Blog by Anne Cruickshanks – Oct 2017
When I booked my tickets to go to Mrauk U in September, many of my friends thought I was crazy. The first question was ‘It is not safe there’ quickly followed by ‘and it is rainy season, it will be too wet’. But as my traveling companion and I discovered, there is possibly no better time to visit Mrauk U.
While Bagan welcomes over 280,000 visitors a year, Mrauk U receives less than 10,000. And due to the conflicts in the northwest Rakhine State in the last few years, this number has dropped even lower. This is all set to change as 2020 is a year of big promises for Mrauk U. A domestic airport is planned for the city, greatly reducing the travel time required to access the archeological site. Also the monuments are on the list for UNESCO World Heritage status that year which would firmly plant Mrauk U on the global tourism radar.
But for now the sites are practically empty. Other than a few local worshippers and the occasional stray dog, we had the remarkable monuments to ourselves. We biked through miles of rice paddies, greeted by shouts of ‘mingalarbar’ as we pedaled by farmers. We cruised down a creek in a long-tail motorboat, passing plantations filled with betel nut trees.
While we loved the experience of being the only tourists around, it was also deeply concerning. Many travel companies have reported cancellations due to the escalating conflict near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Some guests cancelled due to safety reasons and others cancelled on ethical grounds. I struggled to understand this way of thinking and discussed with several guides. Despite the recent, tragic events in the upper Rakhine State, Mrauk U has seen no sign of violence and life is carrying on as usual for most of the town’s 200,000 residents. We felt perfectly safe and the guides agreed there was no need to worry. As for ethical issues, I kept thinking back to the Saffron Revolution. So many guests cancelled on moral beliefs that Bagan turned in to a ghost town, tour companies went bankrupt and hundreds lost their jobs. While I, in no way, want to support human rights violations, I also believe tourism has great benefits on local communities. Sitting at an empty hotel restaurant, chatting to guides who were without work it was clear that more tourism would create more jobs on the ground and less tourism would not hurt the deep pockets of Nay Pyi Daw but yet the pockets of those around me.
Despite these recent drops in tourism numbers, the locals are optimistic about 2020. One of myfavourite experiences in Mrauk U was a day out with Ko Bee from Mrauk U Cycling. After growing bored of doing ‘classic sightseeing’ tours, he opened his own locally-based company that specializes in unique bike trips around Mrauk U and the Rakhine State. Ko Bee reckons that 2020 will see a huge increase in tourists thanks to the UNESCO Heritage Status and, with the new airport, guests will have more time in Mrauk U rather than spending time traveling to and from Sittwe.
So after breakfast, we set off pedaling with Ko Bee, leaving the town behind and heading off on countryside lanes. Having spent the previous day on ‘regular’ bikes, I was delighted to be on real mountain bikes with working gears, shocks and breaks. We ventured through small villages where it was clear we were the first tourists to visit. We stopped at a betel nut farm, watching as the skilled climbers swayed the trees from side to side to chop the ripe nuts from the tree. To return to Mrauk U we loaded our bikes into a long-tail motorboat and cruised back on a quiet canal to town. All-in-all it was a fantastic day out and proved that there is more to Mrauk U than just temples.
As we headed out to sunset later that evening, dark clouds appeared on the horizon. Despite three days of sun and blue skies, the rainy season caught up with us as we made our way back to our hotel. A massive downpour commenced as we opened a cold Myanmar beer. So, yes, the rainy season may not have stopped but we were hardly complaining. With tourist-free days at the temples and spectacular countryside biking, one evening storm was not going to ruin the trip nor my belief that NOW is the best time to visit Mrauk U.
Anne first visited Myanmar in 2005 and instantly fell in love with the country. Since that initial trip, Anne has worked as a tour leader, product manager and country manager for various travel companies in Myanmar. Since 2016 she has been based in Mandalay as a sales consultant for Myanmar Pure Travels & Tours and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. She visited Mrauk U in beginning of Oct 2017.