The alarm rang. At 5:30 in the morning, my mind was still in a murky haze having arrived in Mrauk U just a few hours before. The entirety of the previous day was spent traveling by plane, boat and jeep and yet there I was, up and on the go once more.Burma’s Rakhine state, where Mrauk U is located, is closer to Bangladesh than to Yangon. The roads here are so underdeveloped that an 80 km road trip between two points in the state takes almost 5 hours. We decided to take a longer but less bumpy route, and went on a 6-hour journey by boat after we arrived in Sittwe, the administrative center of Rakhine state.
At 5:30 in the morning, I found myself scaling some unknown peak in utter darkness, with the faint luminance of a flashlight guiding the way. A closer peek revealed a golden pagoda at the top – the Shwetaung Paya, from where the sunrise views of Mrauk U are said to be legendary.
“This better be worth it,” I muttered to myself. The air was a lot colder than what I remembered from when I had arrived. Surely, it wasn’t what I expected for the tropics.
By the time we reached the top, the first sign of daybreak had arrived. I could make out a fog forming in the lower altitudes while the sky turned dark blue and later into purple. What happened a few minutes later was perhaps the most magnificent sunrise I have seen in my entire life. The landscape in Mrauk U in Burma’s restive Rakhaing state at dawn is a mishmash of cauliflower fields and village huts surrounded by the morning fog and punctuated by hillocks with several centuries old stupas – it’s a dreamlike scene made even more apparent by the fact that I was still only half-awake on this pre-dawn hike. The sunrise view also served as my orientation to the scattered temples of Mrauk U. There were about 700 in the horizon, and I would only be able to visit a handful.
How to Go to Mrauk U
One of the things that has deterred many travelers and kept Mrauk U mainly off-the-radar despite its ability to give Angkor Wat a run for its money is the long hours involved in getting there. You can basically look at a few ways of getting here, assuming you take a domestic flight with any of the more reliable airlines like Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways or Air KBZ from Yangon to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state (around an hour fifteen minutes flight).
By far, the most popular method of getting to Mrauk U, it is also one of the longest. You can either take a public ferry which runs every day from Sittwe (similar from the other direction in Mrauk U) at 7AM in the morning. This takes about 6 hours. There is also a fast boat on some days, which takes only 4.5 hours. Alternatively, you can charter a private boat which can fit up to 4 or 5 people. The boat (including the crew) will basically wait for you for a few days while you’re in Mrauk U and will similarly take you back.
Despite popular notions on the contrary, it is possible to take a car from Sittwe to Mrauk U. But it is a very bumpy ride. According to the map, Sittwe to Mrauk U by road is a 145 kilometers in distance but the roads are in poor shape so expect the journey to take around 5 hours each way.
Temples of Mrauk U
Later that morning, we started our exploration of the fascinating but little known temples of Mrauk U. As we had only 2 full days to spend in the area, we decided to hire a jeep (a normal car isn’t able to withstand the poor state of the roads) for about $40 a day. Our driver was an amiable chap who spoke decent English and tried his best to offer some stories to the temples we were visiting.
We started our exploration at the temple of 90,000 Buddha images or otherwise known as Kothaung temple. To have started here was pretty symbolic. If there was anything that drove me to insanely pursue such a long trip to get to a remote place like Mrauk U, it was the sight of this square-shaped edifice.
From the outside, its large size and cube-like construction gave off a faint reminder of Borobudur in Central Java. The exteriors are replete with hundreds if not thousands of small stupas that give Kothaung a bit of a pointy/thorny look. The inner chambers, on the other hand, reveal almost life-sized Buddha statues on both sides of the wall. I reckoned the gray monotone construction and exotic looking statues would make the temple a shoo-in if there is ever a need to scout filming locations for the next Indiana Jones movie. The place was just sublime.
There are a few other interesting temples surrounding Kothaung – which is one of the farther sites in Mrauk U. The semi-destroyed Pizi Paya for instance, offers a nice hilltop view of the pointy outer shel of Kothaung while Paya Ouk and Mokhong Shwegu served as nice excursions on the way back to town.
Sakyamanaung Pagoda & Ratanamanaung Pagoda
Heading towards the direction of town, we passed by a couple of working temples. Sakyamanaung, in particular, seemed quite popular among locals. The temple itself consists of one large, multi-tiered pagoda. At the top, it is bell-shaped but as it extends downwards, it assumes an octagonal shape. It was the only temple in Mrauk U where I saw brightly-colored guardians with sharp teeth by the entrance, similar to what I sometimes encounter in Thailand. Ratanamanaung, which is about half a mile away, had a similar design though it also had a more modern construction next to it with a large Buddha statue and an unassuming souvenir shop.
By now, we were well within the town center of Mrauk U. There were a couple of notable temples here as well, perhaps the most visited among the archeological sites in the area. We stopped by the Ratanabon Pagoda, one of the most photographed in Mrauk U. The massive and bulky stupa is quite unlike others in the area, in the sense that it is ringed by 24 smaller stupas. There is a hill next to the temple from where some people go for sunset / sunrise views. The structure seen today had been extensively reconstructed, no thanks to treasure hunters who looted the place many years back. Ratanabon is translated as “treasure,” and precious objects were said to originally lie in the central stupa.
A few feet away from Ratanabon Pagoda is the Andaw Pagoda. Like Ratanabon, there are numerous stupas surrounding a central one but the difference here is that all of them are roughly of the same size. There is also an interesting inner chamber at the main stupa with a handful Buddha statues inside. However, it was pitch black when we entered and we couldn’t see a thing.
Widely recognized as the “main temple” of Mrauk U, the Shitte-thaung Temple is where most visitors start in Mrauk U. The $5 zone fee is collected here. When I stopped by the temple, I scanned the log book for the visitor profiles. Not a single Filipino it seemed, visited in the 2 or 3 months before I did. When I asked the guy at the registration, I was told that I was the first Filipino tourist he had seen around Mrauk U. The log book didn’t reveal many visitors from Southeast Asia either. Around 1 or 2 other Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians; a couple of Thais and that was about it for the past 2 or 3 months. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to react to the guard’s assertion – the brief thought that I may be the only Filipino insane enough to come briefly popped up, but was quickly quelled by the fact that I was enjoying what I was seeing so far.
Of the temples in the entire archeological site, Shitte-thaung probably ranks as my second favorite. The temple itself is divided between a newer and older part. The older part consists of the passageways that run through the temple’s perimeter. Within it, I saw more Buddha statues in stone – though these weren’t as exotic looking as the ones I saw in Kothaung. But apart from that, there were fascinating carvings depicting daily life as well as royal life in the outer passageway. The sheer number of objects in the wall carving as well as the level of detail were very impressive and there’s a walkway from which one can have a great view of a bunker-looking temple down the hill.
Another bunker-looking temple lying immediately west of Htukkhanthein is Laymyatna or the 4-faced temple. Compared to the other temples, the restoration here wasn’t extensive but that served to heighten the atmosphere of the place. The temple has arch-shaped windows that give light to the Buddha statues within. It’s a particularly small temple though at the time of my visit there were quite a few locals hanging around outside, using the tall facade as a shade.
Other temples around Mrauk U
The temples of Mrauk U are spread across the four corners – I only managed to visit the ones in the east, center, north, some southern ones but completely skipped the western ones. With an extra day, a substantial portion can be covered. But to avoid getting templed out, a one or two day trip around the temples should suffice.
Sunset and Sunrise
The sunrise and sunset views around Mrauk U alone are worth the long trip to get here. Aside from the classic Shwethaung Pagoda sunrise on my first day, I also ventured to a place called Discovery View (fee of 500 kyats) just north of Ratanabon Pagoda and the hilltop temples of U-mrawa and Haridaung close to town. Here’s a peek of the views from up there.
Tips for Mrauk U
- Avoid coming during the rainy season from mid-May to September. In Mrauk U. When it rains, it pours!
- The best time to visit Mrauk U is from November to mid-March when it’s cooler in the mornings and you get to see the morning mist
- Put at least a 1 day allowance to your trip to cater for possible ferry or flight cancellations. It’s pretty common over at these parts
- Bring lots of insect repellent. You’ll be thankful you did.
- Myanmar has one of the highest incidences of malaria in Southeast Asia and Mrauk U is considered to be more frontier than Bagan or Inle Lake. While it may still be okay to visit without having taken malaria pills, it’s best to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants to decrease the chances of getting the disease.
- Change your kyats beforehand. Avoid changing in Mrauk U. The exchange rate here is very bad.
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