Myanmar (Burma) is becoming the new hotspot destination of Southeast Asia. Now that the US has re-established diplomatic relations with the newly civilian government and the National League for Democracy has dropped its long-standing travel boycott, tourism has tripled, with visitors zeroing in on attractions like Yangon’s 2000-year-old gold-covered Shwedagon Paya, the floating markets of Inle Lake, and Bagan’s 4000 ancient temples.
Some visitors dub Bagan as the 'next Angkor Wat' and it is a wonderful site, particularly when you explore outer temples with a flashlight and a sense of imagination. But after updating Lonely Planet's guidebook to Myanmar twice, I'd have to admit it's not even my favorite ruin in the country. I prefer Mrauk U, an elusive kingdom-turned-village in the hills of Rakhaing State near the Bangladesh border. Practically severed from road access with the country, Mrauk U is the timeless home to 700 ancient temples that serve as a backdrop to a still-active village life of goat herders, cauliflower farmers and passing monks. (I wrote this piece about my visit for BBC.com/travel.)
Burma goes slow, Mrauk U slower. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Rising beside canals and in between rolling hills, Mrauk U’s 700 temples date from the city’s heyday from 1430 to 1784, when emperors sent navies to conquer nearby ports and hired Japanese samurai for bodyguards. You can tour the site by a rented bike, or on a jeep or horse cart tour (from US$10 or US$15 a day).
The usual starting point is in the ‘north group,’ around the 16th-century Shittaung Paya – where you pay a US$5 zone fee to visit all of Mrauk U. Across the road is the more interesting Dukkanthein Paya, a bunker-style site with a spiraling passageway inside lined with Buddhas and fun models of Mrauk U’s '64 traditional hairstyles'. (It’s shown behind the well in the video, above.)
Make sure to reach the earthquake-damaged Kothaung Paya, named for its supposed 90,000 images – many seen in an encircling walkway. Just south, across the dirt path, is what appears to be a hill, but is the overgrown site of Peisi Daung Paya, with a wonderful panorama of village life.
Most of Chin State, just north of Rakhaing, can only be visited by special permit, but it’s possible to visit a few Chin ethnic villages from Mrauk U on a day trip. It’s great fun just for the journey, which involves a five-mile ride to the clear Lemro River, and a three-hour chugging boat ride past peanut farms to villages such as Pan Mraun.
The Chin are famous for the tattooed faces of the women, though only older women have them anymore. There’s no electricity or running water out there. Before going, it's worth asking at the guesthouse for suggestions on possible donations (eg anti-malarial medicines, available in Mrauk U, are in very short supply in the Chin villages). A full day trip, with guide and boat, should cost about US$100.
Where to stay
Mrauk U only has running electricity from 7am to 3pm and 6pm to 11:30pm, though some guesthouses use generators at night. Our favorite hotel is the Shwe Thazin (www.shwethazin.com; affiliated with the Sittwe hotel, below), with air-conditioned rooms from US$50.
A simpler option I’ve enjoyed – along with the little toads that sometimes hop around the lobby – is the friendly Golden Star Guest House (tel 95-43-24200, ext 50175). Rooms start at US$5. Staff will bring hot water in buckets if you like.
Half the fun of visiting Mrauk U is getting there. From Yangon, flights on Air Bagan and Air Mandalay go to the historic port city of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal. As soon as you land, you’ll get many offers for boat services to Mrauk U. Private boats fit up to six people and are about US$120 round trip, including a few days' time at Mrauk U. The government’s ferry (tel 95-43-23382) is bigger, slower, goes just twice weekly, but more comfortable and costs only US$4 one way. Plus you might get offered fried crickets at one of the local stops.
It's not advised to take a boat after dark (I once saw washed-up luggage of a tourist boat that capsized in a sudden storm - its riders just offshore, but they couldn't see their way in the pitch dark and drowned; the ferry is more stable in winds). If you stay in Sittwe, the best option is the Shwe Thazin Hotel (tel 95-43-23579; www.shwethazihotel.com; 250 Main St). And try to fit in the amazing morning fish market before heading out.
A bonus beach stop
Because most flights between Yangon and Sittwe stop in Thandwe, near the gold-sand beaches of Ngapali, many visitors consider doubling up the Rakhaing experience by spending a few days in Mrauk U, and adding a couple more at Ngapali afterwards. It's a laid-back, stunning spot, with horse carts sometimes using the beach, and not much else. (I wrote about it a few years ago for the San Francisco Chronicle.) The specialty here – other than reasonable half-day snorkel tours – is the squid. You'll see the lights of squid boats come on as the sun sets on the horizon, and find superb squid with garlic sauce at open-air restaurants along the town's lone road. Seriously, it's the best food in the country.
A favorite mid-range spot is the Royal Beach Motel (www.royalbeachngapali.com), with rooms from US$40.
You can get a good sense of Mrauk U in two days, though three is better if you plan a day trip to see the Chin villages. A good private travel agent in Yangon can help with details including ferry times, flight reservations, even a guide if you like. The best choice is Good News Travel (www.myanmargoodnewstravel.com).
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