The Burmese have a different grading system when it comes to roads than we do. What they call a great road, we would label average. What they call good we would say is in desperate need of repair. What they call okay, we would call abandoned.
When Nyi Nyi spreads out a copy of a map of Mrauk U that looks to be about fifth generation from the original and says I need to go see this one temple and then warns me:
“this road, this road is a very bad road.”
What he should have said is you might as well walk because even on a mountain bike, it is essentially impassable which is how I came to be walking by my bike when I turned the corner and say Ko Thaung temple in the distance.
Ko Thaung, 90,000, named because of the 90,000 Buddha images contained in it was nothing more than a covered hill until the late 1990s when someone decided that there might something under all that brush – and indeed there was.
Mrauk U is not as accessible as the other sites like it – to get here, I flew from Yangon to Sittway with a stopover in Thandwe at the beach. I spent a night in Sittwe, and then caught the 7:00 am ferry, $10 for foreigners, up the river to Mrauk U.
The six hour twisting and turning boat ride with the foreigners, all five of use, carefully sequestered on the top deck – is one of the highlights of Mrauk U.The trip starts in the harbor in Sittway, shifts into the bay then an ever-smaller river until you realize that the river, and the ride, is over and you have made it.
When the ferry hits the small jetty in the southwest part of town, it won’t be long till you see you first ruin. The old palace sits square in the middle of the town, the grounds used to graze cows and goats and for the occasional pop up restaurant. The northern group of temples hugs the edge of town – but the farther you go down paths by yourself, the more lost you become, the maps are approximate guesses at best – the more charming Mrauk U becomes.
At Shwe Taung, I climbed for the sunrise and despite this being “a most popular spot for tourists sunrise” I was the only person there as the sun rose over the town. From this, one of the highest points of town, you can see that almost every hill top is, or was, covered in a stupa. Some are still golden and shining. Some are in decent shape and hundreds more are in various stages of decay losing the fight to time and the jungle. For every one that you see on the map, there are a dozen, or two, with no trails to and no notes for in the guidebooks.
One such temple was, I think, Hrnyaw-daw-u which is three temples just above the road by the Vesali Resort where I stayed. I climbed up one afternoon only to find four young boys using the temple as a launching point for flying kites. As they tried to get their handmade kites flying in very little wind, I wandered among the fallen temples.
The stars of Mrauk U are well known and as bumpy as each road is, or as crowded as Shit Taung gets, (I ran into Kofi Annan there, but that’s a whole other story) you need to hit all the big ones as they are all amazing.
Ko Thaung in the East, Shit Taung and Andaw in the north, Zina-man-maung and Bandoola Monastery in the south are all world class and worthy of more than a quick visit. Shwe Taung is indeed a great place to climb and watch the sunrise. The 500 kyat you’ll be charged to sit up at Discovery Center is also money well spent.
But rushing to the most famous temples and rushing back down river is a mistake. Pizi Phara which overlooks Ko Thaung is a hidden and well-hidden gem. Enjoying a snack outside of Ratana-Man-Aung or checking out the ogre guardians at Sakya-Man-Aung are all special treats. And the farther out you go, the more you will be completely alone on the temple grounds with the occasional cow for company.
Mahamuni is 21 miles north of Mrauk U – 21 miles on a not so great road but you are guaranteed to be the only tourists there and the small museum, Banyan trees and central temple are well worth the half day bumping back and forth.
You fly in Sittway and you can either organize a private boat up when you get there or spend the night and take the 7:00 am government ferry. I stayed at Noble House which was more than fine and KISS guest house also gets great reviews. River Valley restaurant is fine and close to the only game in town.
In Mrauk U, I stayed at Vesali Resort, which was nice with lovely staff but not especially great value. Shwe Tazin and Prince get good reviews and Prince is about the only place in town with dormitory accommodation ($15 per person.)
Food in Mrauk U is annoyingly expensive and not very good. Happy Garden and especially Moe Cherry are really poor actually and for Myanmar, very expensive. The restaurant on the left side of the road on the way from Moe Cherry towards the Northern Group of temples is a far better deal. It has a large blue awning.
I’d also recommend if Vesali fits your budget to take advantage of their restaurant which I wouldn’t normally do but after a day on my mountain bike and yes, you want to rent a bike, I came home and showered and just had barely cooled down and the thought of heading back on my bike was not appealing. I had wonderful meals at about the same price as Moe Cherry but at least the food was good.
You can take the morning ferry back down the river and easily make it to the airport in time for the 3:00 flight to Yangon. There are some buses that head towards Bagan and Mandalay but my Burmese friends highly recommend against them – I listened to them and probably you should to.
Oh and the monkey and the egg. One of the stories of why Mrauk U is where it is centers around explorers coming here almost a thousand years ago and according to a prophet looking for a monkey and an egg. Here they spotted a monkey on one of the hills, relaxing and holding a peacock egg – so based on this good omen, the city was built.
“Floating: What I Found When I Went Looking For My Father” is the story of my father’s life and death in Burma and will be released on March 17,2017 in Burma. The hardcover limited edition benefits three amazing groups working in Burma, Girl Determined, MyMe Project and Hla Day.