Ancient Burma’s playful side
In Mrauk U, goat herders and radish farmers still live and work amid the 700 historic temples. (Robert Reid)
“Yo yo yo!” is the three-beat attention-getter touts across Southeast Asia use to get you to ride their taxi or buy their postcards. It comes in quick succession, lingers like a mosquito and usually gets what it seeks: a bit of your business.
But in one of the most remote corners of Burma, it was the last thing I imagined I would hear.
Burma (officially Myanmar) is the newest hotspot of Southeast Asia. Now that its military leaders have turned over the government to civilian hands (at least on paper) and the US has normalized its diplomatic relations, arrivals are expected to increase by 300% in 2012, reaching a total of one million tourists. This kite-shaped nation of rickshaws and ox carts remains, as Rudyard Kipling put it a century ago, “unlike any land you know about”. Women wear sun-shaped dots of thanakha tree bark paste on their faces, men wear skirt-like longyis and 2,000-year-old stupas are sheathed in gold. It is a place with a playful sense of time. The clock is half an hour behind neighbouring Thailand’s, and one grandmother I met estimates her oldest son to be “about 200 years old”.
Most first-time itineraries are dominated by the “big four” of Rangoon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan, with its plain of 4,000 temples that some consider as important a site as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But Mrauk U, an off-the-radar ancient village near the Bangladesh border, is more likely Angkor Wat’s spiritual successor.
From Rangoon, the only way foreigners can get to Mrauk U is a 90-minute flight to the faded port city of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal, followed by a lazy six-hour public ferry ride up the Kaladan River (it is a safer option than hiring a slightly faster, private boat). The ferry stopped every hour or so to let on locals, who snacked on crickets while sitting in wooden lounge chairs (I declined).
Docking at Mrauk U, a tiny smiling man with blood-red teeth -- stained from chewing betel nut -- suddenly appeared onboard, grabbed my bag and my hand and lead me over a wobbly bamboo ramp to his rickshaw. He pedalled a mile to the Golden Star Guest House (116 Min Bar Gree Road; 043-24200 ext 50175), one of several inexpensive guesthouses in the area, passing a grandmother puffing a Cherub cigar while walking down the road and a boy plucking an acoustic guitar below a porch’s hanging fluorescent bulb. When the boy’s audience saw me, the two young girls smiled and sang out a “mingalaba“ (hello).
The atmosphere of a ruin fuels the imagination, and no ruin is as “alive” as Mrauk U, where goat herders and radish farmers still live and work amid the 700 temples. From 1430 to 1784, the city served as the capital of the Rakhaing people – an ethnic group still in the area. Per some fanciful depictions, Rakhaine emperors, surrounded by Japanese samurai bodyguards, built a skyline of skyscraper-tall towers connected with air bridges.
Today, a handful of local guesthouses, like the Shwe Thazin Hotel, arrange jeep or horse cart tours to the site, but I opted to rent a bike and explore on my own. Five minutes east of the village is one the Mrauk U’s biggest sites, the Kothaung Paya. Named for its purported 90,000 Buddha images, the open site surrounded by a walkway of Buddhas was built by legacy-minded King Mintaikkha in the 16th Century to outdo his father’s site, the Shittaung Paya, which has a rumoured 10,000 Buddha images. South, across a dirt path, a hill of brush hides the unexcavated remains of the more modest Peisi Daung Paya pagoda. Through a passage obscured by a curtain of Indiana Jones-style cobweb, a Buddha gazed out.