Despite the recent unrest in the western Rakhine State, it is safe for foreign tourists to travel to the ancient city of Mrauk U. Our team recently returned from the inspection tour and security situation assessment in Mrauk U. We highly encourage to visit this rarely visited part of Myanmar.
Mrauk U area is located relatively far from the affected region of Maungdaw township (situated nearby the Bangladesh border) and there are no good road connection between Mrauk U and Maungdaw. Visitors to Mrauk U region will be rewarded with fantastic sightseeing opportunities, shared each year by only a few thousand foreign visitors.
The forsaken city and hundreds of ancient temples and pagodas at Mrauk U beautifully rest across rolling northern Rakhine State hilltops and form an mind-blowing sight, while providing an experience unlike anything else in Myanmar.
“In durability, architectural skill and ornamentations, Mrauk U temples far surpass those on the banks o the Ayeyarwady River” remarked Dr Forchhammer, a renowned 19th century archaeologist in his famous book “Antiquates of Arakan”. Mrauk U is a historical site where visitors can still witness ancient temples, sculptures, city walls, fortresses, moats and city gates still standing around the city as a silent evidence of the previous glory of an former Rakhine Kingdom.
To reach Mrauk U, most visitors first fly to Sittwe, either from Yangon (1h50m flight) or Thandwe located nearby Ngapali Beach (45m flight), then take a private wooden boat (at around US$200-220 for a return journey) or a public ferry (at around US$15-25 one way) up the Kaladan river. Public ferries leave Sittwe early in the morning while private boat gives you more flexibility and can be fitted to your arrival time. The boat trip takes around 5 hours and is rewarded with beautiful views of rolling hills, mountains, farms and villages and it is a unique way to observe life of locals at the shores of the river from a perspective of the boat.
History of Mrauk U
Mrauk U served as the last great Rakhine capital for over 350 years, from 1430 to 1784. The heydays of Mrauk U, from the 16th to 17th centuries, were contemporary to the times of the Tudor kings of England and Hanthawaddy kings of Myanmar. In its golden days, Mrauk U flourished as a free port trading with the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
The Mrauk U dynasty gained military supremacy in the region by hiring Portuguese and Dutch soldiers to serve in its army and navy as well as Japanese samurai as their bodyguards. At Mrauk U’s peak, King Minbin (1531-1553) built a naval fleet of around 10,00 combat boats that dominated the Bengal Bay. During the reign of King Minrazagyi (1593-1612), the Rakhine Kingdom spread from Dakha to Mawlamyaing in lower Myanmar, having over 1500km long coastal line.
Mrauk U was a heir to three great Rakhine dynastic periods: Dhanyawadi dynasty (until 4th century), Vesali dynasty (4th – 10th century) and Lemro dynasty (11th – 14th century). Buddhism thrived during the Dhanyawadi period. In 1785, the Konbaung dynasty conquered the Rakhine Kingdom and and Mrauk U and was merged into the Burman Kingdom centred around Mandalay.
Following the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26, the British Empire annexed Rakhine and moved its administrative headquarters to Sittwe, turning Mrauk U into political insignificance.
Temples are scattered in the area of around seven square kilometres, grouped relative to the central palace site: the “north group” is home to the most important temples, the remote “east group” has the finest engravings, and the “south group” has the highest view points.
According to a legend, King Minbun was advised by his astrologers to move the capital of Rakhine Kingdom to Mrauk U in 1429 from his palace at Launggret. Construction started in 1430, and the palace layout is roughly based on the Mahamuni Paya to the north. In the centre of the palace is an entrance to an underground passage to serve as an escape tunnel to Shittuang Paya.
For most visitors a most interesting part of the city with finest temples of Mrauk U, gathered close to each other within a walking distance.
The Shittaung, the most complex temple of Mrauk U’s temples is also the holiest and most impressive one. King Minbin, the most powerful of Rakhine’s kings, built the temple in 1535. It combines 26 stupas, that encircle central stupa. Shittaung means “shrine of 80,00 imagines”, a reference to the number of holy images if Buddha placed inside the structure.
Northeast from Shittaung lies Andaw Paya, an impressive eight-sided monument with a similar layout: rectangular prayer hall and multi spired sanctuary with sixteen stupas surrounding the structure.
The construction of the temple is credited to King Minhlaraza in 1521. King Minrazagyi then rebuilt Andaw in 1596 to enshrine a the Buddha’s tooth relic allegedly brought from Sri Lanka by King Minbin in the 16th century.
The Dukkanthein Paya that looks like a bunker with stupas was built by King Minphalaung in 1571. Dukkanthein’s interior characterizes by spiralling cloisters filled with images of Buddha and of common people, officials, landlords, governors and their spouses, who famously present all of Mrauk U’s 64 traditional hairstyles.
Starting east from the Palace walls, the temples intersperse the area of a couple of kilometres east.
Located just one kilometre east of the Palace walls, this elegant stupa was constructed in 1629 by King Thirithudhammaraza. At the later stage, more stupas were built vertically and ornamentally, an influence of Bamar and Shan styles.
At 69 meteres by 75 meteres, Kothaung Temple is Mrauk U’s largest structure and one of the main highlights. Erected in 1553 by King Mintaikkha (King Minbun’s son), to overpass his father’s Shittaung by 10,000 images (“Kothaung” means literally “shrine of 90,000 images”). Most of the external passageway is lined with thousands of sculptures on the walls and Buddha images.
Located at the top of the hill, the Shwetatung or Golden Hill Pagoda is the highest point in Mrauk U. Constructed by King Minbin in 1553, is accessed by a few tracks usually covered by thick vegetation. The views are worth the effort, and rewarded with a full panorama of the Chin Hills, Mrauk U, and the Kaladan River that leads towards Sittwe.