Ravishing Rakhaine – Part 1

From the land of the “Monkey’s Egg”

Promoted by advocacy groups and social media the country came out of the Pandora’s isolation box some 5 years ago and is rapidly catching up with the top tourist destinations in Asia. It’s big, it’s bombastic and it’s ambitious. Shahriar Feroze is stitching a five-part travel tale from the country that recently came out of self-imposed obscurity… Myanmar.

Have you ever dreamed of becoming a bohemian backpacker travelling in a country wrapped in mystery and restrictions?

Well, this writer has, in a country that is now known as Myanmar. As the Biman’s twin engine bombardier touched the grounds of Yangon (Rangoon) it’s only the unforeseen adventure that awaited me. For the destination was Mrauk U (pronounced Mraw- u)– the archaeological wonder site perched amid the watery of the Kaladan River in Rakhaine state . As I came to know later, here Bangladeshis are not allowed entry through normal channels (air and land) because of ethnic tensions but at least, this writer didn’t witness any such incident and, in fact, he was welcomed rather warmly by the rustic Rakhaine community who are just beginning to get used to foreign tourists.

For the budget traveller life is hard, even on vacation. Moreover, this budget traveller comes from a country where the notion of backpack individual tourism is fairly unheard of.

It took about 28 hours of a combined train and bus journey to reach what was once the historic capital of the Arakan kingdom. But the hardship paid back with dividends. The overnight train journey started from Yangon to Bagan, from there a four hour bus ride to Magwe where a night bus under freezing temperature and several stops delivered me at the desired destination.

Planes may be quicker but a journey overland opened up the scenic Myanmar landscapes of hills, jungles, rustic towns, vast expanses of marshy paddy fields and of course rivers dotted with small fishing villages.

Myanmar is big and seems even bigger when travelling overland as sporadic stopovers, inefficient timing and unforeseen delays kept lengthening my travel time. As the journey to the northwest ensued nothing seemed to bore the group of European backpackers travelling on the same bus. For it’s a country blessed by the local brewery – anyone can hit the can or bottle – from the jungles to the mountains; from the beaches to its villages. Beer is drunk from morning till late night and in the dinner table whisky is preferred to water. Trendy and admired by the maximum westerners are the Myanmar and Dagon beer. But for the eyes that obstinately seek beauty and charm in the opposite sex Burma is seemingly the next Thailand, maybe even better. Here people, too, change with landscapes.

The average Burmese girl is around 5 feet tall, shy, slim and slender and mostly wraps a Loyngi around her waist and wears a blouse. She rarely speaks English. To a foreigner, she would take a glimpse by displaying a sweet mysterious smile. That smile can be interpreted in many ways but that’s what she is, aloof. The gesture is changing fast with increasing number of foreign tourists these days.

The frenzied journey ended at around 3 in the afternoon when the conductor had to awake this dizzy traveller. No temples inside, a couple of stupa tops perched in the hills could be viewed from the scorched main road. Only the remnants of the old place walls on my left seemed to welcome me to Mrauk-U. This I wasn’t expecting, but the scene changed abruptly as I entered the market area.

Potholed streets, makeshift shops, vendors selling vegetables and fruits and all the mix of a village-like township was surrounded by lush jade hills and beneath it flows a river, branches and canals coming out of it criss-crossing the roughly 3 square mile township. All the hills have multiple entries and exit points in the shape of stairs cut out of hills, but the real thrill was actually hidden in the north of the town, stretching through a connecting road for about a mile to the east.

But before the adventure sets afoot, this writer needs to check-in to a hotel. Unlike the suitcase traveller the backpacker’s checking in and out is always unsure. He is never sure about where to live and is endlessly adjusting himself with whatever comes his way.

The newly built Lemro River Guest House is just a little more than a hurriedly built small hotel with AC and non-AC rooms followed by attached and shared baths. However, it’s conveniently located and most of the important landmarks, including the jetty, are within a 20 minutes’ walk. What you only need to know is the direction and to confirm the correct route. What’s needed is to stop a local and pronounce the name (as locally as possible) and you‘ll be shown the path by a hand gesture till you’re there. It works well almost anywhere in Myanmar. Also, another tool is the locally drawn-out map. Offered in almost all hotels and guesthouses located within any area branded as heritage sites. (A vital tool which is always missing in our hotels and guesthouses)

Whichever the walking direction is, Mrauk U is one of those rustic and neglected towns where the air smells and whispers of a hyped grandeur. Not anytime recent, its glory days were first hijacked by the Konbaung dynasty in the late 18th century and in 1826 the British sealed its fate by moving the provincial capital from here to Sittwe, thus reducing Mrauk U to a mere township. Township it may be, but with a reverence. Its history, temples and scenic hills could not be separated or stolen. Its deities reside here, in its temples and stupas and appear to weep in silent.

Like Bagan, its archaeology and history, temples and stupas draw the do-and-dare traveller to this remote corner of Myanmar. But unlike Bagan, it’s explored by the few. Following the map this adventurer headed north.

The commune of the northern group of pagodas or payas usually begins with a route starting with the Shittaung paya built by the most powerful Rakhaine monarch king Minbin. Shittaung means ‘Shrine of 80,000 images’ and I didn’t count them but inside there is a massive central stupa surrounded by a frenzy of small stupas. Sadly, like many temples in Burma, the vintage charm of the Shittaung is lost because of modern prayer halls and staircases. Still the Shittaung is the typical temple that embodies the Mrauk U temple architecture with its huge fortified terrace surrounded by numerous small stupas.

Next in line among the temples is the Htukkanthein paya. Coupled with the Shittaung, the temples together are the town’s distinctive architectural style, but in terms of huge atmospheric inner and outer corridors walled with hewn sandstone and lined-up dozens of Buddha statues. Some missing, presumed stolen.

Walking through their moist corridors engulfs one with an eerie feeling, as if, every step was being monitored by some invisible power. Some of these, over hundred metres long, corridors are decorated with hundreds of sculptures. As I walked through one of these dark corridors, a monk suddenly appeared from almost nowhere with the greeting ‘Mingalaba’ (Hello) and then another, and another… and then almost an army. The defenders of the Buddhist faith walked in a single column, as if a military parade of sentries is out to ensure the outpost of the empire is secured to the hilt. Fascinatingly, this is one country in the South East Asia where the culture is starkly synonymous to its form of Buddhism. For instance, the U-shaped Htukkanthein paya looks more like a huge erection of brick and stone fortress or a strongly defended military base. No anti-aircraft guns or cannons needed; the countless sculptures and statues of the Lord Buddha is enough to ward off the invaders.

The corridor of this pagoda is very strategically planned with a mark of gratitude to its donators. It loops around on itself twice before climbing up to the balcony – like rooftop shrine. Same is the next pagoda called the Lemyethna Paya: an impenetrable windowless bunker with a stupa on top. In it, eight seated Buddhas are placed around a central octagonal pillar.

What More Unique a Fortress do You Crave?

As days passed competitions began among rulers to outclass and create the biggest pagoda. This one is my favourite in particular and it’s the Kothaung Pagoda, located not in the north but in the eastern group of pagodas, faraway to the east. The name means “Temple of 90,000 Buddha Images”. A sheer sign of king Dikkha’s one-upmanship, built in order to defeat his father King Minbin’s landmark temple the Shittaung. The outlandish giant with finely carved outer corridors is now undergoing a restoration programme. The local legend has it that the temple was struck by a lightning as the king attempted to build a pagoda to outdo his father. The outer corridors in this one are embellished with thousands of identikit miniature mosaic-style Buddhas. Built on a flat marshy land, it’s surrounded by paddy fields – mourning silently to fail in its purpose.

There are at least another 20 or even smaller sized pagodas to compliment the major pagodas in Mrauk U. Half of them are perched on top of small hills and all of them have their own story to tell. There is no need to stand on top of a big temple to view the sunrise or sunset. Stand in any one of them to seal a spectacular view in your memory lane. One particular pagoda located on top of a hill near the Royal City Guest House became this traveller’s most sought after sunset spot. It faced westwards and except an old wrinkle-faced monk none had cared to climb it so it remained hushed in silence during the dusk.

Every time the sun disappeared by striking a chord with a verse from the Sura Yaseen, “And the Sun runs to its resting place. That is the decree of the Almighty… the Sun to overtake the Moon nor for the night to outstrip the day; is each one swimming in a sphere.”

Dusk is the best time in Mrauk U for viewing the mysterious outlines of myriad stupas emerging from the early morning mist. For it’s not mist but the smoke arising from regular burning of garbage and plastic. For the misty view you may need to come sometime in winter.

The sun is gone and the moon is barely shining. It’ time for dinner. Unlike the irregular stressful eating habits in cities, timing for meals in this sleepy town is early. Inside The Happy Garden Restaurant a section in the menu highlights some Rakhaine dishes. Order plain rice with any of the local curries and Bangladesh will seem not so far away. Not surprisingly, people in this part of the Rakhaine state, being so close to our border, have almost never met or seen Bangladeshi travellers but the curiosity to meet seemed unthinkable despite government restrictions and communal tensions.

Reflecting back to the journey my passport had to be checked only once at an entry post to Rakhaine, however, the no objection signalled that Myanmar’s mood was changing.

Mrauk U is often compared to Bagan and referred to as second to Bagan by many travel books, but this writer thinks in his own way. Mrauk U is unique and only one of a kind in Burma. In terms of numbers, Bagan may have more temples but their styles and design features are different, mostly made of bricks and identical with many parts in the north. It was the capital city of the Pagan Kingdom, whereas Mrauk U was the capital of the Rakhaine, though the culture of both places is dominated by religion but it’s the mindset of those architects who worked and designed these two ancient capitals that fascinates me.

Builders of the temples in Mrauk U are clearly driven by a sense of security and that has manifested in its styles of fortifying them. Perhaps, to them a mounting number of sculptures and statues meant showing more reverence to the Buddha’s divinity and power. Maybe the increasing number of Buddha identikits symbolizes strong and unified defence. Whatever the meanings may be, the ideas realized into massive shrines, pagodas and stupas are future key proponents of a nascent tourist industry.

In the land of Buddha it’s not only pagodas, but also the myths that have flourished with time; and why not end it with the myth behind the name Mrauk U?

Legend has it that in the region of Mrauk U once lived a female monkey. She met a peacock and the two were tempted to copulate. The female monkey conceived with the peacock, and thus it laid an egg. A human son was born out of the egg and he grew up to become a mighty prince. The prince later built a city near the jungle, and that’s how, the city became to be known as Mrauk-U – ‘Monkey’s Egg’.

Time is running out and I have to catch the early boat for Sittwe. Till Sittwe then…

The writer is a journalist and a keen traveller.

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