Life on the Lemro River

Rivers are roads that move, and which carry us whither we desire to go.

Blaise Pascal


There is nothing quite like river travel especially on a small boat chugging up some backwater in Asia. So off I went with three other adventurers (fellow travellers I met in Mrauk U) to visit the tattooed ladies of some Chin villages in northwestern Myanmar.

The tribal nature of much of Asia is truly revealed in northern Myanmar where the modern political division of the land into states parallels the cultural reality. The Chin state contains half a million Chin people, said to be of Mongolian origin. It is a mountainous state with little infrastructure as the ‘roads’ around Mrauk U so vividly demonstrate. Much of the travel is by boats on the river. It is also economically poor although rich in tradition and culture. It is a place that most tourists do not venture and many villages are isolated.

Mark U and the Lemro River
Mark U and the Lemro River


We endured a bone-rattling, tuk-tuk ride of about half an hour from Mrauk U to reach the Lemro (also spelled Lay Myo) River. The pastoral scenery was stunning in the blinding, early morning sunlight. We bounced over rocky roads passing fields, bright yellow and ready for harvesting. In the distance, mountains rose in serried ranks, blue and hazy in the early morning mist and the smoke from cooking fires.

Bone-rattling roads

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The boat was relatively shady and we each had a plastic chair with a back to it: not the hard wooden bench of some of my previous river jaunts.

Boats on the Lemro River
Boats on the Lemro River

We spent a pleasant couple of hours chugging upstream watching life go by, largely unchanged for centuries – except for diesel motors for the boats.

Boat with diesel motor
Making waves – with a diesel motor

Life on the river and on its banks unfolded before our eyes. It is almost a medieval scene (except for the boats with diesel engines) involving the daily round of chores that subsistence living requires. We passed seemingly deserted villages, yet the evidence of occupation was revealed in the tidy and prolific vegetable gardens along the banks.

In other places there was a hive of activity with both men and women hauling sacks (perhaps of rice) down the riverbank and into a waiting boat. This was a reminder that the Rakhine state, full of meandering rivers, is second in rice productivity to the Ayeyarwady delta.

Loading a boat
Loading a boat

And as always at rivers in Asia, women were washing clothes or dishes. Some were solitary but others worked with a friend, children in tow. While the mothers did the laundry, the little ones skipped into and out of the water.

Eventually, we arrived at the first of the two Chin villages we were to visit and saw first hand one of the cultural traditions – older women with tattooed faces. But that will have to wait until the next blog post.


Mrauk U – The Forgotten Kingdom

The stones here speak to me, and I know their mute language.

Heinrich Heine

I’m on the dock in Sittwee with my two companions bright and early only to discover we have two hours to wait. The locals are also waiting – swaddled in winter coats and hats. Even though I was already sweating, it was the cool season for them.

I need my hat to keep me warm

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I was really looking forward to the boat trip from Sittwee to Mrauk U. I had visions of hanging out on the deck taking interesting photos of life on the Kaladan River.   I should have known better. The boat was long and barge-like sitting low in the water. But at least the narrow gangplank from jetty to boat was relatively easy to navigate with hands clutching me to ensure I didn’t fall in the water.

Boat to Mrauk U

Inside, the seats, three in a row on each side of the central walkway, were so low to the floor that it was impossible to see out of the windows. Even if the seats were higher, it would still have been impossible to see out. The windows were covered with dark blue curtains – to keep out the sunlight – which every self-respecting Myanmar wants to avoid. In any case, the focus of the locals is not on what is happening outside the windows but on what is happening on the screen at the front.

I sat as far away from the screen as possible and as close to the door (read escape hatch) as I could manage. I wanted to avoid what I suspected would be the typical Asian movie – very loud and with much grotesque violence. But I need not have worried. The Myanmars are into gentler stuff. The movie seemed to be about a man who couldn’t get his act together to claim the girl of his dreams and so appeared a buffoon – much to the amusement of the rest of the passengers.

So, why Mrauk U?

As Sir Edmund Hillary said, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, ‘Because it is there.”

Palm trees and pagodas

And Mrauk U has been there for a very long time: even Myanmar Tourism describes it as ‘the forgotten kingdom’. The kingdom of Mrauk U was founded in 1433 by King Min Saw Mon. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a well-known port with ships from Europe and the Far East able to sail seventy kilometres up the Kaladan River from the Bay of Bengal in order to trade. At one stage, the kingdom controlled half of what is now Bangladesh as well as a large portion of Myanmar. As the city grew to 160,000 people, they expressed their gratitude by building temples – many temples.

A surfeit of temples

Many of these temples have survived, and while the site is not as large or as imposing as Bagan, it has its own charm. Temples of this bye-gone era litter the landscape and you will need to walk across threshing circles and vegetable gardens to reach some of them.

Threshing area

The usual upside-down bell-shaped stupas are much in evidence but many of the buildings use this familiar Buddhist design in unusual ways.

Temples surround the village

Stupas in concentric circles

The first temple I visited was Shitte-Thaung Pagoda where you pay your archeological zone fee of approximately five dollars. It’s well worth it. Shitte-Thaung was built in 1535 and is reputed to be home to eighty thousand Buddhas. And, no, I did not count them.

Shitte-Thaung Temple

Like many temples at Mrauk U, Shitte-Thaung was built on a hill and looks like a fortress. The temple has a main stupa with four smaller stupas, one in each corner. Inside the temple is a main prayer hall containing many Buddha images. A long dark passageway, said to be one hundred metres long, leads from this room into the inner temple. It contains many sculpted figures depicting ordinary Rakhine people as well as scenes from the Jakarta tales (stories of the Buddha’s life). There are also scenes of Hindu deities including Indra on three elephants. At the centre of the temple is the room that contains Shitte-Thaung’s principal Buddha – three metres high and made of gold.

Close to Shitte-Thaung is Htukkenthein temple built in 1571 and looking like a bunker.

Htukkenthein Temple

It is very dark inside and a very long corridor spirals to an inner chamber. I felt like I was circling the innards of an ammonite. There are 140 arched recesses in the walls, each enshrining a stone image of the Buddha. Surrounding the Buddhas are sculpted figures of ordinary people said to have sponsored the construction of the temple. The passageway ends in a five metre high inner chamber shaped like a dome. Daylight from above illuminates the Buddha figure.

Many of the temples are well within walking distance of each other but I wanted to see Koe-Thaung, the largest temple in Mrauk U.

Koe-Thaung lies a couple of kilometres from the village so I hired a horse and cart to take me there. It was a rough ride over roadways that were substantially more rock than anything else.

Koe-Thaung, the temple of ninety thousands Buddhas, is huge and is surrounded by terraces covered with stupas. It was built in 1553. There’s a very appealing interior passageway, dark in some places and light in others where the sun floods in through collapsed walls. The walls are covered with small Buddhas carved into the rock face of the walls. Much larger Buddhas seated on pedestals line the passageway. It’s a glorious, mysterious sight – enough to send shivers up your spine. Such devotion – and much merit – to carve ninety thousand Buddhas

But temples aren’t the only attraction to Mrauk U. The village itself presents a kaleidoscope of ordinary people going about their daily chores. You don’t need to see the friezes in the temples – you can watch rural Myanmar unfold before your eyes. A family cooking their evening meal in the lane outside their house, an old woman curled up on a bench at the end of her garden watching the world go by, a woman drawing water from a well – all are indelible scenes. And all around the village, frequently interspersed with the temples, you can see farmers taking care of their crops.

And then there is the market. It’s very busy – full of life and colour – as people from the surrounding rural areas come to the big smoke of Mrauk U to do their shopping.

There was plenty to keep me busy in Mrauk U but I could not leave the Rakhine State of Myanmar until I had seen the Chin ladies. The Chin tribe, one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, used to tattoo the faces of young girls as a sign of beauty. When I visited Mrauk U in December 2014, only seven of these ladies were still living.  I had to see them.  And this involved a trip in another boat.

Click on the image to see more photos.

  Photo essay on Mrauk U

Mrauk U