Mrauk U is a former capital of the ancient powerful Kingdom of Arakan that ruled over the surrounding area from 15th to 18th centuries. Its propitious location at the Bay of Bengal made it a regional trading hub and one of the richest cities in Asia. Merchants from all over the world were flocking to Mrauk U to settle there. However, after the Burmese Kingdom sacked the city in 1794, the population fled and Mrauk U fell into ruins. At present, the walls of the ghost-like city are filled with impressive ruins of countless stone made sacral buildings – a sight that is especially striking in the mist early in the morning. The most breathtaking ruins are Shittaung, Htukkanthein and Kothanung temples and the former Arakanese capitals of Dhanyawadi and Waithali. Around Mrauk U, dayexcursions along Lemro River offer a rare opportunity to visit Chin villages with its unique face-tattooed tribes. Although Mrauk U is the country’s second most famous archeological site, only a few foreign tourists venture there due to its remote and hardly accessible location. Mrauk U is only reachable by a four- to seven-hour boat ride along the Kaladan River or by road from Sittwe.
Concealed upriver in the middle of the watery webs of the Kaladan River, the distant and distinctly rural town of MRAUK U was formerly the last and greatest capital of the Arakan kingdom, its 49 kings reigning for 350 years over a kingdom reaching at its peak, from the Ayeyarwady to the Ganges and have power over vast regions of what is present day Bangladesh and Myanmar. Also, Mrauk U was an exclusive primitive and popular point where foreign authorities resided. Its Buddhist monarchs accepted Islamic customs and titles driven by the close by Bengal Sultanate, while the metropolis also confronted Portuguese invasions and subsequently became the main pan-Asian commercial center. In1784, the city was conquered and captured by the Konbaung dynasty which resulted in the end of Mrauk U's beauty and glory days, while the decision of the British to transfer the provincial capital to Sittwe in1826 additionally accelerated its decline. Long-lasting reminders of Mrauk U's glory days continued to exist, but, in the form of a distinctive set of extraordinarily equipped temples – amid Asia's strongest Buddhist memorials.
Mrauk U, for the traveler, has constantly had a unique appeal, and these days attract a growing number of foreigners, despite the hurdle of getting to the place or current problems in Rakhine (the municipality has often been banned recently because of local chaos). Few people who attempt to reach the place become disappointed, albeit the town is now progressively becoming a major tourist site and has now lost much of its best-border attraction - a new railway line and airport are planned, while there are also reports that the government is planning to force inhabitants out from their old homes in the midst of the temples (as happened in Old Bagan) so as to turn it into a tourist destination.
In the region of Mrauk U, exciting excursions along the Lemro River present a unique chance to pay a visit to the Chin villages and glance at a few of the well-known tattooed women who reside there, whilst the little remnants of the previous Arakanese capitals of Waithali and Dhanyawadi can also be viewed.
Central Mrauk U
The centre of Mrauk U, for all its primeval importance, still resembles the typical one-horse Burmese countryside, with its potholed streets, busy market, rural cafés and makeshift shops in a row down the dirty Minbar Gyi Road, which is normally as full of activity as Mrauk U ever gets. In total contrast is the vast, largely vacant strip of land immediately north-west which once housed Mrauk U's glory, but now totally gone, magnificent palace.
The Palace and Archeological Museum
There isn't much remaining of the original Palace facility, in the centre of town, aside from its remarkably lengthy walls positioned in three continual squares around a trio of sequentially escalating balconies - the real palace would have been positioned on the uppermost balcony at the center, which presently serves as a great tourist attraction over the site. In 1430, the King Minbin commissioned the original royal residence and it has been renovated a minimum of two times after that, providing an abode for 49 Kings over a period of 350 years, even though the superb palace building itself made of wood was demolished when the armed forces of the Konbaung reign captured the city in 1784. On the western side of the facility, the expensive Archeological Museum owned by the government is as thrilling (or not) as you would anticipate, gathering together a variety of findings from around the location in addition to a few artifacts from the former Arakanese capital of Waithali, just down the road.
On a slight, vertical hill on the northern side of the Palace area, the small Haridaung Paya is somewhat more than a modest gilded stupa but presents one of the finest views in Mrauk U's, with lots of stupas on top of the hills everywhere and highlights of water between the trees. It is not marked: watch out for the white steps (which can become terribly hot underneath bare feet) beside the road, from where it is some minutes' on foot to the top.
Mrauk U's small tree-scattered market is suitable for rural business, with the typical kiosks full of vegetables, herbs and fruits together with mounds of conventional Rakhine-style pointed bamboo hats, piles of anchors, chinlone balls, huge saws and an amazing number of pharmacies, as well as one passageway filled completely with small shops selling either beer or pills. You'll find the town's tailors, on the west side of the market, lined up at a queue of tables at the back of mounds of cloth and out-dated sewing machines.
Exploring Mrauk U's temples
The two major groups of temples are to the east and north of the center; some are open every day between 7 am - 5:30 pm, accessible with one single ticket (K5000), sold at the Shittaung Paya. Though Mrauk U is frequently portrayed as the “new Bagan”, the comparison is deceptive. Apart from the “big three” temples - Kothaung, Shittaung and Htukkanthein – Mrauk U does not actually have Bagan's landmark memorials and must-see tourist attractions, and in one way or another instead of marking off temples, cycling or walking at random among the thickly wooded stupa-scattered hills can be more fun.
The normal starting point for Mrauk U tours is the landmark Shittaung Paya, constructed by King Minbin, the founder of Mrauk U, in 1535 to rejoice about his conquest of “the twelve towns of the Ganges” (nearly half of present day Bangladesh) - the name refers to the 80,000 (shittaung) pictures said to be kept there. The temple is put on a massively equipped balcony and encircled by many little stupas in Mrauk U's unique style, crowned not by the usual top but with a shortened finial indistinctly similar to a stone mushroom. Also, a few pale breaks can be seen in places around the outer walls (as well as a pair of indistinctly erotic sights on the southern side). Sadly, the outside is currently a total mess resulting in the addition of a modern stairway and prayer hall in the mid-twentieth century; while in 2003 (after cracks were found in the major stupa) the Archeology Department agreed to cover the temple's upper balcony in eyesore concrete so as to stop water from dripping into the temple.
The most memorable of all Mrauk U's temples is the Htukkanthein (or “Dukkanthein”) Paya, and the flawless illustration of the town's typical architectural style: a vast mass of stone and brick almost unbroken by any type of ornament and looking more like a castle, high-security jail or nuclear bomb housing than anything slightly religious. The temple's protective potentials are improved by its setting on a high, roughly sheer-sided, balcony, with only one entrance - even the little square windows seem more like embrasures for cannon instead of light sources. Erected by King Min Phalaung in 1571, the U-shaped temple itself is connected to a little rectangular shrine behind and topped with five “mushroom” stupas in an almost quincunx pattern. The majority of the inside is inhabited by an amazing hallway, which encircles itself two times and joins two inner chambers prior to scaling up to the barn-like rooftop temple. Covering the hallway are 179 placed Buddha pictures each lined by engraved female and male shapes said to signify the contributors who sponsored the temple's construction. The shapes are well-known for showing all 64 of old-fashioned Mrauk U's conventional hairstyles, most of which appear to have a big topknot and turban-style preparations - not a million miles far from the mushroom-molded caps on the stupas outside.
It is worth going up the hill to the Shwetaung Pagoda not to visit the temple itself (which is only a moderately-sized, bog-normal stupa) but for what is perhaps the ultimate sight of Mrauk U - specially unforgettable at dusk, and around sunrise, with the strange sketches of countless stupas appearing from the early-morning vapors in every route, and sparks of water between. To stretch the temple head for 100m down the side road which goes down south, off the major road between the Prince Hotel and the center, searching for a pink archway (that leads to a little monastery compound) on your left. Turn left off the road, climb up to the arch (but not over it) and go left again down the broad filth pathway directly facing the archway edging the monastery border wall. Monitor this for around 20m, just past the end of the wall, and you will see a tiny vertical pathway on your right bending its way up the hill. Trail this to get to the top of the temple - a quick ten-minute walk.
Around Mrauk U
The remnants of two more of ancient Arakan's former capitals - Dhanyawadi (previous residence of the respected Mahamuni Buddha) and Waithali - can be seen close to Mrauk U, while tours down the scenic Lemro River to see the close by Chin villages are equally trendy, because of the existence of the well-known old ladies with tattooed faces - a fading artifact of old Burmese past culture and tradition.
Chin Village Trips
With Chin State usually inaccessible, an excursion from Mrauk U down the sylvan Lemro River to a sequence of nearby Chin villages is the simplest way to meet people from this great cultural minority group, very famous for the practice of tattooing their womenfolk's faces. The custom was banned in the 1960s, though you will see no less than a couple of old women with the tattooed faces in most villages. Native stories imply that this sore process (using a combination of buffalo liver and soot) was proposed to make girls appear ugly to attackers, but it was more likely a mark of individuality for the different Chin tribes. The tattooed ladies are accustomed to getting attention: a few of them collect a small fee to take pictures while others make crafts for sale. Lots of tourists find the practice unpleasantly corrupt, although money gotten from tourism helps in funding community developments like water pumps and schools (don’t be surprised when asked for a contribution) and delivers the much-desired profits to one of Myanmar's poorest and lowly tribal groups. Excursions to the villages usually cost $70-80 for one boat that can seat up to 4 people (counting the guide).
Concealed between rolling hills some 9km north of Mrauk U are the remnants of the primeval city of WAITHALI (also spelt as “Wethali” and frequently called by its Pali name, Vesali), originated in the fourth century and capital of Arakan from around 327 to 794. In accordance with the Anandacandra pillar, its subordinates practiced Mahayana Buddhism, though its emperors considered themselves offspring of the Hindu god, Shiva - a typical Arakanese syncretism. A great deal of the past city has now been destroyed, though you may be able to distinguish the remnants of some temples and wreckages of the brick walls of the city and the palace within. The major appeal is the Great Waithali Payagyi, a giant seated Buddha image over 5m tall and said to be made from a single piece of rock. One of Myanmar's ancient Buddhas, the myth says it was a present from the chief queen of King Maha Taing Candra, who established the city in 327 AD - though the unique characteristics have been changed by modern renovations.
Around 40km north-west of Mrauk U are the remnants of the first of Arakan's four capitals, DHANYAWADI. As at Waithali, the destruction of the ancient city is incomplete and the site is best recognized currently as the first house of the much respected Mahamuni Buddha statue. Early Arakanese records maintain, possibly a tad determinedly, that the city was visited by the Buddha himself in 554 BC, at which time a statue - the Mahamuni - was built. The statue which was considered as a sign and guardian of the nation was worshipped for centuries by Rakhine's emperors, although it could not stop the capturing of Mrauk U in 1784, following which the Mahamuni was taken away to Mandalay by King Bodawpaya, where it has stayed till date. The temple which once housed the image, together with 3 very old Buddhas still attract many worshippers, mostly the 1.5m-high central image, recognised as “Mahamuni's Brother”.