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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Sittwee – the back of beyond

Travel, like dreams, is a door that opens from the real world into a world that is yet to be discovered.

Guy de Maupassant

One of the delights of travel for me is to visit remote places. Sometimes getting to a place is as interesting as the destination itself. I knew Mrauk U would be interesting (ancient capital of the Arakanese kingdom, now know as the Rakhine state) but I wasn’t expecting Sittwee (also spelled Sittwe) to engage me as much as it did. To get to Mrauk U, you have to take a boat from Sittwee, which is close to the border of Bangladesh. To get to Sittwee involves a long (possibly twenty four hour) journey over typical Myanmar roads (full of potholes) or a short (but expensive) flight from Yangon. I opted for the flight not so much to avoid a road trip but because reports of whether you could actually do it were so variable.

Sittwee is situated on an estuarial island at the confluence of three rivers (Kaladan, Mayu and Lay Mro) that empty into the Bay of Bengal. When Mrauk U was the capital of the Arakanese kingdom (1430 to 1785), with a population estimated to be 160,000, Sittwee was a small fishing village. The British captured the Arakan area, now known as the Rakhine, during the First Anglo-Burmese war (1825). They promptly moved the capital to Sittwee, which was much nearer to the coast and therefore more accessible. Because of its location, on the trading route from India to the Far East, it grew into an important port. But time changes everything. By the time I reached Sittwee, it had the air of the back of beyond, where you might meet an old Colonial Southeast Asia hand around any dusty corner. And Sittwee had seen plenty of foreign nationals come and go over the years. The Dutch erected the unusual clock tower in the eighteenth century, a reminder that the Dutch East India Company was actively trading in the area.

Dutch clock tower

 

Nowadays, the town seems unprepossessing, sleepy almost – until you reach the market. Close to the clock tower, which stands on the broad and dusty main street, you turn right and follow a much narrower street. It rapidly becomes busy – people working on the street or in buildings that open onto the street. When the street becomes clogged with people and traffic – a special form of vehicular conveyance known all over Asia as a rickshaw – you know your destination is nearby.

The usual guidebook advice to tourists is to go to a market early in the morning. This is usually good advice – you are guaranteed all kinds of action. I arrived at Sittwee market in the mid-afternoon. Most of the vendors (women mainly) were relaxing and chatting to neighbours while last minute shoppers straggled by. The ladies chopping and selling chickens were more than happy to let me take photos. As the ‘real’ work of the day had ended, they also enjoyed looking at what I showed them on the LCD screen at the back of the camera. No one spoke English but their delight in seeing themselves on the screen was palpable. It wasn’t long before they were directing me to take photos of their friends in the produce area and of the ladies on the sewing machines.

Wandering in this market requires care: it is large and very messy underfoot. I was glad I was wearing solid sandals with soles that gripped strongly. It was quite wet – much water is sloshed over the floor to remove the fish and chicken entrails as well as the detritus from the fruit and vegetables.  It was a labyrinthine market and I kept walking onwards away from the street. When I emerged at the other end, I was on a pier that overlooked the Bay of Bengal. It was a most glorious sight, a wood block print from an old history book but in colour. The late afternoon sun, golden and brilliant, burnished an assortment of boats that could easily be harbouring pirates ready to storm ashore with knives grasped between teeth and cutlasses swinging at their sides. The light reflected from the shimmering blue sea was blinding but gradually the scene before me settled into one of late afternoon commerce – men in small rowing boats waiting to take ‘shoppers’ with all of their goods out to the larger boats anchored in the bay. Viewed from the vantage point of the pier, Sittwee looked like a classic tropical outpost – all palm trees and tin roofs – just waiting for Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad to drop by and sip a Scotch or gin as the brilliant sun slipped into the sea.

I spent a long time on that pier, watching the people come and go, but eventually I wandered back into the market, said goodbye to the chicken ladies, and found my way back onto the street.

The street in front of the market seemed just as busy as when I’d entered but I managed to maneuver myself around the rickshaws and avoid the little pick up trucks waiting to carry people home. I walked along the street that ran parallel to the Bay of Bengal, which I could see shining in the gaps between buildings. I also found the dark side where people cast their garbage into the sea and the sea gives it right back.

I found an area full of large sacks, which I realized contained rice. The area around Sittwee is the second largest area growing rice outside of the Ayeyarwaddy delta. Sittwee is such an important hub for the rice growing and exporting business that the government has been talking about building a deep-sea port. It would probably make life easier for the people – no more hauling rice sacks on their backs – but the rice market would lose much of its charm. Someone like me, with a camera and a penchant for out of the way places that time seems to have slipped past, does not always welcome what is deemed to be progress for the people who live and work there.

Sittwee is very photogenic and on my way back to my hotel, I came across a troop of Thai photographers from Bangkok, draped with a wide assortment of serious Canon and Nikon gear. They, like me, were en route for Mrauk U. Sittwee was so entrancing that I’d forgotten it was merely a staging point on my way to the ancient capital of Mrauk U. As the sky darkened, I joined a Swiss woman I met on the plane at a local viewpoint for a beer and a chat. We watched a spectacular sunset over the Kaladan River where it empties into the Bay of Bengal.

The next morning, the two of us, along with a German guy who had also been on the plane, rode in the back of a truck and were deposited at the boat dock fifteen minutes before seven a.m., the time at which we had been assured the boat would leave. We waited and waited, along with everyone else, because the boat wasn’t leaving until nine. But even that was interesting.

For a place that started out looking like the back of beyond, Sittwee turned out to be quite a little jewel.

The Market on the Bay of Bengal

Photo Essay

Click on the image to take you to a photo essay developed with Adobe Slate

A market on the Bay of Bengal

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