Much less popular than the world-famous, UNESCO-listed Bagan, the plains and hills of Mrauk U, dotted with ruined ancient pagodas, are at least as impressive. The ethereal images of Bagan at sunrise may have taken over the internet, but again, dawns in Mrauk U are even more photogenic - for whatever topographic reason, perhaps due to its relative proximity to the sea, the area gets thick morning mists for most of the year. The advantage of being the only tourist wherever you go, and the long bus ride required to reach this archaeological site in remote Rakhaing don't feel like serious deterrents.
The origin of the city’s name, Mrauk U, is unclear. Some claim it derives from “first victory” or “first success” since, at this location, an ancient Arakanese prince had won his first important battle; other sources imply it means “far north”. One legend even translates it as “monkey’s egg” – use your imagination. Either way, like most large complexes of ruined temples, Mrauk U used to be a capital city presiding over a kingdom. Established in the 15th century, it controlled about half of present-day Bangladesh, as well as a significant portion of Western Myanmar. As always, common structures were built out of wood and bamboo, while Buddhist monasteries were made of stone, and only the latter have survived. The kingdom eventually fell, as kingdoms do, and the capital was reduced to a cluster of sleepy little villages. Only the crumbling pagodas stick out from the undulating low hills as if trying to pierce time itself with their dilapidated spires.
This is how it looks today: a tiny speck of a town, even smaller dots of villages, hills, and valleys, and every few hundred meters – temples, pagodas, monasteries. Some are still lively, functional, housing groups of monks, with modern (for Myanmar) wooden prayer halls and residential cells. Some are little more than archaeological monuments, single stupas crowning a hillock. Then, there are the famous fortified temples, sunken, dark, riddled with underground passages and visibly ancient Buddha statues. All of them retain their sacred status and are used for ceremonies. Many of the hilltops provide panoramic views, and those are not to be missed. For a photographer, Mrauk U may be the most worthwhile location in the whole country. For most of the year, it attracts thick mists both at sunrise and sunset, making the panorama of ruined pagodas even more beautiful. The interiors of most temples are also very photogenic, resembling a set for another Indiana Jones movie.
Thankfully, gone are the days when road travel to Mrauk U was prohibited. Nowadays, there are regular buses from both Yangon and Mandalay, and they can be boarded in any town along the way. It is best to book your tickets a day in advance, and to be prepared for a long, bumpy ride (15-20 hours from Yangon). Bicycles and motorbikes can be rented in town to tour the area, but it is still forbidden to drive independently out of Mrauk U and further into rural Rakhaing. Technically, there is a tourist admission fee for the ruins - 5$, but often nobody is around to charge it. There are about a dozen basic guesthouses in Mrauk U, and one relatively posh hotel. It takes 2-3 days to visit all the large pagodas and monasteries, and to catch a couple of misty sunrises, but the place is so peaceful and just plain beautiful that one may wish to stay longer.
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