Mrauk U, Myanmar
So the game plan for the day was to take a break from temples and rent a boat to visit the Chin Villages, a series of villages on the Lemro River and home to the ethnic Chin group. After breakfast, I climbed into the car and we began the 30 minute trip through the countryside to the jetty where we would meet the boatman. Now Rahkine State borders Bangladesh and as a result the area has a substantial Muslim population with can pose issues for this mostly Buddhist country. Recently there had been clashes between Muslims and the Myanmar military in the northern part of the state. I was not anywhere near that area, but the villages we passed through to get to the jetty were Muslim villages. I immediately noticed a difference in the attire and the buildings.
Once we reached the little village where we would walk to the jetty, I was advised to use the bathroom since there was no bathroom on the boat. I walked to the back of what I can best describe as a lean to shack restaurant and found, yep … my first squat toilet in Myanmar. Took almost an entire week, but there it was. Those of you who have read my past blogs know i have a weird fascination with squat toilets. No idea why really. It has almost become sport for me to see if I can find one in each country i visit. Probably the best find to date was the one i stumbled across in the hockey arena in St. Petersburg. Totally random. And oh yea, this one behind the shack had seen better days, and I will leave it at that.
Anyways, once I returned to the front of the shack, I found Ko Soe in a bit of a heated discussion with the boat agent. Turns out the boat agent had given away my boat to some other guide who showed up without a reservation. I was pissed. Are you kidding me. I told Ko su to ask him how much he got from the agent to give away my boat. I’m pretty sure Ko su did not ask him, but Ko su completely agreed with me that money was paid.
Ko Soe said another boat was on the way, but at this point i was highly skeptical. How could I be sure a boat would ever show up. I certainly did not want to waste my day waiting for a nonexistent boat. More importantly, why wasn’t this other boat used for the guide without a reservation? It made my highly suspicious of the viability of the “new boat”. I told Ko su i wanted to go back to Mrauk U and did not want to use this boat agent for my boat. Meanwhile the boat agent had skulked across the road and was hiding out in another building. Coward.
To make matters worse, our driver had simply dropped us off, so we had no way to get back to Mrauk U. Ko Soe was trying to get hold of him, but since he was driving he was not answering the phone. Eventually, the driver must have pulled over and called Ko Soe, because about 15 minutes after this whole thing began, he called Ko Soe and was soon turning around to pick us up.
In the mean time, I was sitting on a chair by the side of the road staring at the boat agent who refused to even look at me. After waiting another 10 minutes and no driver, Ko su convinced one of the locals to take us back to Mrauk U. We jumped into a van and 5 minutes later we were passing our driver. Despite honking the horn and calling him on the phone we could not get his attention so we continued all the way back to my hotel in Mrauk U.
I felt bad for Ko Soe. He was in a tizzzy. He called the boat owner to complain and was told that we were supposed to go out tomorrow not today despite the fact that Ko su confirmed the trip the day before (and I know he did because I was in the car when he called them). Then he called the Yangon agent who had arranged my trip to Mrauk U and that caused more of a tizzy. Finally, Ko su confirmed that the agent in Yangon had called the boat owner and whatever was said, there were apologies all around to me and to Ko Soe. Poor guy. He so wanted to ensure a fun day and it had been totally upended thanks to the shady dude in the village.
So Plan B. After our driver finally caught up with us, Ko Soe suggested that we just go ahead and do the next day itinerary today. Fine by me. So it was off to Mahamuni Pya, the alleged first home of the buddha image now housed in the temple of the same name in Mandalay, and the remains of the kingdom of Wethali founded in AD 327.
Wethali is about 7 miles from Mrauk U and Mahamuni Paya was about an hour further down the road so off we set. We were going to Mahamuni Paya first. So we got on the road to Sittwe, and the first 10 minutes or so of the ride was rather nice. New concrete road with room for traffic in either direction. However, the road soon changed to a single lane, bumpy, dusty, semi-asfault and dirt road that was part of the road to Sittwe that was not yet completed. There were piles of stone lined up in mounds on each side of the road and young women were sitting in groups around the stones sorting and breaking the stones using nothing more than a hand tool. The stones were apparently to be used as part of the new road construction. It kept me riveted for the next 10 minutes as we passed group after group of women all doing the same job. And then suddenly, we were back on a nice concrete road. Don’t even ask. The nice concrete lasted for a few miles and then we were back on the dusty, bumpy single lane road again, This time stones were piled up in mounds on either side of the road, but no workers.
The landscape around me was rural with lots for water buffalo grazing, men boats picking water lilies, women gathering sticks for firewood and lots and lots of rice paddies. After more than an hour of driving we reached the arch signifying the little village of Mahamuni where we would visit the Mahamuni Paya home to a replica of the Mahamuni Buddha that was allegedly cast when Buddha visited the area in 554 BC. The original Mahanuni Buddha was apparently taken in 1784 and now resides north in Mandalay much to the consternation of the locals.
The site is nevertheless still considered one of the more important in the region so there were many pilgrims in attendance. The replica Mahamuni Buddha was made of gold and was really quite beautiful and obviously highly revered given the number of pilgrims in the prayer hall. So while I was taking in the Mahamuni Buddha and the Buddhas beside it, Ko Soe said a few prayers.
As I wandered around, I noticed I was the only tourist in the place surrounded by pilgrims. Among the pilgrims were a number of young people from a village on the road to Sittwe. And apparently the kids don’t see a lot of foreigners because I immediately became the target of each and every kid’s camera phone. One kid approached to a picture and then the flood gates opened. One after another they took a picture with me. Then they ganged up and wanted group pictures. It went on for at least 5 minutes. Crazy!
The kids were all very nice and polite and immediately acted like they won the lottery when they looked at the picture. I have no idea what they were saying, but they seemed pretty happy. Apparently the kids are on Facebook, so if you have a friend in Myanmar look for my picture. I am sure it is now splayed across ever one the kids’ Facebook pages. In fact, even before the pictures were done, I saw one young girl posting it. Hilarious.
After visiting the sacred Buddha, we walked outside and around the temple where we found a perfectly preserved ogre. And of course, I had to have a picture. We moved back to the front of the paya, put our shoes back on and ended up walking across the street to one of the little lunch stops where we had some green tea and a couple of local oranges from the vendor sitting out front. We sat and drank the tea, ate the oranges (relish) and watch Mahamuni life go by.
Once tea was done, we climbed back in the van and headed back towards Mrauk U and Wethali. We made our way back down that wacky little road and made a left down a dirt road only to get stuck in a huge mud puddle. Poor Mud du see. He was beside himself. Ko Soe and I got out of the car and checked out the problem … left rear wheel spinning and spinning in thick brown muck. We started gathering leaves and branches to put around the tires. The boys seemed mortified that I was pitching in, but for me this was kind of fun stuck in the middle a dirt road running through rice paddies.
So with a lot of stuff spread around the front and back of the tire, I got out of the way and Mud due see (yes there is irony here) got behind the wheel while Ko Soe began to push. But instead of going backwards, which I thought they would do, they were still trying to go through the mud. Uh boys, let this girl who has pushed her share of vehicles out of snow help you out. I told Mud due see to put the car in reverse and both Ko Soe went to the front of the vehicle and pushed and pushed and pushed and yes…. the car finally went backwards out of the mud. After cheers all around and a very relieved Mud du see, we climbed back in the vehicle and Mud du see gingerly drove around the puddle up over the roots of a tree and back onto the road. OK then.
We finally made it to the little village of Wethali where we were to visit a temple and the remnants of the old city wall. The kingdom apparently lasted into the 8th century, but there was little of the old glory days. In fact, the temple was rather anticlimactic. It was a sad little building that apparently housed the Great Image of Hsu Taung Pre, a 16.5ft Rakhine-style sitting Buddha. It was allegedly carved from a single piece of stone dating to AD 327.
While we looked at the Buddha Ko Soe tried to tell me the story of the story of this Buddha and how the original was lost in the river and a replacement had to be built for the queen. Ko Soe then explained how a baby helped recover the original. No matter how hard I tried to understand the story and no matter how hard Ko Soe tried to explain the story it was completely lost in translation. (More about the story below).
After viewing the Buddha, we grabbed a couple chairs and sat out by a pond to eat some fried rice we had bought to eat on the trip to the Chin Villages. Once again, I had company at lunch. A local dog decided to stand right in front of me, wag its tail and hope for the best. Sorry buddy, but the monk said I can’t feed you.
So with lunch done, we got back int the car for a short drive to the old palace wall, but before we got to the little bridge we had to cross to see the wall, Ko Soe decided we should visit the little school where the kids were apparently on their mid day break. It turned into a let’s all talk at once and laugh at once fest with a gaggle of kids surrounding me saying Hallo, name, name, and for some reason, touching my arms. It was pandemonium. Fortunately, after a couple pictures, the teachers called the kids back and we left the teachers to tend to the kids.
We crossed through the remainder of the village, saw the remnants of the wall that was in dire need of excavation and then were back on the super highway to Mrauk U. Ko Soe suggested a break for an hour and half before picking me back up to take a look at a few more pagodas. Fine by me. At four we were back in the car and driving to the Pra Ra Paw Pagoda,which apparently housed a replica of the Buddha that we saw in Wethali. Fortunately, there were picture diagrams of the story Ko Soe was trying to explain to me and I finally “got” the baby story. Legend has it that the original was built for a queen, was lost in a river and the villagers could not retrieve it from the river. As a result , a new one was built. Years later, a baby was born. The villagers tied a rope to the baby’s cradle (although Ko Sue insisted it was to the baby’s wrists, but the drawing showed otherwise), and the villagers miraculously pulled the original statute from the river. As a result, the baby became the new queen. OK. Now I got it.
So as we visited the replica, Ko Soe paid homage,including buying gold leaf to put on the Buddha’s chest and stomach. (Gold leaf is purchased and used to adorn the important Buddhas. You have the minder of the Buddha put the gold leaf on specific parts of the body that you want blessed.)
Next stop was the North Group to visit Andaw Paya, Ratanabon Paya and Laungbanpyauk Paya. Before we made it to the North Group, Ko Soe took me by the workshop of a friend of his. The fellow was commissioned by the government to make life size bronze statutes for 17 townships in Rakhine State. He was in the process of making a clay cast over a wax mold when we arrived. Apparently once the clay is hardened, the was inside is somehow melted and the bronze is poured into he clay cast. It was fascinating and the guy was clearly very talented.
So our last stop the Northern Group. We first walked around Andaw Paya in what was now a light rain (while thunder boomed around us). Andaw Paya dated to the 16th century, was eight sided and as surrounded by sixteen stupas, although one was in the process of being destroyed/repaired by workers (I couldn’t tell which). The best part was the warning sign “Notice. Do not pass across nearby the dangerous ancient monument”. Classic!
Next was Ratanbon Paya constructed in 1612. We went inside and i found what i think was the most Interesting figurine: a standing Buddha with its hand out in a “halt” position. I don’t know why, but it fascinated me. We walked around the circular interior admiring the various Buddhas images, saw the largest spider I have seen outside Africa and skeedaddled on out of there. Thanks but no thanks.
We ended the day, (yes it was a long one) at the Laungbanpyauk Paya or Lotus Paya. The Leaning Tower of Pisa leaning paya dates to 1525 and was surrounded by a wall covered in enamel glazed flowers. The wall was absolutely beautiful as was the fact that the paya was seriously listing.
By now the rain was coming down harder, the sun was setting and i was done. Time for a bowl of fabulous vermicelli chicken soup (i am addicted to the soup at my hotel) and the off to bed in hopes that a boat will actually be there in the morning to take me to the Chin Villages.