Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 4

This narrative of our time in Myanmar is too long, but the last post was getting too unwieldy and I hadn’t even really gotten to Mrauk U proper. So, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s Mruak U as it appeared in 1676:


Mrauk U used to be the capital of Arakan, which was a fabulously wealthy kingdom on the west side of Burma in what is now Rakhine State. This started probably around 300 and reached a high point in the 1400s, before coming to an end in 1785, when Mrauk U was captured by the Burmans, based out of Mandalay; pretty soon after that the British arrived, and that was the end because they decided to move the capital of the province of Arakan to the decidedly less glamorous Sittwe.

At some point in Mrauk U, I picked up a fine book entitled Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U (Useful Reference for Tourists and Travelers) by Myar Aung, which is indeed a useful reference for tourists and travelers, though occasionally more confusing than illuminating. Here, for example, is what it says about how Mrauk U got its name:

As regards the name of the city, i.e., Mrauk-U, there are different assumptions. One is that when the Taungnyo and Kokka hills were being levelled to erect the palace, a monkey was found guarding the golden egg of the pea-hen, signifying Myauk (monkey) and “U”, (pronounced “Oo”) signifying the egg; thus “Myauk-U”. Another theory holds that the site where the city was founded was home to “earth-goddess” Mrauk-U. Still holds another belief that the city site lies to the northward of Laung-kret, the old royal city. (p. 16)

“Mrauk U,” it should probably have been said already, is pronounced something like “mrow-ooh” with the “k” being silent. It is presently a dusty town of about 50,000 people where almost all of the roads were being remade: everyone was smashing big rocks into medium rocks and medium rocks into small rocks and then the small rocks were fitted into the roads. I don’t know why there was such a frenzy of road-building and whether this is constant and a one-time event. The upshot of this is that it’s extremely bumpy any way that you want to get around Mrauk U. We of course decided that the best way to get around would be via horsecart:


Horsecarts basically work with the scale of Mrauk U – nothing is that far from anything else though you’d be a little bored if you were walking. Also all the alternatives are bumpy so a horsecart is not noticeably more bumpy. It’s still pretty bumpy and mostly we did this so because Harriet enjoyed it. Our horse, I think, was an albino, which in Thailand would mean that he would belong to the King, but they don’t have a king in Myanmar so he belonged to our cart-driver who did a pretty good job of taking us around at very slow speeds:


And of course Harriet in a horsecart provided a great deal of entertainment to the local youth:


Mrauk U is basically an archaeological site. But it’s a very different kind of place from what you would see at roughly contemporaneous Mayan or Aztec ruins in Mexico, for example, or the Khmer ruins in Cambodia. In large part that’s because the temples kept being temples: they were Buddhist then, they’re Buddhist now, and intervening rules haven’t interrupted that. But there’s also a different attitude towards ruins: the Burmese way is to rebuild (which will come out in a big way in Bagan), and Mrauk U is a mix of ruined and reconstructed structures. One made merit in Burmese Buddhism by constructing pagodas, which continues today: one can make merit by reconstructing a pagoda. So it can be genuinely hard to tell what you’re looking at.

The pagodas here were mostly made of stone, rather than brick, which has made them hold up better than the brick pagodas of Bagan, but there are some brick additions which are probably more recent. The forms are all over the place:



Some are more obviously the site of current religious worship:


And there’s some pretty obvious (though still stunning) reconstruction going on:


Most of these are out in the countryside, which can be beautiful:


As Mrauk U doesn’t get many visitors, almost everything is open to the public, and you can climb all over everything. Some of the pagodas are solid; some have altars inside, and some have dark passageways that I couldn’t photograph very well with my telephone; a flashlight is helpful, though some of the larger ones have electric lights. The amount of detailing inside varies: some seems original, like this:


and then you have Buddha images like this one that clearly has a much more recent paint job, though it might be a replastered old image. I am not an expert, obviously.


The crypts are fantastic:



And there are some spaces that are more open:



One temple contained thousands of carved Buddhas, exposed to the elements and slowly disintegrating:



There are plenty of goats:



And the structures were generally pleasant to wander around because you never knew exactly what you would find. So many nice details:





The downside to going to such an untouristed place is that in the bathrooms there were some of the largest non-tarantula spiders I’d ever seen. This one, poorly photographed for fear that I would wake her, had a legspan somewhere above six inches:


We also took a trip further out into the country to the remains of Vesali (spelled a variety of different ways; in Wikipedia under the spelling Waithali), capital of the region before Mrauk U, and then to Dhanyawadi, center of the first Arakanese kingdom, now the village Kyauktaw. There aren’t many architectural ruins there, though there are various statues. Dynyawady (as Famous Monuments of Mrauk-U spells the name) was supposedly visited by the Buddha himself, where he had his portrait done, including seven drops of his own sweat. When the Burmans captures Mrauk U in 1784, they took the image (the Mahamuni image) to Mandalay; however, the Rakhines claim that the image that’s now in Mandalay is not the real one, which they claim sank on the way. The Mahamuni pagoda in Kyauktaw does have a Buddha image that is claimed to have been made at the same time, which is the object of much veneration:


Outside there’s a lovely line of monks:


After our trip to the country we went back to Mrauk U for the sunset at the top of a hill:


The mist you see here isn’t really mist: it’s smoke from people burning things or dust from the roads.


The next morning we got on the government boat and left Mrauk U. But that’s next time.


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