Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 3

Now! When we left off, we had gone to the domestic airport in Yangon to fly to Sittwe. Sittwe (spelled Sittway almost as often) is a city in the northwest of Myanmar; it is the capital of Rakhine State, and you have to go through there if you want to go to Mrauk U. As a foreigner, you can’t get to Sittwe from Yangon on the roads, perhaps because the roads are not very passable. No one has very nice things to say about Sittwe; however, it looked like we would have to stay there for a night to catch the boat to Mrauk U. We did very much want to go to Mrauk U; however, it appeared to be basically impossible to make any kind of reservation for anything happening in Rakhine State before we arrived in Myanmar – emails to places that had emails came bouncing back – and it was only dumb luck that I managed to snag flights to Sittwe. In hindsight, it does seem like the kind of place where we could have shown up at the airport and they probably would have thrown some people off the plane so that we could go. But we didn’t know that ahead of time.

We flew with Air KBZ, which appears to be a bank’s vanity airline; they have between four and six planes, three of which we saw on the runway at Yangon. It was a prop plane, so it was a little slower than such a short flight should have been; however, Air KBZ appears to be very devoted to feeding its passengers. We eventually landed in Sittwe, and got off our plane, the only plane there:


And walked into what was basically a one-room airport which did not appear to have functioning electricity:


Possibly it did. On the flight, we read the local English-language newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar, which explained that electrification of Rakhine State had been completed the day before. This was something that would come up as a topic of conversation. Then our plane flew off and we were in an airport devoid of airplanes:


Then we went through customs, which consisted of some officials writing down our passport and visa numbers in a little book; they don’t want to lose tourists in Myanmar.

The big unknown that we had was how we were going to get from Sittwe to Mrauk U. We had the idea from the Lonely Planet that a government boat would leave the next morning; there were also private speedboats. The problem was solved almost immediately when a fellow approached me and asked if we wanted to go to Mrauk U. The price he quoted was more than the government boat ($7/person) but not as extortionate as he probably could have been given that we were somewhere with no idea how to get anywhere. So we said yes, he loaded us and our luggage in a vehicle that was a Burmese cross between a tuk-tuk and a pickup truck called a thoun bein. He drove us to the jetty and put us on a boat. I didn’t manage to get a picture of our boat, but here’s where we left from:


Though we didn’t know it at the time, that boat on the right, the one that looks like it’s about to crumble under the sheer weight of its own rust, is the one that we would use to get back from Sittwe to Mrauk U. The boat we took was much smaller and probably had eight seats total, of which four were occupied. Here it is from the back:


And from the other way:


Traveling by this kind of boat is fantastic. What we were doing was going up the Kaladan River, which hits the Bay of Bengal at Sittwe; the trip probably took about six hours, and we arrived in Mrauk U after the sun had gone down. But there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the river, which was wide and placid; one of the fellows on the boat was a tour operator in Mrauk U and he made us delicious tea. As the sun went down, the light got better and better:


And the sunset was really nice:


Then it got dark. Every once in a while you’d see a light on the shore, but not very often. Mrauk U, it turns out, is pretty remote.

Probably around ten we arrived in Mrauk U, where there was tremendous excitement at our arrival. We were hustled into a thoun bein, and driven to our hotel, the Mrauk U Palace, which, despite its name, is not a palace, but it did have hot showers and seeming twenty-four hour electricity, which is something. It should maybe be noted that Mrauk U gets about 8,000 visitors per year, most of whom appear to be middle-aged Germans out to out-remote each other. Basically we ruined all of their vacations when we showed up with a three-year-old. But it’s not actually that complicated to take a three-year-old to Mrauk U at this point, and the Germans really should up their game. Here we are the first morning fearing for our breakfast:


The breakfast there wasn’t anything fancy but it did turn out to be delicious: fried rice with a topping of fried shallots with a fried egg, plus a coleslaw-like mixture of cabbage and chilis that you could mix in. Also it is cold in the morning in Mrauk U: it’s much further north than Bangkok, and we’d of course forgotten to bring any warm clothes.

Having made it to Mrauk U, we basically immediately decided to go somewhere even more remote. Actually what happened was that the guy on the boat who was a tour guide in Mrauk U suggested that we should go upriver from Mrauk U and see the Chin villages, and as he seemed fine and we didn’t have more immediate plans (plus we had a day more to spend in Mrauk U than we’d immediately thought we would), we agreed, having had, so far, a fine time aboard boats in Myanmar. Also he promised he would have a saloon car to take us to the river: we’d thought they only have saloon cars in India, but I guess they have them in Burma too. Or maybe they don’t: the next morning he turned up with a jeep and sadly reported that he couldn’t find a saloon car on such short notice. So we bounced along with a jeep to a river which was probably the Lemro, the Burmese is လေးမြို့မြစ်, Google Maps calls it the “Lay Myo”.

The boat we took this time was smaller than our previous boat, containing a line of four plastic lawn chairs under a cloth canopy. This was fine because it was a very still river, which also didn’t seem to be very deep. Let me see if I can dig up some pictures. Here’s the place we left from, which is really just a muddy river bank with some boats alongside:


Harriet was deeply pleased to be on a boat again:


There isn’t a lot to say about going up the river, but it was very pleasant. This river was even less habited than the one we’d come up the day before, but you’d occasionally pass boats and you’d sometimes see houses on the bank; people were clearly farming. Here was a fine boat:


The first stop we made was at a village to see the market. I took a picture of a sign marked, in English, “Panmyung Police Station,” though I can find absolutely nothing on a village named Panmyung on the Internet except for a report on anti-Muslim riots in 2012 which quotes a schoolteacher from Panmyung. We did not see any anti-Muslim violence here or elsewhere; our guide did point out a village that we traveled through on jeep as a “Muslim village,” and while we were curious about Buddhist-Muslim relations in Rakhine State we thought it probably wouldn’t be prudent to ask too many questions. Also, the people who had the best English might not have been unbiased, as they were those who were in the business of promoting tourism in Rakhine State. Anyway. The market adjacent to the Panmyung Police Station was basically what you’d expect, though Harriet’s visit was something of a spectacle. Here she attempts to buy some flowers to considerable consternation from the local ladies:


This particular market does seem to be on the tourist boatpath enough that Kim could get a memory card for her camera in it. Also they had a lot of malodorous fish beautifully twisted up that I didn’t get any pictures of. Here are some peppers being dried on the riverbank:


Then we got back in our boat and kept going up the river. Here’s another boat more exciting than ours; I wish I had a better boat-related vocabulary to better describe this:


The main purpose of this trip was to go see the Chin villages. Chin State is a mountainous region to the north of Rakhine State; it’s mostly off-limits to non-Burmese. Chin State is where the Chin people live; there are also Chins who live in India and Bangladesh, though they’re not called Chins. The Chins are mostly Baptists, it turns out. The Chin villages are on the tourist itinerary because of the tattooed ladies: it used to be custom for Chin women to get face tattoos. The Burmese government forbid the practice in 1960s, though it seems to have persisted somewhat past that. But it’s become standard practice for the tourists to arrive at the Chin villages to see the tattooed ladies.

This is, to say the least, a little weird. We did not especially want to take pictures of the tattooed ladies. (A slightly more familiar version of this: on the other side of Burma, which we didn’t get to, there are the long-necked Kayan ladies, familiar from National Geographic, who wear gold rings around their necks.) It doesn’t seem particularly nice to take pictures of people because they look different from you; perhaps we are more sensitive to this because Harriet’s photographed for the same reason on a nearly daily basis. But we were on this boat trip, and so we went to look at the Chin villages and met the tattooed ladies. And it might have been slightly more equitable than the usual visit, because they were all extremely pleased to see Harriet and wanted to take pictures of her. (Even in Chin villages, there are smart phones.) Harriet, of course comes up short in this deal, but the villages were full of baby goats and pigs and chickens and the children were happy to catch them and bring them to her, so she had a reasonably nice time. We bought some textiles from the Chin ladies; our guide gave out candies to the many children in the village, which they seemed quite used to. (With foresight maybe we would have brought them books? I don’t know.)

But the village was pleasant enough, if dusty – it is the dry season:


And Harriet met a baby goat:


And visited the local school:


I did obligingly take a few photos of the Chin ladies, though they aren’t clear enough to be interesting. If you search online, it’s not hard to find pictures of the women we saw, often with self-congratulatory comments about how remote they were. The one thing that might be said in excuse for visiting them: in the first of the two villages we went to (which had more public tattooed ladies), the women had evidently saved all the money they’d made from displaying themselves to the public and used it to build a school for the children. It was a nicer school than the second village, though one does have to respect the women who don’t want to show themselves off to every German who comes up the river.

After the market and the two Chin villages we turned around and went back to Mruak U. The trip back was faster than the trip up, though that didn’t stop Harriet from taking a nap (a nap which continued on to the jeep ride back to Mrauk U: she’s talented). One thing we noticed coming back: a huge number of tiny boats filled with rocks, often with people next to them picking up rocks from the bottom of the river. It was explained to us that they were rebuilding the harbor at Sittwe (of which more later) and that to do that they needed rocks, so people were taking rocks from the bottom of this river. Then at Mrauk U they were loading the rocks from these small boats and putting them in bigger boats and sending them down the Kaladan to Sittwe. This seems like a preposterously complicated way of gathering rocks, but maybe that’s how they do things in Myanmar.


Next time: Mrauk U.

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