I’m following a monk bushwhacking his way uphill in western Myanmar. Seriously? This is my life? I grinned for the zillionth time in Mrauk-U, a place hard to reach in Rakhine state, as the monk led the way, branches scratching my torn-up limbs as they slapped and scraped against me. When the “trail” cleared and we reached the top, he turned and smiled. “Nine stupas. Monastery. Temple.” He pointed to each grouping while I fumbled with my camera and tried to soak it all in. Before I could ask the name of anything we saw or get a good photo, he took off again, ambling along the ridge.
The monk had found me, the only foreigner in this little visited part of Mrauk-U, trying to find my way into the small temple where he resides. He showed me in, pointed out the various carvings, and said a few things in a language that sounded like a combination of the local Rakhine dialect, Burmese, and English. When I’d had my fill of ogling old stones below a Buddha statue and we walked outside, he pointed up the hill behind the temple with a smile on his face, “go?” he asked. I nodded, smiled, and off we went. Before we parted ways, he drew me a map to temples I’d been struggling to locate on the outskirts of town. These are the moments of travel I most love: the unexpected encounter with a local resident, eager to help me see the beauty of his home.
The trip out to Mrauk-U isn’t easy, requiring either a multi-day bus ride from Bagan or a flight to Sittwe followed by a ferry ride. In high season, boatmen meet the daily flights in Sittwe to offer private trips but in August, not many tourists come through. My only option arriving by air was to spend a night in Sittwe and get the government-operated ferry the following morning.
I was the only foreigner on the boat to Mrauk-U and I didn’t see any others until more than 24 hours after my arrival. By the time I returned to Sittwe four days later, I’d only seen a total of six other tourists. Given the beauty of Mrauk-U’s ancient temples, this is truly incredible. I explored at my own pace, stopping to study carvings as long as I wished, retracing my steps to look at something more than once, sitting down to annotate my map or make notes in my journal, hopping off my bicycle in the middle of mostly empty roads to take photos or bask in the sun-warmed countryside. With few signs and maps that don’t match plus the number of times I veered down an unmarked path or traipsed up a flight of stairs in search of an unmarked temple, I have no idea how many temples I actually saw. These are a few of my favorites:
Kothaung (Koetaung) Paya, built around 1553 by King Mintaikkha, may be the largest temple in Mrauk-U and when I visited, I had it entirely to myself.
A significant reconstruction occurred in the 1990s and as I couldn’t get a guide in the area to respond to my inquiries (and no one was at the Regional Guides Society “office” in town) I explored independently so have no clue what’s original. Regardless, there are countless carvings, ogres at the base of the stairs, and 90,000 Buddha images to marvel at.
Htuk Kant Thein (Dukkainthein) Paya built in the 1570s by King Minphalaung, this might be my favorite temple in Mrauk-U. The approach is uninspiring, to say the least. But protected from the elements, the carvings inside that line the spiral corridors are stunning. I spent ages running down the batteries in my flashlight.
Htuk Kant Thein is located in a more populated area than many of the temples. Local residents ensured I removed my shoes before climbing the stairs to enter. Once past them, I was alone, shuffling slowly along barefoot.
Peisi Daung Paya is one that I couldn’t find when first I went looking for it and I’ve no idea when it was built or by whom. It’s at the top of a hill but there isn’t much of a path through the foliage so one really has to look up at just the right spot from the road to see it.
Mahabodhi Shwegu is for those who see the journey as the destination as the temple itself isn’t all that exciting. It’s the finding it that’s fun. There’s a map inside the Archaeological Museum showing all the temples, monasteries, and pagodas in Mrauk-U but photographs aren’t permitted inside the museum so I marked it down as best I could on the map provided by my guesthouse. I’d read that Mahabodhi Shwegu is up a hill near Ratanabon Paya and fortunately, there was only one obvious hill to walk up. To reach it in rainy August, I had to ditch my bike and slog through ankle-deep mud. There wasn’t much of a path but by this point, I was accustomed to beating my way through bushes trusting I was heading the right way.
Shwetaung Paya was built in the 1550s by King Minbin, the primary builder of Mrauk-U’s temples. It’s the highest in the area and thus good for sunrise or sunset. With the trails overgrown, the family running the guesthouse where I stayed insisted that a member of their family guide me up the hill just after sunrise. Like my climb with the monk, this one left me bruised and scraped as thorns and rocks jumped into my path time and again. In the end, I appreciated the guidance and having waited for a bit of natural light before starting up.
The days I spent in Mrauk-U were the highlight of my Myanmar experience. Children waved and called “bye” as I walked or bicycled around; everyone I stopped to ask for directions smiled and listened patiently to my stuttering Burmese and mangled pronunciations then helped as we mimed our way to an understanding; and I often went most of the day without seeing another tourist. There were challenges, of course. Most roads are not paved and mud rendered some impassable for the simple bicycles available to hire. Electricity is routinely shut off for long stretches of time. Dining options are limited and even finding a tea shop in which to wait out a rainstorm for a few minutes can prove impossible. But all of that coupled with the extra effort, cost, and time of getting to and from Mrauk-U made it that much more rewarding.