited us to share their lunch (which we politely declined), and one of them asked to take our photo with his cell phone. This is a common request in Southeast Asia, where a lot of locals like to take pictures of foreigners, but it was a first to be photographed by a Tatmandaw officer in full uniform with his machine gun casually stashed against the wall.
The second Chin village that we visited was the “touristy” one, where indeed we ran into one other group of foreigners. Six or seven tattooed women greeted us in the main street, where they displayed woven textiles for sale. They were gently pushy, but the weavings were beautiful and unique and we ended up buying weavings from two different women at 10,000 kyat ($8). It was nice to be able to buy local handicrafts, but we’re glad we also visited the more remote village that appeared to be less set up for tourism, with no vendors.
A week or two later, we heard a rumor that a tourist had been turned back from visiting the Chin villages shortly after we were there. Perhaps the conflict heated up or perhaps our appearance at the more remote village prompted the military to temporarily close the area for tourism.
Life among the ruins
Women carrying firewood and water through the temples at Mrauk U.
Apart from the temples, Mrauk U offers the chance to observe rural Burmese life. The town feels more like a sleepy agricultural outpost than a tourist hotspot, and life goes on as usual amidst the temples. Walking around the north group of temples in the afternoon, women carry water and firewood home in the typical Burmese way: on their heads.
The Mrauk U market was another one of our favorite markets in Asia. While not nearly as big or chaotic as the Zeigyo market in Mandalay, it rivals it for local color and smells. Paul was almost tempted to try one of the fried cockroaches that were selling out fast.
Markets in Myanmar always have a huge dried fish section that you can smell a mile away, and this one is no exception. An entire aisle was devoted to baskets heaped full of dried fish and shrimp of all sizes, whole or flattened, and some dried blue snails that Myint told us were reputed to increase “man power.” We wondered who used all of this dried fish, since we hadn’t had any in our food yet. We soon found out. At dinner that night, we ordered a plate of fried vegetables. I took a bite of the innocuous-looking greens and had to spit it out: the flavor of dried fish was overpowering and repulsive.
It has to be said that the dining options in Mrauk U are not great. We had most meals at the Cherry Moe restaurant, which is the best option in town, but that’s not saying much. Aside from the occasional dried fish stealth attack, the menu is pretty limited and there’s nowhere in town to get proper coffee. After a few days of this, I was longing to stop over in Bagan on the way back to Mandalay and get some Western comfort food. This is the dilemma of the off-the-beaten-track traveler: it’s very rare for less-touristed gems like Mrauk U to have fantastic food. That’s one reason we head back onto the tourist trail every once in a while. In fact, I’m writing this from a café in the backpacker haven of Nong Khiaw, Laos, where we just arrived after surviving on some truly uninspired food in the far north of Laos… but that’s for another post.
All aboard the barf express
Our plan was to go back to Mandalay and continue to Kyaing Tong, in the Golden Triangle near the Thai border, from there. We wanted some backpacker comforts before going to, and we didn’t want to endure the long-haul return journey to Mandalay in one go, so we decided to stop off in Bagan for a couple of days before continuing to Mandalay. We would take the Mandalay-bound bus as far as Magwe, spend the night in Magwe, and catch a local bus to Bagan in the morning.
After one last sunrise vista, we jumped on the Mandalay bus and enjoyed the bucolic scenery through the riverine farmland. A few annoyances announced themselves early on. The man seated behind us had some sort of compulsive disorder that caused him to hack and spit into a plastic bag every two minutes. The repeated “Hkhkuuakh… splat!” was truly disgusting, especially when we saw him carry a full bag of spit off the bus at a rest stop. Another man nearby was chewing betel nut, whose heavy, sour smell permeated the air. The delay at the ferry was only an hour in this direction, and our bus was able to make it on the first trip across after we arrived.
As the day progressed and the bus started its climb up the twisting road into the hills, the locals started to pull out their barf bags. The bus attendant hands out these bags at the beginning of the trip, and a lot of locals filled them… repeatedly. At one point, the passengers behind, in front of, and next to us all puked within five minutes of each other. The combination of barf and betel made me feel ill, and I covered my ears to block the retching noises resounding through the carriage. After 13 hours, we were overjoyed to step out of the fetid atmosphere of the bus onto the dark streets of Magwe and into the overnight transit standby, the Rolex Hotel.
At 20,000 kyat ($15) for a double, the Rolex is way overpriced. But it has the advantage of being easy to find, across the street from where the bus dropped us off. The hotel is so grubby that it became a joke. The room was like a cell, and the less said about the bathrooms, the better. It was the first real hovel that we have stayed in on this trip, and while it was an amusing experience for one night, it’s one I hope not to repeat.
Was the long journey worth it? Absolutely. Mrauk U is a hugely satisfying place to visit and jumped into our top five spots of the trip. Right now is the perfect time to go. The town doesn’t feel like it caters to tourism apart from a few hotels and T-shirt stands. At the same time, there is just the right amount of tourist infrastructure to get there and get around. There were never more than 20 or 30 other foreigners in town, and the only tour bus we saw was full of Burmese Buddhist pilgrims from Yangon. And, what must be an indicator of an unspoiled place, we didn’t see a single person taking a selfie during our visit.