Meeting the Rakhines

On the way to Mrauk U (29 – 30 December 2014)

The night had not even ended when we started our drive to Yangon Airport from Pyay to catch my flight to Sittwe. Although it was only 6 am in the morning, quite a number of people were already up and running in town.

One of the concerns of the organisers of my tour were the roads. The initial plan had been for me to drive to Thandwe Airport instead to catch a flight to Sittwe. Later they decided that the road to Thandwe was less reliable than that to Yangon and so they changed the plan for me. Nevertheless, although my flight was scheduled to depart at 1 pm, we started our drive seven hours before that. However we managed to enter Yangon before 11 am. The drive was shorter than expected. N had to take me to an eatery for some tea.

N had tried to make conversation with me from time to time throughout the drive. But it was after tea and less than an hour away from the airport when we finally had a real conversation. N had played some of his music during the drive although he was concerned that I would be bored by the music since it was all in Burmese. However I was curious about what the locals listened to and so I encouraged him to play them anyway. The pop music of Myanmar is really not too different from that found in other Asian countries. Their music is really quite influenced by western pop music. I also later learnt that N was quite a musician himself. He jammed with a band for fun sometimes and he also sang.

I played some of the Mandarin pop songs that I had kept on my iPhone for him. He seemed to like them although he could just have been polite. One particular song I played for him though got him visibly excited. The melody of that song was used by a top Myanmar singer for one of his own songs. N loved the song and he sang the Burmese version for me.

I got onto another Air KBZ flight to Sittwe. It made a short stop at Thandwe before carrying on to Sittwe. A man who identified himself as of Chinese origin sat next to me on the plane. He tried to speak Chinese to me but unfortunately I could not understand him at all. I could not even be sure if it was Mandarin that he had spoken.

Approaching Thandwe

Approaching Thandwe

Between Thandwe and Sittwe

Between Thandwe and Sittwe

Sittwe Airport was a little building not far from town. I met my guide A in the tiny arrival hall which practically took up half of the entire terminal building. The point was to walk into the hall from the plane, cross the hall, register with customs, then leave the building through the door at the other end. A was able to meet me practically at the door leading to the runway.

Just off the plane

Just off the plane

The luggage took a while to get in and A got a porter to find it for me. I could have waited of course but A did not seem to want me to wait. And then of course the porter carried my luggage to the waiting car just a short distance away outside the terminal building even though I could have pulled it there myself. It had wheels that worked perfectly after all. A was quick to remind me to tip the porter. Actually it sounded more like an instruction than a reminder. I thought that we were off to a good start.

Sittwe is the capital of Rakhine State. The state as we know had become almost famous in recent years for all the wrong reasons. I got quite a kick being in a place that is the setting for so much controversy that remains unresolved even today.

It is apparently not possible to reach Mrauk U by any other way except from Sittwe. On a map it looks as if I had gone around in circles. However, the infrastructure in Myanmar is still not fully developed, and that was the best that they could do for me. I am not complaining however as it gave me a chance to see more of the country.

I checked in at the hotel which was said to be the best in Sittwe on Tripadvisor. I really shudder to think what it might have been like in the other hotels in town. The room I had was pretty bad. I suppose the staff there had tried their best to make their guests comfortable but the infrastructure left much to be desired. The hotel might have been a good one say in the 1950s. But we were more than a decade into the 21st century.

I was surprised when A said that he would be taking me around Sittwe since the itinerary did not mention that I was going anywhere in particular. But I accepted the plan in good grace since I really did want to see the town anyway. I was hoping to see some Rohingyas, and I did see a mosque or two as we drove around town that looked abandoned. But A took me to visit three Buddhist religious places instead.

The first one, the Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi, did not look at all like the typical Burmese monastery. It was in fact a colonial mansion. However, it was a monastery cum orphanage cum museum of sorts. A senior monk was holding court within the main hall while some kids were doing their homework on the floors around the mansion. There was something quite Sister Kate about the whole set up except that the person in charge was a Buddhist monk.

Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi

Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi

The museum looked more like a personal collection of antiques. There were plenty of old Buddhist images, old banknotes and coins and other historical artefacts. I wonder if the historical artefacts were authentic and if so whether they were supposed to be at this particular museum.

Metal art at the Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi

Metal art at the Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi

Metal art at the Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi

Metal art at the Mahakuthala Kyaung Taw Gyi

I noticed a couple of Singaporean notes in the pile of foreign currencies on display. They were however not that old.

A tried to talk to me about some of the exhibits at the museum. I believe he had tried his best but I simply could not understand him most of the time. He kept mentioning that they were from some “perrier” and I had to remind myself that he could not possibly be talking about the mineral water. It was only the next day that I finally realised out of the blue that he meant “period”. I was quite disappointed that I was not able to understand him sufficiently since I had big plans to learn more about the issues in Rakhine State from him. I did not think that it would be wise to attempt a discussion on a sensitive matter with someone I had problems communicating with.

Before we left the museum, A reminded me that there was a box for donations in the hall. I thought about all the donation drives that I had come across and decided that the monastery was most likely wealthier than I was.

We drove through town and reached the Phaya Gyi Pagoda. There was nothing very prominent about it to me although I am sure it is on the tourist trail. A took the chance to pay obeisance at the huge Buddha image there. It was obvious to me that he was a devout Buddhist.

Wall art in Phaya Gyi Pagoda

Wall art in Phaya Gyi Pagoda

Pillars of Phaya Gyi Pagoda

Pillars of Phaya Gyi Pagoda

Facing the temple across the road was an open space. There was apparently a festival taking place that night and stalls selling food and toys were already set up and in business. It had become just like a fairground and there were even rides.

Open space for business

Just like being at a funfair

A took me to a noodles stall at the fairground and invited me to try some. It was a traditional Rakhine dish. Since my stomach had only recently come out of a somewhat delicate condition, I tried to decline the invitation. A looked unhappy and sounded unhappy. I changed my mind. I really did not want to offend my guide so early on in my tour.

It was just a small bowl of noodles though. A had asked me if I wanted soup with it and have it as a “slag”. I wanted to ask him what he meant by “slag” but thought better of it. I assumed he meant to have it without soup. I chose “slag”. In any case I was also given a bowl of soup on the side.

Rakhine noodle snack

Rakhine noodle snack

The ingredients looked fine mostly. There were some noodles and some sauces that I could not name. And then the lady started mixing everything together with her bare hands. I really did wonder where her hands might have been before she made my noodles but decided to think happy thoughts. The noodles were a little sour and anything unfamiliar and sour was suspicious to me. But again I thought happy thoughts and imagined that it was merely the sauces that made the dish sour.

As for the soup it tasted a little too fishy for my liking though it could otherwise make a wholesome and appetising meal.

A had a bowl of noodles too but with soup. He seemed to enjoy his noodles tremendously. After he had finished eating, he told me how much to pay the stall. I did not see him pay anything. I guess I was responsible for his mid afternoon snack that day.

The third temple I visited was the Lawkananda Pagoda. This huge and somewhat gaudy temple was built by the government only in 2012. It is built in both the architectural traditions of the Burmese and Rakhines. The golden stupa looks somewhat like the Shwedagon and it is therefore Burmese. The stone portal at each of the four entrances is Rakhine. There were some faux ancient wall relief art on the walls of the corridors leading to the main hall. After one passes through one of these corridors, one reaches the cavernous golden main hall.

Lawkananda Pagoda

Lawkananda Pagoda

Wall relief art in Lawkananda Pagoda

Wall relief art in Lawkananda Pagoda

A seemed to be quite proud of this pagoda. However upon hearing that it was built by the military junta I felt somewhat unimpressed. Instead, for some reason, the effort put into building this pagoda felt like someone had tried too hard to create a monument.

The obligatory sunset was next and I was driven to the Viewpoint for that. This is a waterfront park that looks out into where the Kaladan River flows into the Bay of Bengal. I was driven through a military area to get there though I suspect the driver might have made a wrong turn somewhere. As we drove brazenly through one of the many gates in the area, a guard even saluted our car. A and the driver were terribly amused.

Sunset from the Viewpoint

Sunset from the Viewpoint

The clouds had come in by the time I arrived at the Viewpoint and the sun was somewhat obscured behind them. It was nonetheless a most relaxing activity sitting around and enjoying the chilly breeze and A and the driver almost did not want to leave.

I was getting a little concerned about how I was going to survive the next three full days with A.

The next morning came soon enough. The breakfast room was in the top floor of the building. From that height I noticed a flock of humongous birds above the trees outside the hotel. When I looked closer though I noticed that they were in fact bats.

Bats of Sittwe

Bats of Sittwe

We were going to drive northwards to Mrauk U and A had chosen to start the journey at the local market. A had told me the day before that we were going to take things easy and I agreed with him. I was on holiday after all.

I discovered that morning that A and the driver wanted to do some shopping at the market. I was amazed at how productive these two men were, combining their personal marketing with work like that and thus killing two birds with one stone. Sometimes it felt like I was the tour guide and those two were my clients. “Now on your left you see our local fishmongers trying their best to sell off as quickly as possible all their goods which are as we speak starting to smell quite infernally.”

Approaching that mayhem that is the market

Approaching that mayhem that is the market

Bananas galore

Bananas galore

Finding a way through the vegetables

Finding a way through the vegetables

Unwitting posing

Unwitting posing

Finding a way through the people

Finding a way through the people

I had already been to two food markets so far in Myanmar, but this one, especially its fish and meat section, gave me quite a culture shock. The previous two food markets were actually sparkling clean and dry in comparison. The experience was honestly quite exhilarating for me although I had to watch my feet much of the time in case I stepped on something I would not want to step on.

At the huge fish section

At the huge fish section

Chopping up the fish for its buyer

Chopping up the fish for its buyer

Stalls and people spilling out of the building

Stalls and people spilling out of the building

They seem to love their chicken with their feet still on them

The chicken feet look very yellow

We walked out of the market for a breather and ended up at the pier. A portion of the goods and people entered the market from this pier. There were plenty of boats ready to take people home which might be in one of the many villages along the Kaladan.

Water taxis

Water taxis

Water taxis

Water taxis

Catch the bananas!

Catch the bananas!

After they were done with the grocery shopping, and having been at the pier far longer than was necessary for me to take in the scene, A took me to another section of the market. He needed a bag. But of course. I do remember my mother in her younger days taking a look at a bag or two after having finished her marketing.

At the bags and longyi section of the market

At the bags and longyi section of the market

As we were driving away from the market I thought that at long last we were starting our journey to Mrauk U. Before we could leave town however, the driver needed to pay a visit to the local car registration office to change the car’s number plate. I tried to make good use of the time waiting by observing life along the road.

Waiting by the road for the car's number plate to be changed

While waiting by the road for the car’s number plate to be changed

Transporting metal rods

Transporting metal rods

Transporting thanaka

Transporting thanaka

Transporting people

Transporting people

Collecting alms

Collecting alms

I had a lot of time to also observe the Rakhine mascot called a byar la. This is a mythical creature that can be found just about everywhere in Rakhine State but most often in front of Buddhist religious places. The byar la is supposed to be a composite of nine different animals.

The Rakhine mascot

Byar la

The creature’s tail is supposed to be a peacock’s although it looks more like a puff of gas. It is unfortunate that it had to be the tail looking like a puff of gas.

After the number plate had finally been changed, we carried on our journey. We drove through wide green fields backed by hills and my spirit started picking up again. It was beautiful country that we were going through.

But just as I was enjoying the drive we soon had to stop at what A called a weaving village to see some longyi weavers. There was a hut along the highway just outside the village that sold palm juice and some barbeque chicken. A could not resist the chicken and bought some. I declined his offer to get some myself.

I would have enjoyed exploring the weaving village but I think the point of taking me there was for me to buy some longyis. I suspect A had imagined that all foreigners were like the white people. But I am Asian, and Southeast Asian at that. Wrapping a piece of cloth around my loins is not quite considered a cultural experience for me.

Walking through the weaving village

Walking through the weaving village

Village house

Village house

Village house

Village house

Village kids

Village kids

Village ducks

Village ducks

Throughout my trip I had seen enough white people walking about in longyis. I wonder if they thought that it was comfortable wearing it or did they think that by wearing one they were getting the whole experiencing the local culture thing. The cynical me does not believe that by wearing the local costume one is suddenly able to understand the local culture properly. In actual fact wearing the longyi is to me a mere quaint experience much like going on an elephant ride. One gets good photo opportunities and some moments of fun but nothing else beyond that.

A asked if I would like to buy a longyi or two. I told him that we had plenty of sarongs in Singapore but I had never worn one in my entire life. So no thanks. What about my family? Not them too thanks.

Weaving a longyi

Weaving a longyi

The driver bought one though. He was definitely on a roll that day in terms of shopping.

Once we got out of the village, A and the driver headed straight to the little hut outside the weaving village again to try their palm juice. I had tried some on the way to Mount Popa already and was not that keen on trying some more. A tried to persuade me to try the juice but I stood my ground. I was simply not prepared to drink the juice from the same bottle as everyone else. I had not learnt to accept the spit of strangers yet.

Palm wine was sold at the village as well. It seems to be the cause of quite a commotion that morning. One of the villagers apparently got drunk from some of the wine and another villager had to drag him back to the village. The drunkard had probably caused some trouble at the fields.

A and the driver were obviously having a lot of fun. After a lively conversation with the other people at the hut, while I amused myself by standing alone at the side of the highway, A bought some palm juice and we finally left the weaving village. But after just five minutes on the highway, and it did not even feel like we had left the weaving village behind, the driver made a stop near his house and he went inside for about ten minutes.

The highway we had to travel on was mostly fine until about an hour or two outside Sittwe. For some reason the authorities had thought that it would be a good idea to rebuild entire stretches of highway at a time without creating usable temporary roads. As a result, even in this part of the world, we encountered quite a few traffic jams, and even if there were no other cars in sight we had to drive quite slowly on the gutted roads. My butt got a good workout too from all that bumpy ride.

At the little village of Ponnagyun we stopped at the Guwa Pagoda for a visit. I have to say that this was the most interesting visit I made in the entire long drawn drive to Mrauk U. The most prominent feature of this pagoda was a gallery carved into rock. There were Buddha statues in the gallery and the exterior of the gallery was painted with interesting patterns on a white base.

On the grounds of Guwa Pagoda

On the grounds of Guwa Pagoda

On the grounds of Guwa Pagoda

On the grounds of Guwa Pagoda

The painted gallery

The painted gallery

Inside the painted gallery

Inside the painted gallery

As we were leaving the pagoda, I thought that we would be heading back to the car. But A had other plans for me. He asked me to carry on walking to the river. It became obvious to me as I approached the river that the locals in these parts did not get many visitors. Everyone stared at me and whispered between themselves. I was sure that they were talking about me and they seemed quite amused with me for some reason. Now that was really awkward.

A group of people were loading a truck with stones. They had collected the stones from the river and these were to be transported somewhere else to be used in some building project. It looked like very hard work.

Loading up the stones

Loading up the stones

The boat that had carried the stones to shore was still at the pier. A walked right onto it and with me behind me. He showed me the stones on the boat and then walked straight into the resting area inside. Some young people were in there watching television. A sat down and joined them.

Walking onto the boat

Getting on board

Watching TV on the boat

Watching TV on the boat

It was perfectly clear by now what A had meant when he told me the day before that we would be taking things easy. I did agree with him then but I had not known that he would be this easy.

It also felt rather weird for me to barge into someone’s private quarters like that although I assume that no one was offended. A young man was actually sleeping when we entered. He woke up when we were in there and smiled at me sheepishly. He could not go back to sleep while we were there.

A sat and watched the show for at least a good fifteen minutes and it felt more like fifteen hours for me. They were watching some western movie dubbed in Burmese and the show made no sense to me. I was quite bored on the boat. On the other hand I suppose I could say that I was experiencing the country in a way that most tourists would not get to.

We left Ponnagyun and stopped for lunch at a village. There was a little eatery and we ate there. I was unsure about the food and decided to play it safe by ordering only vegetables. A seemed surprised and maybe even disappointed that I did not want any meat. Nevertheless he ordered two vegetable dishes for me and I ate those with plain rice. I must say that the vegetables served to me were really good.

Having lunch

Having lunch

A and the driver had some beer. I was a little concerned about the driver drinking but he did not seem to have drunk too much and in any case they did not finish the bottle.

After we had driven some distance after lunch, the car stopped in the middle of nowhere and I thought that A was going to show me something. I was wrong yet again. A was so full of surprises. Some friends of his were working in this field by the highway and he wanted to say hello.

I took a walk around the area. At one point I raised my camera to take some photographs of the workers and two men on the field indicated to me that I was not to do so. A then walked up to me and told me that the workers were prisoners. It then became clear to me that those two men who had told me not to take any pictures and were merely standing around and not working like the rest were the guards. They were not in uniform.

A explained to me that he had met those men in prison. A was in prison as a result of the racial riots in 2012. From what I could gather, and I still had difficulties understanding him, his village chief was apprehended by the police and he decided to join him. I did not get why he had made that decision and whether he himself was involved in any rioting. He was however in prison for seven months and his family had spent a tonne of money to get him out.

I really do not know what to make of his story. I would normally have an opinion on such things but this time I could not understand him enough to form one.

It had been cloudy since evening the day before. I had been so used to clear blue skies in Myanmar before then. As we drove along between the wide open country I could see rain in the distance. It did not bode too well for the weather the next day at least.

It might not always be possible to find proper toilet facilities during long drives. In any case dirty or primitive toilets frighten me and letting go in the wide open nature is a much better option for me. It was easy for me being a guy and I could go behind some tree along the highway. On this one occasion however, A and the driver decided to pee at the side of a bridge across the wide Kaladan River. No they did not offload themselves into the river. They merely squatted behind this stone barrier at the side of the motorway which I think created a footpath for crossing pedestrians and peed right onto that footpath. It was actually quite hilarious watching two grown men squatting by the side of the road like they did.

The bridge across the Kaladan River

The bridge across the Kaladan River

Kaladan River

Kaladan River

I did not have to go at this point and A thought that I was uncomfortable peeing like them.

Not far from the bridge where A and the driver peed was the original home of the Mahamuni Buddha. That statue in the Mahamuni Pagoda of Mandalay had originally belonged to the Rakhines. It was interesting being at the origin of that statue since I had seen and even touched it earlier in the tour.

Roof of Mahamuni Pagoda

Roof of Mahamuni Pagoda

A knelt before a small statue placed in a shrine that was decorated in the usual over the top way that the locals liked and paid obeisance to it. This statue, a smaller replica of the Mahamuni image, was more important than the much bigger one placed in the centre of the main hall.

Replica of Mahamuni Buddha

Replica of Mahamuni Buddha

On the grounds of Mahamuni Pagoda

On the grounds of Mahamuni Pagoda

It was already late in the day but there was another temple to visit before we reached Mrauk U. A smiled and said that we had taken so much time to get there that it might not be opened anymore. Well I was not the one who had gone around talking to everyone and watching TV with strangers.

The temple housing the Great Vesali Image sits in the middle of the archaeological site of the ancient city of Vesali. In the gloomy dusk I managed to see some remains of the ancient city wall at the junction where we had to turn in to reach the temple. Vesali was one of the ancient capitals of the Rakhine kingdom and was apparently a glorious city during its time about 1,500 years ago. There did not seem to be much left of the ancient city now although it was getting dark and so I might have missed the chance to see the site properly.

The temple in Vesali

The temple in Vesali

The kind caretaker at the temple switched on the light for me to see the Great Vesali Image more clearly. To be honest I was not too impressed by the statue carved out of a huge piece of sandstone and could not appreciate its greatness. I had probably seen too many statues of Buddha by now.

The Great Vesali Image

The Great Vesali Image

The king and queen responsible for the creation of the Great Vesali Image

The king and queen responsible for the creation of the Great Vesali Image

A tried to interest me in a mini byar la, or two. Some were on sale at a souvenir stall in the temple itself. I think one cost less than USD0.50 but I did not know what I could do with one. I wonder if A had a stake in the temple’s souvenir stand. Or did he merely think that I ought to spend more money.

From Vesali it was just a short drive to Mrauk U. But we reached Mrauk U when it had already turned pitch dark. After two long days of travelling I had finally made it there!

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