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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Yangon Street Scenes

Ganesha and the Mogok ruby dealers

What is it that lures us back to places we have been previously? One of my first walks in Yangon on this trip was to find the Golden Smiles Inn, the guesthouse where I had stayed in 2004, well to the west of where I stayed in 2014. The Golden Smiles Inn was no longer listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook so that should have tipped me off. But I remembered a great wrapped Bodhi tree, alive with Ganesha and other Hindu deities at the foot of which sat the dealers in rubies from Mogok.

Street map of Yangon

Street map of Yangon

Off I sauntered along Maha Bandula Street, round Sule Pagoda, down Sule Pagoda Road, passed Maha Bandula Gardens and headed west along Merchant Street. Shortly after where Strand Road joins Merchant Street, I spotted the Bodhi tree at the intersection of Shwe Botha Street and Merchant Street. There were the little plastic stools and tables loaded with rubies from Mogok but the cracked neon happy face sign that signaled the Golden Smiles Inn was nowhere to be seen.  I walked up and down several times peering into the dim interior of the shops and buildings. This is a busy little spot, crowded with people buying and selling. I skirted the biggest crowd, clearly in some sort of lackadaisical line, and peeked into the building. There was the dilapidated photocopy machine I remembered, jammed into a very small space under the stairs of an entryway to the building that had been the home to the Golden Smiles Inn.

 

I slipped passed the line and climbed the stairs to discover that the Golden Smiles Inn had morphed into a Christian chapel!   It was locked so down the stairs I went, passed the muddle of people wanting to have copies made and out into the street. I looked up. Under the rash of electrical wires, I could make out the Grecian columns that supported the balcony where I had eaten breakfast all those years ago. The grimy white columns I remembered were now painted cream and the balustrade had a burgundy trim. No sign of the backpackers’ laundry that hung in dismal heaps above the heads of the breakfasters.

 

A little frisson of sadness fluttered through me. But at least Ganesha and his friends the ruby dealers were still in their place. I wandered off, satisfied that my memory for places was still intact.

Streets of Yangon Photo Essay

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

Streets of Yangon

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