“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.
(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”.
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
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).
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
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.