Myanmar (Burma) is becoming the new hotspot destination of Southeast Asia. Now that the US has re-established diplomatic relations with the newly civilian government and the National League for Democracy has dropped its long-standing travel boycott, tourism has tripled, with visitors zeroing in on attractions like Yangon’s 2000-year-old gold-covered Shwedagon Paya, the floating markets of Inle Lake, and Bagan’s 4000 ancient temples.
Some visitors dub Bagan as the ‘next Angkor Wat‘ and it is a wonderful site, particularly when you explore outer temples with a flashlight and a sense of imagination. But after updating Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Myanmar twice, I’d have to admit it’s not even my favorite ruin in the country. I prefer Mrauk U, an elusive kingdom-turned-village in the hills of Rakhaing State near the Bangladesh border. Practically severed from road access with the country, Mrauk U is the timeless home to 700 ancient temples that serve as a backdrop to a still-active village life of goat herders, cauliflower farmers and passing monks.
Burma goes slow, Mrauk U slower. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Rising beside canals and in between rolling hills, Mrauk U’s 700 temples date from the city’s heyday from 1430 to 1784, when emperors sent navies to conquer nearby ports and hired Japanese samurai for bodyguards. You can tour the site by a rented bike, or on a jeep or horse cart tour.
The usual starting point is in the ‘north group,’ around the 16th-century Shittaung Paya. Across the road is the more interesting Dukkanthein Paya, a bunker-style site with a spiraling passageway inside lined with Buddhas and fun models of Mrauk U’s ’64 traditional hairstyles’. (It’s shown behind the well in the video, above.)
Make sure to reach the earthquake-damaged Kothaung Paya, named for its supposed 90,000 images – many seen in an encircling walkway. Just south, across the dirt path, is what appears to be a hill, but is the overgrown site of Peisi Daung Paya, with a wonderful panorama of village life.
Most of Chin State, just north of Rakhaing, can only be visited by special permit, but it’s possible to visit a few Chin ethnic villages from Mrauk U on a day trip. It’s great fun just for the journey, which involves a five-mile ride to the clear Lemro River, and a three-hour chugging boat ride past peanut farms to villages such as Pan Mraun.
The Chin are famous for the tattooed faces of the women, though only older women have them anymore. There’s no electricity or running water out there. Before going, it’s worth asking at the guesthouse for suggestions on possible donations (eg anti-malarial medicines, available in Mrauk U, are in very short supply in the Chin villages).