Mrauk-U, pronounced Meow O, is a small town in the west of Myanmar, not far from Bangladesh. The town makes it on some itineraries because of the incredible temples and the possibility to visit some Chin villages. It is a pretty sleepy town, where most of the roads are still dirt roads. The ones that are paved are not that good anyway. The shops open around 7.30AM, when people spread out there wares on tables in front of their shops. There are a few monasteries and at night, or early in the morning, you’ll hear their morning rituals. To me it was the true Myanmar small town feeling.
Before I went there, and even on the bus there, I only had one question: how safe is it? The Rakhine state is currently in the news a lot because of fighting that is going on along the border with Bangladesh. This is the area where the Rohingya’s live, a Muslim minority group. Currently the Myanmar army is fighting with the Rohingya and the Myanmar government is being accused of violating human rights and genocide. The Rohingya have no rights and are not officially Burmese citizens. Thousands of people are trying to find refuge in Bangladesh, where they are also not welcome, and many people die along the way or are to weak to make it. Journalists are not allowed to enter the area and so nobody really knows what is going on.
I was in the Rakhine state and I guess I wasn’t that far away from all this. I didn’t notice anything in the town of Mrauk-U though. Everything seemed calm and normal. It was strange to know that so many awful things were happening so close to where I was. So yes, it was safe. If the fighting would come close, I guess the Myanmar government would not let you into the area anyway. It is just sad to know what is going on, to have so many questions you cannot get the answer to.
If you do make it out to Mrauk-U, you’ll notice there are not as many tourist facilities as in other places. There is accommodation around, but a big part is fancy hotels and resorts. These are the only places in town where you’ll find wifi. You’ll find some cheaper places like Lay Mro river guesthouse and Golden star guesthouse. I think I found the cheapest guest house in town, at 7USD for a private room with your own bathroom. It’s at the Kyaw Soe guest house, which isn’t online. You can rock up or call them in advance at +959265715799. A lot of locals stay here. As a foreigner you get breakfast included. The bed is extremely comfortable. There is no wifi though and showers are cold.
Once you’re settled you can explore the temples. Built 400 years later, they are completely different from the ones I saw in Bagan. The design looks more like a bunker than a place of worship. The outside seems little decorated and reminds one of a fortress, although it does have the shape of a pagoda. It isn’t until you look closely that you see all the Buddha’s. Some are golden, some are carved out of stone. The stone ones look incredibly old!
The best way to start is by going to the Northern temples. You can do that by foot or by bicycle. If you rent a bicycle you can get out to the outlying temples afterwards as well. Shitthaung, Htukkanthein and Andaw Thain all lay in the Northern area, along with a few more monuments. A bit further afield you can see Ratana Manaung, Sakya Manaung paya, Koe Thaung and Pizidaung. It’s really nice to ride around these on your bike. Just keep in mind that riding a bike is quite adventurous with the state of the roads here!
If you do have a bike you can also ride through other parts of town. In the center you can climb the steps of Hari Taung, which will give you a pretty view over the city and can also be a good spot for sunrise or sunset. If you want a higher point of view you can also climb to the Shwetaung pagoda. Another attraction is the Sandamuni monastery, which has a small museum with old coins and statues and houses a Buddha which presumably dates from around 308 BC.
If you want a different activity, you can join a group on a tour to the Chin villages. You get into a boat for a two hour ride along the river and then you visit four villages. The Chin people are originally from the Chin state, but fled to Rakhine state during the second world war. The older women still have tattoos on their faces and even though it is interesting to see them, it is worth the trip just to have a look in the villages themselves. It seems like all the tour guides visit the same villages. If you are travelling solo, Mr Fix It can arrange a shared trip. He is always actively looking for people, approaching tourists when they pass by the Lay Mro River guest house (or look for him there). I paid 25.000K and shared the boat with two others. I had already booked and was then approached by Htwe Kyi in a restaurant. He also seemed to have good English and he is originally from the Chin village and comes to Mrauk-U to work as a guide during the winter. You can email him at email@example.com.
It takes a long time to cross the mountains in the Rakhine state and reach Mrauk-U. There are several bus connections. From Bagan you can book a direct bus for 40.000K. A taxi will pick you up at your hostel and bring you to Padaung. This is where the bus stops around 8.30PM. My bus was a clean, standard bus. We got an energy drink right before bed time, a bottle of water and a pack of cookies. The bus will arrive in Mrauk-U between 11AM and noon. It stops for breakfast, but make sure you have dinner beforehand.
There are also direct buses from Mandalay and Yangon. I took the bus to Yangon, which goes once a day from Mrauk-U at 8AM, although I think it is usually late. The ride takes about 20 to 22 hours, so be prepared! A lot of the locals also get car sick because of the windy mountain roads, which creates a less pleasant bus experience.
All in all I think it is worth the long journey to see Mrauk-U. I felt like I saw a totally different side of Myanmar, where tourism is just a small part of the local business. Here, it was quite hard to find souvenirs. There is a local market where they are surprised to see your face and tourists and locals eat in the same restaurants. I know I had a great time in Mrauk-U.