Mrauk U (31 December 2014)
My fears came true even before dawn when it started raining intermittently. At 8 am I had walked out of my room feeling overjoyed that the rain had finally stopped but just as I was enjoying my breakfast the rain started again.
By some stroke of luck however the rain stopped for the day just as A sauntered into the hotel grounds. We were going to take a walk that morning to see some archaeological monuments.
Mrauk U was the ancient capital of a Rakhine kingdom that stretched from the Ganges in modern day Bangladesh to the Ayeyarwady in lower Myanmar. It was a cosmopolitan city and traders from as far as Europe had traded there.
Nowadays however Mrauk U is a sleepy town and its peace broken only by tourists coming to gawk at its ancient monuments during the tourist season. It is still however somewhat off the usual tourist trail and therefore never as crowded as the Big Four.
We turned sharply off the main road and found ourselves in a village. As expected some of the villagers found me to be quite a novelty.
After a short stroll in, we came upon this piece of land completely covered up with wild vegetation. A pointed to an elongated mound full with small white flowers that looked like any ordinary mound and told me that a portion of the ancient city wall was under there.
We walked further into the village and up some stairs to reach our first pagoda. The Mong Khong Shwe Du Pagoda did look ancient but there was a modern shed next to it with some Buddha images. The shed was quite an eyesore to me but the people who had built it obviously thought differently.
The next pagoda I visited, Paya Ouk, was on a higher hill further down the road. I was beginning to sense how far away Bagan was. Mrauk U was a town of ancient religious monuments like Bagan, but the architecture of the Rakhine monuments was distinctly different from that of the Burmese.
As a matter of fact it was not only the architectures of the two cultures that were different. The Rakhines had their own kingdom for centuries before the Burmese invaded and annexed their territory in 1784. They had therefore developed a culture that was somewhat distinct. Although the Rakhines spoke Burmese as well their version was slightly different. The Rakhines retained the “ra” sound in this version whereas for the rest of Myanmar this had been replaced by a “ya” sound. Thus to the rest of Myanmar “Mrauk U” is “Myauk U” and the “Rakhines” are the “Yakhines”.
We left Phara Ouk and walked further into the village. We soon came across a house being built and A could not resist walking in for a look. By now I had come to appreciate full well that there were no strangers in Rakhine State. I think we spent about twenty minutes in there and for much of that time A interviewed the builders.
When he was finally done socialising, A took me up another hill nearby. The pagoda on the top, Pizi Phara, is in ruins but some of its Buddha statues were still quite intact.
The elevation at Pizi Phara afforded a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. The region was wetter than the rest of Myanmar, thanks to the clouds being blown in from the Bay of Bengal, and that made the landscape wonderfully green and lush.
I also got a fantastic view of Koethaung Temple and that was where I visited next.
Koethaung Temple is supposed to be a temple of 90,000 Buddha images. I would have thought that maybe it was more correctly the temple of 90,000 stupas. There was a main stupa and many smaller ones arranged in rows around the structure.
I soon came to appreciate however why there were supposedly 90,000 Buddha images in the temple.
There was yet another modern shed with a Buddha statue on the monument itself. Is there a need for yet another statue? Can they not worship at one of the existing statues and not build something on the monument like that?
Actually after having been to a number of historical monuments in the country, unless they were blatant additions, the sight of new add-ons to historical monuments had become barely noticeable to me. Nevertheless, I still think that the authorities need to pay some real attention to their own national treasures. I also find it a little disturbing that they seem less concerned about preserving their own heritage than foreigners do.
I think we had walked perhaps only two kilometres that morning, but even before we had reached Koethaung Temple A already looked tired. He had told me that he organised cycling and trekking tours through the Rakhine countryside and in fact he had completed a 1o-day cycling tour just a few days before. I had assumed, despite his body shape, that he was a hardy person with stamina like my Inle Lake guide. After Koethaung Temple however, A needed a rest. I was raring for more Mrauk U but I had to sit down with him at a tea place near the temple.
A seemed to be having fun talking to the locals already sitting at the tea place. The driver had already been waiting for us there by the time we arrived at the temple and he joined in the lively conversation. As I watched the other tourists leaving the area after their visit I wished I was going with them instead!
It became obvious to me that A was not planning on walking the entire day. My local agent had warned me that the roads in Mrauk U were not suitable for cars. This proved not to be the case for me after Koethaung Temple.
After A had rested enough, and I was already getting bored almost out of my wits, he finally stood up and we left the place by car.
We visited another pagoda. This one, the Sakya Manaung Pagoda, had a pair of ogres guarding it. They were brothers according to the legend. The locals seem to treat them as much more than mere temple decorations. The little guard posts sheltering them had squares of gold and silver pasted on them. A asked if I would like to get some gold or silver leaves to paste on them. I honestly have no idea why I would want to cover up something that was meant to be seen and so I declined.
Besides the pagoda, and a series of smaller ones surrounding it, there was a vault building in the compound lined with Buddha statues on three sides of its walls.
It was yet more tea after this visit. The delay was either caused by the driver having disappeared or because A was tired again. And then I realised that after finishing their tea, the customers would replace the cups back into this bowl of water. The tea cups were not removed for washing after each use. A had used some tea to clean the cup before pouring out some tea for me but being Singaporean I could not accept that that would be enough to clean the cup properly. I had to start thinking happy thoughts.
We went back to town and stopped by the ruins of the old palace in the middle of town. People were preparing the place for a celebration that night. I could not understand A’s explanation of what they were celebrating at that point.
Next was a visit to another monastery cum museum cum orphanage. It was smaller than the one in Sittwe. The senior monk in this one however looked even more revered with several people kneeling before him listening to him. He did not seem to have spoken much though.
A later knelt before him for a bit while speaking to him. Since I have never had to kneel before a priest before, and I have never lived life under a monarch, I cannot fathom why anyone was entitled to have others behaving in such a deferential manner to him.
It was lunch after the visit and this was at a simple airy restaurant. The cook was a young boy but he was a good cook. The dishes were the usual Burmese and pseudo-Chinese fare but they were quite delicious.
Two days ago in Sittwe A had told me that he only got work from tourists during the tourist season. Outside of that season he had to look for other ways to make a living. He was apparently involved in a friend’s craft business and he did some transport business himself too.
At lunch in Mrauk U, A told me a bit about his family. He apparently also ran a café cum hostel near the main jetty in town with his wife and mother in law. He had two daughters. The elder was fourteen and the younger was eleven. He had put both girls in private school and was paying through his nose to keep them there. That explained a little of his fixation on making as much money as possible and his complaint about the short tourist season each year.
I gladly accepted the chance to take a break of an hour and a half or so back at the hotel after lunch. I did wonder what A and the driver could have been up to in that time but decided that it was none of my business.
A and the driver came back and took me to Shitthaung Temple. I have to say that this was the prettiest temple in Mrauk U. The ceiling of the main shrine was covered with panels of paintings. Stepping into the older section of the temple however there were lovely wall carvings to be discovered. Much of the original colours of the carvings were still on them.
An even bigger surprise awaited me when I explored the exterior of Shitthaung Temple. There was an erotic carving between two small stupas. It appears that some ancient Asians were hardly conservative as compared to modern ones. I do wonder what had caused the change.
At the northwest corner of Shitthaung Temple lies a group of stupas called Andaw Thein Temple. It is very obvious that some of the stupas had been reconstructed with god knows what material. Nevertheless the temple’s interior was quite worth a visit although I do wonder how much of it had been touched up. The Buddha images in there looked a little too well-maintained.
Even further northwest from Shitthaung Temple and next to Andaw Thein Temple is Ratanapon Pagoda. This is a group of solid stupas.
The final monument I entered was the Htukkanthein Temple. It actually looked more like a fortress than a temple. Inside however was a different story. The long tunnel-like corridor wound to the centre of the building like in a conch shell. Along the sides of the long winding corridor were Buddha statues and wall figurines of mythical characters.
While on the fortress-like temple, A pointed me to a strange sight. There was a helipad near a small pagoda. That was really weird. The helipad was built by and for the military junta of course. There is a permanent “red carpet” leading up to the helipad that had been painted on.
The obligatory sunset was viewed from a hill next to Ratanapon. It was overcast unfortunately and the sun could not be seen anywhere. That did not stop A from having a long break up there. We were the first to be at the top of the hill and the last to leave. From that vantage point however I did notice the driver picking up some passengers. Maybe we were supposed to wait for the driver to return for me.
We went back to the palace ruins to see the celebration at night. It was then that I finally grasped completely what A had tried to tell me that morning when we first visited the palace ruins. They were commemorating the 230th anniversary of the fall of the last Rakhine kingdom. 230 years ago on 31 December 1784, Mrauk U fell to the Burmese thus ending centuries of Rakhine independence.
The only thing about the event that interested me however were all the oil lamps and candles that were placed everywhere on the ruins. It was practically a festival of lights and it was beautiful.
I had a wonderful day walking among the remains of the once glorious Rakhine capital.