Mrauk U is located in Myanmar’s westernmost state, Rakhine, and is the second most famous archaeological site in the country. But is it just a mini Bagan?
Ollie and I were very excited to visit Mrauk U and see for ourselves how it differs from Bagan. We found it to be very different! The temples at Mrauk U are smaller and younger than those at Bagan and are made of stone, not brick as the Bagan ones are. The site at Mrauk U is also much smaller and less spread out, which meant we could cover it on foot.
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Exploring Mrauk U
From Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, we took a 5:30am bus, arriving in Mrauk U by 10am. This left us with almost the whole day to start exploring the area. Most of the main temples are located in the ‘North Group’ and are all in a very close knit cluster. We managed to see all of these and also some of those in the ‘East group’ on our first day.
The temples at Mrauk U are set within a backdrop of busy rural villages, rice fields and rounded hillocks. Everywhere we walked we came across many local people and young children, all very curious to see us in their little visited area. Some wanted to practice their English whilst others were content to stare.
One of the largest and most complex temples is ‘Shittaung Paya.’ It is probably the most interesting of all the temples and where Ollie and I spent the most time in. The temple’s name means ‘Shrine of the 80,000 Images’, referring to the number of holy images inside. As well as the main prayer hall there is an inner and outer chamber that circles around the outside of the main Buddha image in the cave hall. These chambers contain many, many stone Buddha images, which in the dim light of the enclosed passageways, look even more enchanting and otherworldly.
Other important temples of note in the ‘North Group’ are Dukkanthein Paya and Mahabodhi Shwegu.
On our second day in Mrauk U we covered the remaining temples in the ‘South Group’ and ‘East Group’. Although we again reached them all on foot, they were a lot more spread out and it took a lot longer to walk between sights. We really enjoyed the walk down to Laksaykan Lake, where we saw the Sanda Muhni Paya nearby.
The most interesting temple we saw on this day was Kothaung Paya, a fair walk away on dusty dirt roads with a very pretty middle-of-the-countryside setting. Kothaung Paya is Mrauk U’s largest temple; its name means ‘Shrine of 90,000 Images.’ Once again there is an outer passageway lined with Buddha images. The bell-like stone stupas that line the exterior are definitely the most striking feature and were how we recognised the temple from afar.
Sunrise and Sunset in Mrauk U
There are two main temples that are recommended as good sunrise or sunset watching spots – Shwetaung Paya for sunrise and Haridaung Paya for sunset.
The path up to Shwetaung Paya was very overgrown and a bit of a hike so we decided not to risk life and limb a second time in a bid to see the sunrise from the temple’s pretty amazing vantage point. Seeing the awesome 360 degree views from Mrauk U’s highest temple during the daylight was good enough for us!
We did, however, watch an incredible sunset from Haridaung Paya, which had a nice convenient staircase leading up to its hilltop location!
Chin Villages River Trip
On our next day in Mrauk U we went with three other people on a tour to three Chin villages up river. The tour began with a short drive to the boat jetty, where we then boarded a small long-tail type motorboat for the trip on the river. The scenery we passed was very picturesque; the river was wide and the surrounding countryside was lush and green. We glimpsed many local people going about their daily lives, living and working on or near the river.
Our first stop was at a local village market, which was interesting to walk around. The people, here, however, were not ethnically Chin. We then boarded the boat again for the hour and half trip further up river to the first of the Chin villages.
Chin state lies above Rakhine on the border with Bangladesh and is Myanmar’s remotest and least developed state. It is known for its older ladies who have traditional facial tattoos. From Rakhine, Ollie and I travelled on up to Chin state – More on our time there in Isolated Chin State: A Different World. The Chin villages that we visited on our tour from Mrauk U each had one or two of these older ladies with the famous facial tattoos.
Our tour guide was fantastic; it was obvious that he had a very good relationship with the villages that he took us to. The first tattoo faced lady that we met was very kind and didn’t mind us taking photos of her. She sat with a younger lady who was weaving a traditional scarf. Though our guide and the Chin people do not speak the same language, they were able to communicate effectively. The older lady showed us a book that had been made all about Chin culture and the facial tattoo tradition; she appeared in some of the photos.
We met another tattoo faced lady at the second village and then three more at the third. The first two villages were small and local; they allowed groups like ours to visit but were not set up for the purpose of tourism. All around us people simply went about their daily lives. The third village, however, was more geared towards tourists and had many stalls set up selling traditional scarves and handicrafts.
The tour was a fantastic way to learn about Chin culture and gain a deeper understanding of the facial tattoo tradition. Our guide served as bridge into the lives of the villagers, allowing us to get up close to the ladies with tattooed faces without being obtrusive. Through him, we were also able to ask the ladies questions, find out information and freely take photos; this simply would not have been possible alone.
We booked our tour through our guesthouse in Mrauk U (Hotel Prince). Our guide was fantastic and we would highly recommend him. Whilst we were in Mrauk U we heard warnings from other travellers about some not so nice guides who loiter at some of the temples, trying to get tourists to book a Chin village tour with them. Our advice would be to always book a tour through your hotel or a reputable travel agency – booking with a guide on the street is never a good idea.
Mrauk U is a small local village that can be covered entirely on foot; its countryside setting is very peaceful. From the tops of the hilltop temples you can see how green and undeveloped the surrounding area is. Its remote location is also keeping the crowds of mass tourism at bay – at least for now.
We met a few travellers during our stay in Mrauk U but as yet the village is not Bagan or Inle Lake – it still feels very traditional and we very much hope it stays that way. There are only a few local restaurants – Moe Cherry was excellent – and aside from a few souvenir stalls at the foot of Shittaung Paya, there is no other real evidence of tourism.
For more off-the-beaten-track fun in Myanmar check out Escaping the Crowds in Myanmar: Northern Chin State or How to See the Best of Taungoo and Nay Pyi Taw.