More temples, “same same, but different”….Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Our journey began with a relatively painless minibus trip to Magwe, the pickup point for the bus to Mrauk-U. We thought is was supposed to take five hours, turns out it only took 3 and we were to arrive at 5. An unusually nice change. We had called ahead to a “fashion shop” in Magwe to arrange our next leg. This involved two motobike drivers meeting us at the bus station in Magwe and taking us a few kilometers to the “fashion shop” where we would meet the night bus travelling from Mandalay to Mrauk-U (but not for 6 hours). So we had some time to kill. There was a great sunset off a bridge and then we found a shopping mall and a place to eat.  Almost every single person driving by waved or shouted “hello” to us with a giant smile.  It was incredibly welcoming.  More enthusiastically than we’d seen anywhere.  Definitely don’t get many tourists.

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We went back to the “fashion shop” and played cards with a fellow American while waiting for the bus. The bus was an hour late and an ominous sign, there was fresh vomit all down the side of the bus. As we boarded, we were told we had been moved to the front of the bus, which is usually better in our opinion. Turns out, the bus wasn’t full and everyone else had spread out to get more room and we were left with the only two seats not occupied by sleeping people. Oh and it was on top of the wheel well. So, no leg room and seats that barely reclined, and the lady in front of me insisted on leaving the window all the way open (probably for her nausea) despite the chilly night air. We had expected better, as a $30 bus in Vietnam would have been the epitome of luxury. But this particular bus route is a new thing, only recently open to foreigners and the “fashion shop” guy seems to have a monopoly on the bus. Riki didn’t sleep, I slept a bit but we were not too happy when we arrived in Mrauk-U around noon the next day.

We took a nap in our bare-bones hotel – shared squat toilet, cold shower and hard beds. But at $5 each, we could deal. We woke up in time to check out one of the popular sunset spots. We ran into a few other travellers and ended up all getting dinner together and comparing plans.

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Riki’s always making little friends

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Mrauk-U is located to the west of Bagan near the border of Bangladesh, not far from the coast, in an area full of ongoing religious strife. There’s a group of Muslims who have essentially been denied citizenship from both Bangladesh and Myanmar, but still reside in the area as they are in limbo. They have been living in Myanmar for ages, but have been persecuted and denied citizenship and put into refugee camps. Until more recently, aid organizations were not allowed in Myanmar, so they received no assistance. There are also some nearby Chin villages where the older women have full face tattoos. But that is not why we came here.

We came to Mrauk-U to see more ancient ruins, temples and such. As if Bagan didn’t have enough. Just kidding, but at this point, I had seen just about enough temples. These temples are different Riki kept saying, so off we went.  And they are different (same, same, but different as they like to say in Thailand).  Mrauk-U is a medieval town of the Arakan Empire, who once controlled half of Bangladesh and the western part of lower Myanmar.  The temples’ architecture is different, more inverted ice cream cones than ringed four-sided cones like in Bagan.

Unfortunately, on our first full day, we were awoken at 5 am by incessant chanting and music over a very nearby loudspeaker. We were getting up to see the sunrise anyway, but knew that this was probably an everyday occurrence. We went to the northern group of temples to watch the sun come up and explored a really amazing temple with supposedly 80,000 Buddhas. I didn’t count, but it didn’t seem like that many. It had a cool spiral interior cave and they lit up a bunch of candles while we were there.

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This monk walked into Riki’s picture and then asked for money, not very characteristic of a monk.
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Where the ticket keeper tracked me down after leaving the 80,000 Buddha temple. He literally ran to catch me – I was sitting still.

Luckily there were some goats to keep me occupied while Riki finished taking photographs. On our way back, we booked a bungalow farther from the main town, hoping it would be quieter in the morning. For $5 more we got our own bathroom, clean towels (with embroidered animals donated by an aid organization) and two very large, hairy spiders. Still better than loud chanting at 5 am. It would be enough to create some religious strife in me.

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Some sort of parade

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Our towels

That afternoon, we woke up the bike rental lady from a nap (have I mentioned everyone naps in the afternoon? Its no wonder if you wake up at 5 am to a loudspeaker everyday, and its too hot in the early afternoon to do anything anyway) and took bicycles back to the north to explore more temples and a tiny, ornate library before heading to some bigger temples to the east. We visited a temple built by the son of the King who commissioned the one with 80,000 Buddhas. He had to outdo his dad and this one is called the Temple of 90,000 Buddhas.

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The shoe issue returns. We were out in the hottest part of the day, the tiles surrounding these temples are unbearably hot. Burning, but you have to remove your shoes. And we did, but our visits were truncated as we couldn’t look up to admire the temples without dancing on our tiptoes to keep our feet cool.

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The black tiles here were scorching hot. The white ones were almost manageable.

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That night we visited a small restaurant, where we didn’t really order, just said “chicken” and were brought heaps of food on numerous plates. We felt pretty bad, as we couldn’t eat nearly all of it, and the curries here are all very oily and tough to stomach. All for $2.

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You can’t even see all the plates.

Our last day, we went to the tallest hill for the sunrise. It was a good one, like all the ones we’ve seen recently.

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After, we returned to our hotel for breakfast, which turned out to be as greasy as usual. Riki usually eats my fried egg, but this one was so saturated he didn’t touch it. The rumor why they use so much grease in Myanmar is that it provides a layer of protection from bacteria and bugs when the food is sitting out all day. And that has transitioned into every dish, whether it be eggs or fried rice. Everything we’ve eaten is sopping wet with grease. Except Shan noodles, which happen to be my favorite dish so far.

We bought our bus ticket to Yangon (only $18 for a 20 hour journey) for the next day and then headed to explore the neighborhood to the west of the main market. Here we found a maze of bamboo structures, and loads of curious people watching us from their porches. They must not get many visitors. It’s a tough journey to Mrauk-U, whether you come by bus like us, or by boat, like most people. No busloads of people here, like in Bagan.

We tried to go to the cultural museum, as our guidebook said it was open Sun-Tues. That must mean closed on Mondays though, as it was shuttered and definitely not open. Instead, we rode our bicycles down to the lake for a nice view, but our skin was frying and we didn’t last much longer before heading back to nap away the heat.

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Next stop: Mawlamyine, via Yangon and 30 hours on buses.

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