On paper, Mrauk U seems to be the dream destination for intrepid travelers. Ancient temples untouched by time, miles of verdant rice terraces and rolling hills to explore, an epic journey to reach and few, if any, tourists. On more than one occasion I have reached one of these ‘dream destinations’ and been left scratching my head, wondering if I had perhaps hopped off at the wrong bus station.
But on a trip to Mrauk U in October I was pleasantly surprised to find the former Rakhine capital lives up to the hype. For three blissful days my travel companion and I rode bikes through spectacular countryside villages, explored evocative historic temples and cruised languid waterways with little more than the occasional cow or monk getting in my way.
The number of visitors are likely to be even lower now since the outbreak of violence between militants and the Myanmar Army in northern Rakhine State and the unfolding humanitarian crisis. However, Mrauk U has been unaffected by the conflict, which erupted roughly 90 kilometers west near the Bangladesh border.
We flew from Yangon to Rakhine capital Sittwe. Knowing that we would arrive late in the day, we opted for a private car transfer to Mrauk U rather than the longer boat journey. The drive was beautiful and surprisingly pleasant. Although not entirely smooth, the road has improved dramatically in recent years and we reached Mrauk U in just over three hours, as the sun was setting.
Exploring Mrauk U’s Temples
The next day, armed with a basic map provided by our hotel, we set off to explore the temples. The northern group of temples, the largest collection of monuments, is located just off the town’s main road so it is easy to reach on foot from most hotels. We spent the morning walking from site to site, stopping to enter some monuments and admiring others from afar.After lunch, we hired bikes for the princely sum of 2,000 kyats and headed to the southern and eastern groups. What started as a pleasant ride soon turned into a more challenging adventure than desired. Recent rains had left the countryside’s sealed roads pock-marked with massive potholes and the dirt roads converted to mud pits. Due to our erratic riding, and occasional falls, we attracted a lot of attention from the local villagers and generous offers to help us along the way. Our effort was rewarded as we discovered more stunning, and empty, temples.
Biking Mrauk U
Based on the recommendation of a friend, we arranged a tour with Mrauk U Cycling for our second day in town. Ko Bee, our guide and the owner of the company, greeted us at our hotel after breakfast. Alongside him were brand new 24-speed mountain bikes, a welcomed change from the previous day’s rusty single-speed bikes. As we pedaled off into the countryside, I chatted to Ko Bee about his business and view of tourism. “I was tired of classic tours and just showing our guests pagodas and Chin villages. Mrauk U and its surroundings are beautiful and unspoiled, so I developed biking routes that let visitors see the landscapes and experience local life in the countryside,” he said.
Our half-day tour with Ko Bee was excellent. We covered about 30 kilometers on flat roads, some sealed while others were packed dirt tracks. There were plenty of stops along the way to take photos and to explore villages where, it seemed, we were the first foreigners to visit. The highlight was a village filled with betel nut plantations. As luck should have it, we arrived just as the seasonal harvest was beginning. Despite seeing betel nut on sale everywhere in Myanmar and having seen the scrawny tall trees that produce the eponymous nut, I had never given much thought to how they were harvested. The process involves climbing to the top of one tree then using a special technique to make it sway and bend toward other trees. When in close reach, the betel picker takes a precise swipe at the tree with his scythe and the nuts drop to the ground. The skill and apparent danger makes Bagan’s toddy climbers look like amateurs.
We returned to Mrauk U by long tail boat, cruising past many more betel plantations and enjoying the cool breeze. Then pedaled a short distance to our hotel just as the sky darkened for an afternoon shower.
The Journey Home
The next day we made our way back to Yangon, opting for the slow public ferry to Sittwe at 7am followed by a flight. The five-hour journey did not disappoint, even after a weekend filled with ‘wow’ experiences. Great, unobstructed views of the Kaladan River, a pleasant breeze and plenty of space to move around made it a thoroughly enjoyable journey. And we arrived on time, leaving us enough time for lunch in Sittwe before catching our return flight.
Why Visit Mrauk U Now?
An estimated 6-8,000 foreign visitors visited in 2016, according to the Myanmar Tourism Federation, a number that is set to be even lower this year. While Bagan has seen steady growth – reaching around 350,000 visitors last year – arrivals to Mrauk U have dropped. Sadly, the ongoing Rohingya crisis has taken its toll on tourism, as well as devastating the lives of hundreds of thousands.
While there is no denying the tragic and atrocious human rights issues occurring in the region, the positive effects created by tourism on the local community far exceeds the financial impact on the government.
No violence has been reported in the town. For some, now may be the best time to visit. In 2020 a new airport is scheduled to open a short drive from the archeological zone, greatly reducing travel time. In that same year, it is possible that Unesco will grant World Heritage status to Mrauk U, a distinction that will certainly increase the number of visitors.
Photos by Susan Bailey.