The interchangeable terms Rakhine (sometimes spelled Rakhaing) and Arakan refer to the people, the state and dialect of Myanmar's westernmost state: home to the remarkable temples of ancient capital Mrauk U in the north, and the palm-tree-fringed beach resort of Ngapali in the south.
Isolated from the Burmese heartland by mountains, home to a long coastline and the seat of at least four former kingdoms, Rakhine feels very different from the rest of Myanmar and the Rakhine remain staunchly proud of their unique identity. This has led to much strife over the centuries between both the Rakhine and the Bamar and the minority Muslim residents of the state (the Rohingya). Serious sectarian violence between the Rakhine and the Rohingya has erupted in the past, such as in 2012, but the outbreak of violence in 2016 and 2017 drew widespread condemnation from the international community as an estimated 500,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Rakhine State.
Shittaung means ‘Shrine of the 80,000 Images’, a reference to the number of holy images inside. King Minbin, the most powerful of Rakhine’s kings, built Shittaung in 1535. This is Mrauk U's most complex temple, a frenzy of stupas of various sizes: 26 surround a central stupa. Thick walls, with windows and nooks, encircle the two-tiered structure, which has been highly reconstructed over the centuries – in some places rather clumsily.
One of Mrauk U’s star attractions, Kothaung Paya is also the area's largest temple. It was built in 1553 by King Minbin’s son, King Mintaikkha, to outdo his dad’s Shittaung by 10,000 images (Kothaung means ‘Shrine of 90,000 Images’). Kothaung Paya is located a mile or so east of the palace; follow the road directly north of the market, veering left on the much smaller road before the bridge.
The highlight of this squat, little-visited temple is its passageway with bas-relief illustrations of the tribumi (Buddhist visions of heaven, earth and hell), including acrobats, worshippers and animals. At the end there's a 6ft-high central buddha and four buddhas in niches; the throne of the former includes some erotic carvings. Mahabodhi Shwegu is largely hidden behind shrubbery on a hilltop northeast of Ratanabon Paya. To get here, proceed up the barely discernible uphill path that starts behind the covered water well.
Built by King Minphalaung in 1571, Dukkanthein Paya smacks of a bunker (with stupas). Wide stone steps lead up the southern and eastern side of the building considered to be an ordination hall; take the east-side steps to reach the entrance. The interior features spiralling cloisters lined with images of buddhas and ordinary people (landlords, governors, officials and wives) sporting all of Mrauk U’s 64 traditional hairstyles. The passageway nearly encircles the centre three times before reaching the sun-drenched buddha image.
Twenty miles north of Wethali, just beyond the former ancient capital of Dhanyawady, is Mahamuni Paya, the alleged first home of the buddha image now housed in the temple of the same name in Mandalay. The legend goes that the image was cast when Buddha visited the area in 554 BC. Even now, some Rakhine recount with fiery passion how the Burmese king Bodawpaya sent soldiers to dismantle and remove the Mahamuni buddha in 1784.
Strand Rd leads about 1.5 miles south to a location called View Point, a paved urban park with a small lighthouse built over the point where the Kaladan River empties into the Bay of Bengal, popular with locals for sunset views. Thoun bein (motorised trishaws) will take you there and back for K5000; taxis for K10,000.
The highlight at this hilltop monastery, and the temple's namesake, is the Sanda Muhni, a buddha statue said to have been cast from the precious metal left over from making the Mahamuni buddha. Legend has it that this 4ft-high image was encased in concrete in the 1850s to protect it from pillaging British troops, and then forgotten about for over a century. In April 1988 one of the glazed eyes dropped out, revealing the metal statue beneath.
About 7 miles north of Mrauk U are the barely discernible remains of the kingdom of Wethali. It was founded in AD 327 by King Mahataing Chandra, according to the Rakhine chronicles; archaeologists believe that the kingdom lasted until the 8th century. Today, in addition to the walls of the 1650ft-by-990ft central-palace site, the main attraction for visitors is the so-called Great Image of Hsu Taung Pre, a 16.5ft-high Rakhine-style sitting buddha said to date from AD 327.
Andaw Thein takes the form of an eight-sided monument with a linear layout: rectangular prayer hall to the east, multispired sanctuary to the west. Sixteen zedi (stupas) are aligned in a square-cornered U-shape around the southern, northern and western platforms. Two concentric passageways are lined with buddha niches; in the centre of the shrine, an eight-sided pillar supports the roof.