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

Picture 1 of 4

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

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Yangon: City of blood, dreams and gold

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Rudyard Kipling, the bard of the British Empire was right when he wrote:

‘This is Burma. And it is unlike any land you know about’.

He could equally have said, ‘And Yangon (Rangoon in his day) is unlike any city you may have visited’.

Pablo Neruda, Chilean consul in 1927 described it as a city of blood, dreams and gold. Both Burma and Yangon certainly have a past that is liberally sprinkled with blood, dreams and gold. The story of the country and the city are material for a Hollywood blockbuster and is ably told by Amitav Ghosh in The Glass Palace.

The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace starts off in Mandalay as the British conquer Upper Burma (1885) and tells the rags-to-riches story of Rajkumar, a poor boy from India. It follows three generations through to World War 11 and takes place in Burma, India and Malaysia. It’s rather a grand sweep of the history and geography of an interesting part of Asia. In addition, the reader learns a lot about the social mores of the times, about the last king of Burma and about Yangon at the height of the teak trading business.

 

Yangon is certainly unlike any other Asian city I have visited in my fifteen winters of wandering most of which are huge with glass, steel and concrete modern buildings in the central business district surrounded by the more interesting (to me) ethnic quarters of the people who settled there, usually Indian and Chinese.

Yangon is large (about five million) and although it does have Indian and Chinese quarters, they merge imperceptibly into each other and overflow into the central commercial area. Fortunately, glass, steel and concrete buildings are still in short supply even in 2014.

Yangon, or Rangoon as it was called in the days of the British Raj, is situated at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers. It’s a flat city, and would be perfect for walking except it is hot (very hot) and the streets are straight and long (very long). But walking is the best way to see the old colonial buildings, of which Yangon has the greatest number in Southeast Asia.

IMG_3644-EditDagon, as it was called in the early eleventh century when it was founded, was a small fishing village that grew up around the Shwe Dagon pagoda. This most beautiful pagoda (temple) was built on a small hilltop between the sixth to the tenth centuries by the Mon people. During this period, the land we now call Myanmar was a fragmented set of warring factions. The Mon people settled in what the British referred to as Lower Burma, the southern part bordering with Thailand. Further north lived the Bamar in what the British referred to as Upper Burma.

In 1755, Alungpaya captured Lower Burma, which was ruled by the Mons.   Alungpaya who lived near Ava (one of the ancient capitals not far from Mandalay) became king and renamed Dagon as Yangon. The British captured Yangon during the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26) but returned it to Burmese administration after the war. The British were still interested in Burma as an adjunct to India and seized Yangon and Lower Burma in the second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852.

As most of Yangon had been destroyed by fire in 1841, the colonial masters set about rebuilding the city as a Victorian hymn to commerce. The new city was laid out on a grid plan, aided by the flatness of the delta region around the two rivers. Upper Burma was captured in the third Anglo-Burmese war (1885) and Yangon became the capital. Shortly after (1889), Kipling stopped off from his ship for one night on his journey from Calcutta to San Francisco and ate dinner at the Pegu Club, the exclusive haunt of British officials and army men. Burma was probably one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia at the time. Teak from the forests of Upper Burma and rice from the Irrawaddy delta (now know as the Ayeyarwady) were shipped out of Yangon. Yangon became an important commercial centre in the later Victorian and early Edwardian periods and the colonial buildings that still abound in the city are a testament to its importance.

Strand Road

Many of the grander buildings are located along Strand Road, which runs along the river.  This would have been the centre of commerce in the old days and many of the buildings reflect this.  It’s still a pretty busy area of the city.

Democracy Monument in Maha Bandula Gardens

 

Another centre for old colonial buildings is around Yangon City Hall where a striking red clock tower announces the High Court Building.  Close by is Maha Bandula Gardens where you can  see the Independence Monument that celebrates independence from the British in 1948.

 

The heart of this old colonial city is, fittingly, a revered temple, Sule Pagoda.  It sits in the middle of the road and the vehicles flow around it, a unique oriental take on the British roundabout.

Sule Pagoda

Architecture of Yangon

Slideshow – Hover mouse over image to see title

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