Mrauk U, “The First Accomplishment”, is the stuff of legend. Almost unknown outside Asia during its historical reign, it remains so even today. Mention Mrauk U to your average photographer on the street, and he might think you have just insulted him! Even Alex Trebek has never posed an answer with MU as the question. But he should. It’s a very impressive place, even centuries after its fall.
Mrauk U was as prosperous as London by 1635, with an estimated population of 160,000, which included a few thousand foreign merchants, traders, & armed mercenaries. The Arakan Kings valued themselves so highly, they paid small fortunes to maintain Japanese Samurai as their only trusted bodyguards.
The kingdom controlled large coastal regions from western Myanmar (now Rakhine State) north into eastern India all the way to the Ganges River. The dynasty lasted an impressive 354 years! When Mrauk U and the Arakan fell in 1784 to the Burmans, the city and its grand palaces, 19-miles of fortifications, and some 700 inimitably constructed Buddhist temples, were looted and left to be swallowed by the jungle.
Today the jungle is thick only with irony; these grand symbols of a once bustling Dynastic Capitol serving as an exotic backdrop for what is now a growing rural village about five miles from the Kaladan River. The river, via Sittwe in Rakhine State, is still the only way by which visitors may reach the site, and no one knows if or when the planned proper airport might be built. It’s a not a terribly long journey, taking about 4 hours by private riverboat. The lack of tourists is great for the traveler, and keeps the great mystique of the place alive. The landscape lends naturally to the mystery as well, with a mixture of forest clad hills dotted with temples and rising morning mists, lakes, marshes and mangroves.
Major sites to see in Mrauk U are something of a battle of the Buddhas – 80,000 at Shitthaung and 90,000 at the Kothaung Paya – and you are free to count all 170,000 if you don’t believe it! Both Payas, built as both fortresses and places of worship – date to the mid-1500’s and took many years to build. For a beautiful view of village life, a visit to the still jungle-clad site of Peisi Daung Paya is worth the effort.
Not to be missed is the odd and very impressive architectural feat of the temple-fortress called Htukkanthein. Its massive bell and mushroom shaped dome is like something out of Indiana Jones at dawn, as the sun shines through a square window to illuminate the Buddha in the main chamber. They tell us there are no secret vaults to open, but I’m not through investigating!
Impressive as they are, Mrauk U is more than just old temples and fortresses. The culture of Rakhine is distinct from the rest of Myanmar, in that it is in large measure ethnically Bengali. The food, the smells, the textile designs, and the faces are quite different here. In addition, beyond Mrauk U on the Lay Myo River lie several Chin villages. This is of note because the ornately tattooed faces of Chin women are quickly vanishing. When this current older generation passes, so will this centuries old practice of going to great pains to attract a mate. The younger generations have had to resort to sashays and come hither smiles, much to the chagrin of their mothers.
Oh but the setting! To take full advantage of Mrauk U’s morning fog, Luminous Journeys’ photography tour leaders recommend climbing into the hills before dawn. From their favorite perch above the city, the soft curling mists serve to turn the light ethereal, rising up and shrouding the temples in a uniquely Arakan mystique.
Featured image of Chin woman by David Lazar.