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It is moments like these that link the site to Angkor Wat, a expanse of ruins in varying states that can feel like entering a dreamy film set. The difference is Mrauk U is not only historical site. Here, the ruins are merely a backdrop to everyday life. Streams of young women fill tin pots at temple-side wells and take short cuts over cracked pagoda steps to farms sandwiched between 500-year-old stupas. Elders crouch below trees, amid smoking refuse piles and goat herds. One man I met, sitting in a meditative pose by a ruined city wall, told me his name was the “Divine Protector of Buddha”. And I found no reason to doubt him.

A popular side trip from Mrauk U is a two- to three-hour boat ride to the Chin villages, a local ethnic group known for the women’s tattooed faces. I am not a fan of “gawk tourism”, built off paying locals for the privilege to snap photos of exotic local customs, but a local man told me visitors’ donations can benefit the villages greatly (particularly for buying unavailable medicines).

At the Chin village of Pann Paung, a wiry black-haired grandmother, her face covered in a faint lattice of tattoos, led me into the shade, where locals were grinding corn with a foot-powered husker. She said that she got her tattoo when she was seven, and it took three days to apply. Apparently no one tattoos their faces anymore. “When I die, the tradition will too,” she said. I asked about her earring – a stubby quarter-sized chip of wood stretching out both her lobes. “It’s nothing. Just for fun.”

The next day, while biking along a line of pyramid-like temples west of Mrauk U, I again heard “yo yo yo!” When I swung my bike around to look, I found a skinny, deeply tanned old man, shuffling down a dirt path towards me. He was waving something in his hand as his longyi skirt flapped around his bare legs. As he got closer I saw what he carried: a 100-kyat note (worth less than 10 US cents). I had dropped it unknowingly. He handed it to me and said, “You are very handsome, brother,” revealing a fair share of missing teeth. “But not as handsome as me.”

Robert Reid is the US travel editor at Lonely Planet.

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