Having only opened its doors to tourists in 2012, Myanmar is still relatively new on the South East Asian travel route. Places such as Mrauk U in the western Rakhine State are a long and uncomfortable bus journey from the country’s major city hubs, making them less appealing to visitors who often prefer the easy infrastructure of the golden triangle: Bagan – Inle Lake – Yangon.
It’s a tough 20+ hour local bus ride from any of these hotspots to Mrauk U, with checkpoints and regular bus break downs. However, the adventure is worth it.
Visiting Mrauk U – The Other Bagan?
Similar to the tourist hotspot of Bagan, Mrauk U was once a capital city in an imperial Myanmar from the early 15th to the late 18th century, leaving it full to the brim with old temples and Pagodas. These old structures are even more part of the scenery than they are in Bagan, with nature having been allowed to start reclaiming some of the older ones. You will find trees growing out of the temple floors and goats jumping from pagoda to pagoda, like a climbing frame. Locals have also made their homes around some of the temples, with kids playing atop some of the bigger ones and women hanging the laundry all around them.
Instead of just being tourist attractions, many of the temples here are still very much in use; I stumbled upon a recently built temple that I named the ‘disco temple’ due to its disco style strobe lighting. It was here where I found locals, as well as monks, praying to Buddha with not another tourist in sight.
That’s Not All – Mrauk U is More Than Temples
A big difference between Mrauk U and Bagan is that the landscape is more hilly than flat and the climate tropical rather than dry. The hills make for some excellent views via a short hike up a densely jungled hill, where many climb to Mruak U’s highest point – Shwetaung Paya – which looks out of the hills and river. Here, at sunrise, a mysterious fog can be seen that blankets the town, where only the temples atop of the hills can be seen and it is like they are floating on clouds. It’s rather magical.
Another drawcard for Mrauk U is to visit the remote tribal Chin Villages along the river. It’s worth getting a guide for the day to take you out to meet the infamous ‘tattooed face women’ of the Chin villages. There are only a handful of these women left who have a spider-web design tattooed on their faces – a tradition that died out around 60 years ago when the practice, of what is said to tribal identification, was made illegal. It was fascinating to hear their stories and drink tea with them.
There is plenty to see in and around Mrauk U, and after such a long journey to get there it would be a shame not to stay for more than a couple of days. I managed to fill four days and could have probably stayed another one had I not disliked the accommodation we were staying at. Sadly, with lack of any tourism infrastructure, most of the budget accommodation options in Mrauk U are the same – damp, overpriced, with bucket showers and without electricity for most of the day and night. Higher range options are better and some do have generators and proper showers, but they will set you back about $55+ a night per room.
Mruak U is Worth the Journey
Even with two years worth of Asian bus travel experience under my belt, the bus rides to and from Mrauk U are still hands down the most challenging I have ever endured. 24 hours+ crammed into a bus that was falling apart, with livestock and travel sick passengers, and nature’s air-con (i.e. the window) which meant a face full of vomit from the said travel-sick passengers in the seat in front. It was tough, yet the hardships of getting to this pretty town in the lesser-known Rakhine State of Myanmar were worth it for the visual rewards and distinct culture that still thrives here.
Mrauk U is too often overlooked by those travelling in Myanmar, as it is so far from everywhere else and requires more effort and planning. But that is part of the charm of this little town; the authenticity of it is a rare find, especially in South East Asia.
Travel to Mrauk U – Things to Know
- With a bicycle and a bit of know-how of what you want to see, it is easy to get around and to enjoy this different part of Myanmar. There is a scatting of shops where you can rent a bicycle for a day and get local advice. Double-check the tyre pressure and that the seat is secured properly before handing over your Kyat.
- You can get to Mrauk U via local bus from Yangon or Mandalay. Prices vary but start at around 3,000 Kyat. Be prepared for a long journey; take snacks, and a head torch for when you need the toilet.
- There are guides in Mrauk U, however, it’s not always clear where to find them. There is no tourist office or visitor centre. The best way is to ask at the reception of a few guesthouses along the main road who they recommend.
This article is a guest post from Natalie from the Myanmar Travel Blog. Check it out for more information and a guide on Mrauk U, its temples and details of the long bus journey, plus more advice and stories about Myanmar. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram. For now, she describes her journey into this relatively untouched area of the country.