We knew traveling to an off the beaten track destination like Mrauk U in the Rhakine State was going to be a challenge. It was evident as soon as we arrived that there were very few tourists that venture here, but we kept an open mind and just hoped our 5 day adventure would somehow work out. Until just recently the only way you could get to Mrauk U was by boat from Sittwe, but now the Government has lifted restrictions and foreigners can travel to Mrauk U by bus from Sittwe and some of the other major centers. We were so glad we took the flight and boat option to get to Mrauk U instead of taking the bus. We experienced extremely bumpy (my butt has the bruises to prove it) and dusty roads (we were covered from head to toe with a film of dirt) and it took what seemed like forever to go a short distance.
When we landed in Sittwe, we went straight to the jetty and took a private boat to Mrauk U. The boat was supposed to take 3-4 hours but in reality (they always tell you it’s shorter than what it actually is) it took close to 6 hours, and when we finally arrived it was 9 pm. The ride up the river in the dark was actually quite nice though because we had a full moon so we were still able to see the landscape.
There are no ‘good’ hotels in Mrauk U from any of the reviews or blogs that we read on the internet so we chose the best one that we could find, and it wasn’t great. We even booked a deluxe room thinking that would be better but unfortunately it was just more expensive. When we got to our room and wanted to have a shower I saw these tiny black things on the floor and wall around the shower, when I noticed them wiggling – I FREAKED out – there was no shower for me. We had a few other things wrong with the room, the receptacles were hanging by the wires, the air con didn’t work, and there was no hot water. The next morning we informed the fellow at the front desk that there are worms in the bathroom and we (especially me) would like it if they could clean them out of there, and we mentioned the other things as well. We suggested that maybe we should be moved to a different room since we were the only guests in the hotel (it felt a bit weird being the only people in the entire resort). He assured us that everything would be taken care of when we returned from our activities. When we returned at the end of the day, he came to the room with us to make sure everything was okay but it wasn’t (their definition of clean is not the same as mine). I took him into the bathroom and showed him the wormy things still wiggling around freely and convinced him that it would be better if he moved us (I told him I was REALLY scared of the worms). He agreed and we moved to a different room, thankfully there were no creepy things in the bathroom. We still showered with our shoes on though and slept in our awesome silk sleeping bags that we travel with for times like these.
While talking with the hotel manager, we mentioned that we would need change when it came time to pay for our room because we didn’t have the exact amount (for some reason I just had the feeling that we should mention this to him). He promptly told us that he does not have change and would not have any because the hotel hasn’t had any guests. We rushed around town to a few places trying to change larger bills for smaller ones to no avail (we said to each other “what the hell, how can a hotel not even have five dollars”)? So we told him the next day he needs to have change or we can’t pay him the full amount. When we came back from our day trip and paid – surprise – he had the change we needed. The hotel left us feeling exhausted and it had me thinking; why do all the remote strange places start with an ‘M’ (Mrauk U, Moni)?
Mrauk U had some great sites for us to see and the first day we walked to all the major ones that were located around town.
Shite-thaung Temple – there were some ‘naughty’ carvings here.
An Daw Temple – this temple contains a tooth relic.
Htuk Kan Thein Temple – fortress temple.
Life around the main temple area; little girl balancing the water jug on her head, another little girl playing with part of a bike, rice drying in the sun, and ladies doing laundry next to the temple.
As usual, we got a little bit lost looking for Mahabodhi Shwegu Temple (one mean dog didn’t like us roaming around his village) and some ladies at the water well pointed us in the right direction. The arched walkway into this temple was decorated with many carvings about the previous lives of the Buddha. There were ‘naughty’ animal scenes among the carvings (we weren’t expecting so much ‘naughtiness’ at the temples).
Later on in the afternoon we took a tuk tuk out to Ko-thaung Temple that has 90,000 Buddha images.
On our way back to town the tuk tuk ran out of gas, so while we waited for the driver to get fuel we watched some kids haul water and others play a game that is similar to volleyball. Instead of using your hands to keep the ball in the air, you can only use your feet, legs, knees, and your head.
At the end of the day we took a stroll around Mrauk U town center.
The next day we hired a car and driver to take us to Mahamuni Pagoda and the Ancient City of Vesali. Mahamuni was worth the visit, it’s a beautiful temple and it’s said that the Mahamuni Buddha was taken from here and placed in the Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay. A fellow in the temple really wanted to take a picture of Gordon with his two little girls and I took the opportunity to snap one too.
The Ancient City of Vesali is a village and we didn’t see anything that resembled an ancient city here (lost?). We did stop at the Great Vesali Image which is very old, 327 AD, and it’s carved out of one piece of sandstone. When we arrived back in town we took a walk through the market and bought some very expensive oranges (pretty certain we overpaid) but they were good.
Late afternoon we took in the sunset from one of the nearby hilltops and the view was lovely. On our way we saw a procession, there was a long line of people all dressed up making their way to one of the temples.
On our third day we arranged for a guide to take us to see the Chin Villages. We thought it would be helpful to have a guide that could communicate with the villagers and act as a translator for us. We took a very rough and very dusty 1 hour taxi ride to the jetty for our 2 hour boat ride up the Laymo River.
The ride up the river to the villages was very scenic and really interesting. We saw many people park their boats in the middle of the river and then dive down to retrieve smooth natural stones from the bottom. They bring the rocks up to the surface by hand and load as many as they can in their little boats until they are almost sinking. There were piles of stones all along the river bank for sale and they are used to build roads and other foundations.
When we arrived at the Pan Poung Chin Village we were shown a warm welcome with bananas and offered a chair to sit down and visit with the ‘tattooed ladies’. Their faces were tattooed with a web like design when they were around 8 years old and it took 4 years to complete the extremely painful process. There are only 7 ladies remaining in this village with tattooed faces and they are no longer continuing this tradition. It was good to see that they had a decent school here and we noticed that the kids learn english which is great for such a small village.
They also make their own booze by fermenting rice in banana tree pulp.
Next we visited Chon May Chin Village where we were warmly welcomed and offered to sit and visit. There are only 6 ladies in this village with tattooed faces and the tattooing tradition has stopped. They were very proud to show us the new school that was built, mostly by donation from Italian Missionaries. While visiting we watched our boat driver prepare a betal nut chew. We found the betal nut process kind of interesting; first he took a betal leaf and smeared it with a milky substance made out of tarot, then he put the betal nut on it, then added tobacco, more tarot milky stuff, wrapped it up like a springroll and popped it in his mouth. He offered one to me to try, but I politely declined and everyone had a good laugh over that.
A couple of funny things we saw on our way back to town; a family taking their horses across the river (a horse powered canoe) and in the background it seems the dog didn’t want to be left behind either. We saw a man crossing the river and desperately trying to keep his clothes dry by carrying them on top of his head.
On our drive back to town from the jetty we stopped to look at these betal leaf trees, they will only grow in the shade so they were inside this enclosure. The betal leaf tree is an entirely different tree from the betal nut tree (the betal nut tree looks similar to a palm tree) and they use both of them to make their betal nut ‘chewies’.
On our last day we were guided by the owner of the tour company we had used the day before. We visited three Rhakine (Arakan) Villages that have never had foreign visitors before. It was by far the most special day for us while in Mrauk U and a great way to end our journey in Myanmar. We were truly blessed to have had an experience like this and it left us feeling a wide range of emotions.
Again we enjoyed watching the life on the river.
On our way to the villages we saw a soccer team sitting along the river and our guide said they were ready to go to a festival that was being held at a neighboring village. Surprise! Our boat pulled over to shore and they all piled in, we were the ones giving them a ride to their event. They were a fun group of guys and quickly offered us some kind of homemade beer in a bag (literally home brew bulk beer in a bag). Gordon kind of regrets passing on this beer minute but we couldn’t take any chances because the next day was a travel day (5 hour boat ride and a flight). They are an all-star team and play at different village’s which is how they earn a living.
The first village we visited was Chan Kyaw Village and we disembarked with the soccer team. We visited the temple that is in the village. The Buddha in this temple is a clone of the Mahamuni Buddha that is now located in Mandalay but originally came from this region. We took a walk around the village and we were immediately welcomed by some of the children. It didn’t take long before we had a full entourage of kids following us all over the village, there was a lot of giggling and staring going on behind us. They loved it when I would take a photo of them and show it to them on the camera, they would all laugh so hard and point at their picture.
We saw a family making new roof panels out of palm leaves (they have to do this every year) and they will put them on the house before the rainy season comes in May. We saw people drying gourds so that they can use them in soups or other meals because there are days when the rain is so bad that they can’t go outside.
There is no running water so villagers need to haul water with metal containers every day from a well or reservoir. Hauling water is mostly done by the women and young girls.
Wa Hla was the second Rakhine village we visited. We were greeted by some of the children and a few adults from the village and escorted to a local family home where we were hosted for lunch. Within 15 minutes of being in the house, many of the other villagers and their children all crowded inside to watch us. It was the oddest feeling we have ever experienced and it was like we were on display, but we understood that they were just very curious about us. They have never had foreigners visit their village before and have never had close contact with a foreigner, so they couldn’t help but stare at us the entire time. I took photos of the kids and showed them on the camera, they all giggled and crowded around me to have a look – they loved it. We had a fantastic lunch, they made us prawns cooked with fresh tomatoes, duck (best duck we have ever had) in a chili paste sauce, and rice. We were a bit worried to eat but we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings so we threw caution to the wind and it was by far the best meal we had while in Mrauk U. We spent well over two hours sitting in the house visiting with them, we asked them questions about their families and life in general and then they would ask us questions – considering the language barrier we had a really good exchange with them. It was absolutely fantastic to have an experience like this and to have an opportunity to get to know these wonderful people. We hope that they can maintain their authenticity if they do decide to open their village up for regular visits from foreigners.
On the way back to Mrauk U we made a quick stop at Pa Zyan Fay Village. We were met by some of the children and a few adults. We walked around the village and visited their temple, it was very different inside compared to some of the other ones that we have seen. Our guide and boat driver needed some more betal nut so we watched the local store owner make up a batch. We saw the betal nut making process a few times but we still found it intriguing.
We noticed some small children making palm leaf roof panels and I stopped to take photos of them, they loved seeing their pictures on the camera.
The next day it came time to say goodbye to Mrauk U and board the ferry back to Sittwe. We thought about taking the bus for a change of scenery but they leave at 5 am and we saw how crazy they drive so we opted for the ferry. It was very crowded and very chaotic and really difficult to make our way to our seats on the top deck. The floor was jam packed with people who had not reserved chairs so we had to snake our way through them and try really hard not to step on someone or step on their stuff. The ferry is a good deal in comparison to a private boat though, it cost 10 USD each for a reserved chair.
We were relieved that our boat made it back to Sittwe in plenty of time for our flight. We have never seen such crazy airport chaos like we did in Sittwe (crowded, loud, unorganized, people pushing and shoving) and sometimes we have no choice but to leave our ‘Canadianism’ behind to get through the airport madness. The chaos continued with getting our bags in Yangon, there was no luggage carousel so it was a fight to get to our bags that were all brought inside one by one. We thought it was overkill with all of the security check points in Myanmar, we had to clear the immigration checkpoint before security and then we had to repeat the same process again after security. Prior to departure we had to have our luggage scanned and then repeat the same process after the flight at arrivals once we claimed our bags.
We flew with KBZ to Yangon and the flight was good. I was quite excited when they gave us fresh croissants for a snack, I said to Gord “please don’t tell me they are stuffed with mystery goo or meat stuff”. Gordon was the taste tester and…they were plain, that made me very happy. At this point both of us had enough fried rice and weird side dishes for a while. We were really happy to get back to the Great Feel Hotel in Yangon and it really did feel great (especially after being at the hotel in Mrauk U)! They even gave me a nice departure gift, a container of Thanaka which is a yellowish cosmetic paste made from bark. Most of the women and some men wear this on their faces as a decorative sun protection and it is a typical feature of Myanmar culture. It looks much better on them than me!
It surprised us how expensive Mrauk U was considering it’s such a small town off the beaten track and we were pretty sure we were overcharged for taxis a few times. This area seems to be gearing up for tourism though, we saw new roads being built and new bungalows going up. Some of the locals were friendly with us and some were not (which left us wondering if they really want the tourism boom), even if we would smile and give a mingalarbar (hello) they would not smile or say hello back. We believe with everything there’s a lesson though, and we experienced what it was like to be looked at as being ‘different’ and at times it didn’t feel so good.
Even with some of the uncomfortable stares, pointing, and straight faces, we are glad we visited Mrauk U and had the chance to really see a part of Myanmar that is untouched by tourism and still in a raw state of beauty.
Where we stayed: Mrauk U Palace Resort (the hotel made us tired)
Tour guide we used: Kyaw Moe – [email protected]
Mrauk U Tips (since there’s barely any info on the internet)
- You can land at Sittwe airport in the afternoon and go all the way to Mrauk U the same day.
- There are boat drivers that meet the flight in Sittwe so it’s not hard to arrange a boat.
- We paid $50 USD for a private boat (for two people) from Sittwe to Mrauk U, we left Sittwe around 3 pm and arrived Mrauk U around 9 pm.
- There is now bus service from Sittwe to Mrauk U but I’m not sure of the schedule.
- You can take the ferry ($10 USD each) from Mrauk U back to Sittwe, it leaves Mrauk U at 7 am and arrives Sittwe around 12 pm. It’s possible to catch your flight back to Yangon the same day.
- It’s easy to have your hotel arrange a car and driver to take you wherever you want to go. The roads are terrible so if you’re going far take an enclosed car or you’ll be covered in dirt.
- Don’t miss out visiting the villages, they are worth it.
- Don’t plan Mrauk U at the end of your travels because ferry and flight cancellations are common.