Mrauk U, Myanmar
So after a lovely 9 hour sleep at the Hotel Memory, I got up at 5:00 a..m., did a bit of a room workout thanks to the lovely and talented Kristie Caggiano who provided me with a room workout before left Kirkland, and got ready for what was going to be a long day on the Kaladan River (which is connected to the Bay of Bengal).
I had some breakfast before i checked out and it was a little unusual to say the least, with lots of rice and noodles along with some yoghurt and a piece of toast with peanut butter. As I was drinking my morning tea, one of the young ladies working the breakfast room motioned for me to come with her. She pointed out the window at the rising sun i had been admiring and then pointed up. I followed her to a set of stairs and climbed up two flight to an open doorway and a rooftop patio. It was gorgeous. The sun was peaking up over the trees and the Bay of Bengal as the fish boats were coming into market. As I stared at the million dollar view, roosters crowed all around me reminding me I was in a very rural part of the world.
So with breakfast behind me, I met Ko Soe and Omer downstairs at 7:00 a.m. Our first stop was the morning fish market because i simply can’t get enough markets. The trip through the fish market was more pandemonium. And a word of warning watch where you step. The ground was wet from all the fish and buckets of sea water water used to clean up the area of freshly gutted fish so there were puddles everywhere filled with God’s knows what. As we walked, I had to jump out of the way of one guy who insisted on pushing past me. Unfortunately, I moved without looking and my right foot landing in a gully full of yuck. I looked a Ko Soe and and my all too gross sandal and bare foot and pointed to a water cart. One large bottle of water wasted on cleaning my foot and my sturdy (and mostly rubber) Chaco sandal and we were off again.
The interesting part about today’s trip through the market was that there were fish auctions going on all over the place. The fishermen brought their wares to the market and brokers then auctioned off blocks of fish to vendors who then take them to their own local markets for sale. The auctions were fascinating to watch. I snapped a number of pictures, including one of a broker conducting an auction. I then wandered off and on my way back through, the broker came running after me. He pointed at my camera and at first I ddin’t understand. Then I realized. He saw me take his picture and he wanted to see the picture. I nodded and turned my camera on and gave him a peak at a his picture. The broker got a big grin on his face, thanked me in Burmese and then got a series of slaps on his back from his buddies. OK then.
So after the trip through the fish market, it was time to find out boatman and start the 5 hour boat ride to Mrauk U (Mraw Ooooo). The wooden boat was nicely painted, had a small bathroom and was approximately 40 feet long, had thee wooden seats on each side of the cabin and open windows. And oh yea … I was the only passenger along with Ko Soe. The boat was called the “fast boat” was one of the new boats that ran tourists from Sittwe to Mrauk U in around 5 hours. The “slow boat” or public ferry boat took anywhere from 6 to 8 hours depending upon whether the motor didn’t break down.
So with my bag stowed on the boat and a mid morning snack of the mandarin oranges, dates and fish chips i bought the day before along with some bananas, tea and water, we set off.
The water was completely smooth as pulled out of the “harbour” and veered to the left away from the Bay of Bengal and up the Kaladan River. There were fishermen everywhere tossing nets and hauling nets full of fish back into their boats. As we continued up the river, the landscape changed from semi rural to 100% rural with rice paddies on both sides of the river and the periodic fishing village mixed in.
I had just settled into the trip when Ko Soe insisted he make me a cup of tea, It was early morning, but it was already hot and humid. However since was already making the tea, i couldn’t say no. Five minutes later, I had a metal cup full of loose leaf tea in hand along with a couple tiny bananas and a couple of the mini mandarin oranges. The perfect early morning snack.
Now although the tea was hot, we were moving along the river at a pretty good pace so there was a real nice breeze moving through the boat. However, that soon changed as we had to slow down because the depth of the river. We were still moving along at a decent pace, but no more lovely breeze so I ended up spending the rest of the trip hanging out just outside the doorway at the front of the cabin. More of a breeze than inside the cabin. The views continued to be fascinating, with men working the fields, a periodic pagoda on the hillsides and lots and lots of fishermen. Every now and then we would see a herd of water buffalo moving through the water or grazing by the river’s edge. A day in the life in rural Myanmar.
Half way through the trip, I suggested to Ko Soe that we should try the fish chips. Ko Soe opened the bag and I gave one a go. I almost barfed. I cannot begin to described the awfulness that was those chips. I told Ko Soe to give the bag to the two boys who were helping navigate the boat. About twenty minutes later, one of the boys brought out a plate with the chips. Huh? Turns out that he had cooked the chips and they had puffed like popcorn, put some butter on them and brought them out to us. Well talk about a difference. These little chips were terrific. Ko Soe apparently did not realize the chips had to be cooked and then the poor little guy i gave the chips to thought i wanted them cooked. Talk about lost in translation. Anyway, i made sure the boys kept the remainder of the bag while Ko Soe and I ate the cooked chips.
As we got closer to Mrauk U, the river became narrow and cut back and forth through the farmland. We passed a few Chin villages along the way and the river became much business as we turned the last bend in the river finally reaching Mrauk U just before 1:00 p.m.
Our driver, Mud du see, met us at the dock and took me to the hotel for checkin, lunch and a rest. The drive to the hotel on the other side of the village reminded me of the village I stayed at in Cambodia. Dirt roads. Bicycles weaving around cows and dogs. Stalls on the side of the road serving as the local grocery stores. And fires everywhere as folks burned their garbage. (Yep, one of the biggest contributors to pollution in the world, is the continued practice of burning garbage in their world countries.)
We reached the hotel in about 5 minutes where Ko Soe suggested he pick me back up around 4:30. This would give me time to visit a few temple and then hike up a hill to watch the sun set over the temples. Perfect.
The hotel was not bad, which given the remoteness of the area, is saying something. I unpacked, had some lunch and even had time for a short nap. Ko Soe was right on time and at 4:30 we set off for a quick ride 2 minutes away to my first glimpse of the Mrauk U temples. In a word … SPECTACULAR!
So for those who have never heard of Mrauk U, it is a village in the eastern part of Myanmar that is seldom visited by tourists (about 5,000 people per year)). Mrauk U is home to undreds of ancient temples, pagodas, stupas and a palace dating to the 15th century. The site has been called a mini Bagan, Myanmar’s most famous tourist attraction, but the area is largely undiscovered by tourists because it is so difficult to reach, In addition, Myanmar only opened to tourists 5 years ago and the government has yet promote or build the infrastructure to support large scale tourism in Mrauk U.
Mrauk U was once the capital of the Rakhine dynasty and considered one of the richest cities in Asia. The temples, pagpdas, stupas and the palace are spread out in 3 sectors: north of Mrauk U, west of Mrauk U and south of Mrauk U. We were going to the north sector to start with.
Now I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the fist sight i had of part of the northern region astonished me. Right there at the edge of town, amongst the grazing cows and fields were dozens of stupas and temples as far as i could see. It was stunning. All I could say when I climbed out of the car was “Oh my God” over and over again. And the best part …. not a tourist in site. It was me, Ko Soe, the cows, a bunch of locals and some monks.
We wandered into two pagodas before dark and all is can tell you is i will let the pictures speak for themselves. Buddhas carved out of stone lined the walls of one temple and in another Buddha was the centerpiece at the end of a long hall. I was in heaven.
After learning a bit about each temple, and taking a requisite picture with a monk, we hiked up the hill to watch the sun set over the valley. As luck would have it …. clouds moved over the horizon once again blocking the sun. In two days In Rakhine State, I am batting ofer …. Oh well it has still been a great day and the best was yet to come over the next three.