Mrauk U, Myanmar
I was up bright an early on Thursday morning (as in 4:30 a.m.) not by choice, but because the damn roosters and other birds were crowing and cackling all around my little chalet style cabin. So with no further sleep coming, I spent the next hour reading up on the sites I was to visit that day, and then spent 5 minutes in what can only be described as the coldest shower i have ever taken. (And yes, I let the water run, but nothing). Oh well, I knew the area was a little (a lot) rough, but based on what I had seen the day before, it was going to be worth it.
So cleaned up and ready to go, I met Ko Soe and Mu du zee, our driver, and we were off to the “East Group” of temples and pagodas, including one of the most famous: Kothaung Paya. The road to the first two temples was not paved and when i say bumpy, i mean you have never seen ruts and potholes like this. The raining season has just ended here and the road was one of the casualties. I swear they could have charged admission to ride on this road … I was jostled from one side of the vehicle to another and up and down. The suspension on the vehicles around here must be nonexistent.
The driver finally pulled over and after an exchange between he and Ko Soe, Ko Soe said we would walk the rest of the way, which turned out to be an entertaining 1 mile walk through the outskirts of Mrauk U. We passed little wooden huts on stilts, kids running everywhere, a guy who had attached a rope to a plastic tub and was pulling a baby along behind him, a blacksmith and family making scythes and blades for the upcoming harvest and people doing laundry in a communal stone water tub.
The best though was a young woman who had a large silver chalice filled with water balanced precariously on the top of her head while carrying a second chalice filled with water. Most homes here do not have running water or electricity. So the gal had gone to the local reservoir and was returning when we stopped to watch. I didn’t dare take a picture for fear it would cause her to lose her balance. I stood and watched her and gave her a thumbs up as she approached. There was a hint of smile as she locked eyes with me, along with raised eyebrows as if to say “yep Im bad”. It was awesome.
So after the fun little side trip, we reached the first site for the day: Peisi Daung Paya, which was a four door unrestored pagoda up on the top of a hill built sometime in the 16th century. After a quick hike up the hill (past a herd of cows grazing) we were at the top. The views were amazing. The pagoda was in fairly rough shape, but the four Buddhas inside the pagoda were in remarkably good shape. Pretty good way to start the day.
We hiked back down and walked to the next temple: Kothaung Paya aka Shrine of 90,000 Images (90,000 Buddhas) built in 1553. This temple was built by the son of King Minbin (the great Mrauk U king) in order to outdo his old man who had built the Shrine of 80,000 Images. The walls of the temple were still standing, but the inside structure had not withstood the elements (either weather or earthquakes). The kid had apparently been in a rush and did not use proper techniques or superior materials. So while his father’s temple (more about that later) is in incredible shape, the kid’s temple was a lot of bluster, but little substance.
Now when you enter a temple, you must remove your shoes, So we took off our shoes at the bottom of the stairs and traipsed up to the rope and through chambers on all four sides. Seems like a simple idea, but for Western feet not used to walking over stones (and little tiny pebbles everywhere), it was not so easy. It was going to be tough going without shoes.
Once inside, it was obvious that many of the tiered levels of images were gone, with on three to five levels of Buddhas remaining. Sure there were some amazing halls filled with well preserved Buddhas, by my favourite part was the little ogres that were carved of stone and placed at the various entrances. However, of the two i visited, i found that I preferred the little hill pagoda.
We walked back out the temple, down the stairs, on with my sandals (yay) and back to the car. Next stop was another hill climb (was definitely getting my exercise today). Next stop was another hill climb to Sakyamanaung Paya. This paya was apparently constructed in 1629 and some amazing detail on the stupa. In addition, there was a nice little prayer area at the top and views were stupendous. We hiked back down and were off again to, yep you guessed it climb to Pharaouk Paya. This was a little tougher climb because the incline was steeper and the stones were rather slippery (fortunately, i did not have to take off my shoes as this was not a temple). This site also provided nice views, but not nearly as good as the first climb.
We next moved on to the “Southern Group”. So, you guessed it. When the car stopped, another hill climb. The climb up to Shwetaung Paya, built in 1553, was also a little tricky: steep and slippery. However, once to the top, the views were magnificent.
By now, the sun was immediately overhead and it was incredibly humid. With each hike up and down the hillside, I was absolutely soaked with sweat. At one point, it was so bad I couldn’t see out of my contacts (sorry if that is gross), but it was brutal heat. Ko Soe decided we needed a rest, so we stopped at a little lean to with dirt floors, sat on a couple plastic chairs and bought a couple large bottles of cold water. (Yes mother, I checked the seal on the bottle to make sure it was in tact) and literally chugged the entire bottle. Gesh. I was a just a bit parched even though I was drinking water the entire morning.
Once refreshed, we drove past little thatched houses to Laksakan Gate for a nice flat hike to Laksaykan Lake, where the local folks wash their clothes, swim and gather fresh water. Each part of the lake is designated for a particular activity. We were in the area where the local women gather to wash clothes. In fact, as we were hiking back out, I had to jump out of the way of a local woman who was coming down the path with a basket of clothes on her head. Such a tough life.
About half way down the trail, we veered to the left to what about to be two flights of stairs as well as the entire population of children in Mrauk U. Apparently, at the top of the stairs was a monastery school for the locals. Just as we got to the top (and as were followed by half the kids in town), the head teach started banging on a gong. School was back in session. We stood and watched as the kids rushed to their seats in the open air school. Once in their seats, three students stood and began reciting homages to Buddha and their teachers followed by the other children repeating the words back. We stood their for at least five minutes and it continued. In fact, as we walked back down, it was still going on. Persistent little ones.
Back in the car, we moved on to the “Sanda Muhni Phara Gri Kyaung Taik Buddhist Temple. We removed our shoes and hiked up four flights of stairs to reach the top. The target of the visit was to see the the Sanda Muhni, a buddha statue said to have been cast from the precious metal leftover from making the Mahamuni Buddha. Apparently, the 4ft Buddha was encased in cement in the 1850s to protect it from pillaging British troops, and then forgotten about for over a century. In 1988 one of the glazed eyes dropped out, revealing the metal statue below.
Now while the Buddha was lovely, my favourite part was going into the museum next door and looking at the two glazed eyes. Never sure if these stories are true, but the eyes gave credence to the story. There was also a piece of copper from the roof of the form Mrauk U kingdom palace that had be turned into a table. I was told the rest of the roof had been taken in the 17th century to Mandalay to the north.
We made our way back down the stairs, put my shoes back on, climbed back in the car and drove a short distance to a little lean to house where a young woman was wearing fans. Ko su insisted on buying a fan for me and it was a good call. I used the fan for the remainder of the day. The last stop of the morning was a hike around the “palace”. Unfortunately, all that remained of what was obviously a massive structure were outer and inner stone walls. This thing stretched for blocks.
By now it was 1:00 so Ko Soe suggested that we stop for lunch at Moe Cherry. By all accounts, this was one of two or three restaurants in town that was trusted by the locals to cook reliable meals for the tourists. As it turned out, they were right. Lunch was surprisingly good except for a persistent cat who would not leave me alone. It sat and stared at me and meowed for the entire lunch. At one point, it even tried to climb a chair to sit at my table. The staff made half hearted efforts to run the cat off, but it kept returning. Finally, when dessert arrived (a local banana), the cat hit the road. What was weird is the restaurant was full of people, but the cat kept coming back to me.
I took a bit of a rest after lunch and then it was back to the temple trail. We were only visiting 3 temples in the afternoon. The first up was one we had passed the day before and what Ko su said was his favourite temple: Dukkanthein Paya constructed in 1571. This temple turned out to be my favourite as well. So off with the shoes and up two flights of stone steps to the entry. The interior had wide halls and the stone floors were soft to walk on (important at this point, as my feet were a tad sore). What was cool about this place was that the halls were lined with images of buddhas and common people such as shopkeepers, governors, officials, local women and others sporting all of Mrauk U’s 64 traditional hairstyles. The images were remarkably well preserved with lots of colour on some and hints of remaining colour others. The passageway went off forever and apparently encircles the centre three times before reaching the inner buddha image. I loved this temple.
We finally left the lovely Dukkanthein Paya, put our sandals back on and headed down the road through the village to Ratanamanaung Paya. This paya lost its crown during the recent earthquake near Bagan and was the only ancient shrine to be damged. (Bagan was not so fortunate so it will be interesting to see what the actual damage is like there.)
Anyway, after examining the broken crown and identifying where it hit on the stupa, we crossed the street to visit a monestary that housed the yet another Buddha from the great Mrauk U kingdom. We removed our shoes and walked in, but the sun was shining right at the glass and it was difficult to make out the Buddha through the glass. Although it was a nice little visit, it was not the highlight of my day.
The last stop was the Shittaung Paya or Shrine of 80,000 Images built in 1535. This is said to be the most famous shrine in Mrauk U with 80,000 different Buddhas. Unfortunately, the former government in its infinite wisdom decided to paint some of the most important shrines gold. Yes, you read that right. Five hundred year old statues of Buddha painted gold intentionally by the former government. It was beyond gross. Poor Ko Soe was equally disgusted and said that everyone was very upset by the desecration.
Nevertheless, we removed our sandals and made our way up the stairs where we started in the prayer hall before moving through a myriad of chambers and passageways that were filled with hundreds of sculptures and carvings showing an incredible amount of detail about the Rakhine way of life with traditionally dressed dancers, acrobats and even boxers as well as a myriad of animals and hundreds of Jataka (scenes from Buddha’s past 550 lives). Most of these were in their original form with no gold paint.
Perhaps my favourite part was that at each corner of each passageway or turn, there were a myriad of figures from floor to ceiling, including the lovely little ogres. I don’t know why, but I found the ogres to be awesome.
After checking out the interior, we walked out to the terrace and found the Shittaung Pillar, a 10ft sandstone obelisk that i could barely see in the green shed like building it was placed in (and when I say placed, it was literally lying on the ground). The sad thing is that the obelisk is believed to the oldest history book in Myanmar (by the Rakhine at least), with three of the side inscribed in faded Sanskrit. At least one of the sides dates from the 5th century while another side describes the Rakhine kings from 638 BC to AD 729. It was shocking and sad to see that the obelisk was not being better preserved.
After the obelisk, I was done. It was on with the shoes and back to what I thought would be the hotel, but Ko Soe insisted we hike up another hill to watch the sun set. The clouds had started to come in and by now I was convinced I would never see a sunset here. After a hike up the hill and waiting for about a half hour, I decided I was done. Nothing to see here. However, by the time we got back to the hotel, the sky had turned bright pink. I cannot win with these sunsets.