Last Updated on November 10, 2019 by Soumya
We were planning our much-awaited trip to Myanmar. Bagan, Yangon, and Mandalay were on our list already but we wanted someplace that could make our itinerary stand out. Surely, there was something remote in a country which had only recently opened up. And we spotted it after some long hours of research. It was a gem in northern Myanmar called Mrauk U. Apart from having the cutest name, Mrauk U had the most exciting ruins in the world: unexplored, hidden, and untraveled. And nobody could stop us from getting to them, could they?
So Mrauk U (pronounced as Mrau-oo) it was. A small town in the northern state of Rakhine in Myanmar had been added to our Burmese itinerary.
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About Mrauk U
Mrauk U is a sleepy little town in Rakhine, one of the poorest states in the country. It has been recently torn apart by religious conflicts. There is no paucity of natural beauty here, though. It has some of the prettiest, white sand beaches and the foggiest of mountains.
Mrauk U lies in the midst of one such mountain range called the Rakhine Yoma. It is nestled between the Kaladan and the Lemro rivers zigzagged by the Yoma in between. This makes the town hilly and hence, the perfect abode for many hilltop pagodas.
This pagoda town is often described as the lost capital city of an ancient Arakan empire that saw its peak in the mid-15th century. Arakans controlled the Rakhine state, half of Bangladesh, and the western part of lower Burma at this time and Mrauk U was a rich, prosperous town.
Arakan kings built hundreds of temples here during these prosperous times. However, after the decline of power, the temples gradually fell into various states of disrepair. Thick vegetation still covers many of them. You can very well discover your own ruins here, there are so many of them, unseen and lost to humanity. An absolute delight for a history lover!
Mrauk U had an interesting religious history and was the meeting center of many religions in the past. Buddhism (Mahayana and Hinayana), Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism thrived here. GoMyanmarTours have an interesting write up on Mrauk U’s history which goes back as far as the 2nd century BC if you are interested. Read it here.
How to get to Mrauk U
By air and boat/taxi:
Mrauk U does not have an airport. Sittwe is the closest one. Therefore, you need to fly into Sittwe from Yangon, Thandwe, or Kyaukpyu. We booked our air tickets through the website of Myanmar National Airlines and flew in from Thandwe.
Once you are in Sittwe, you have two options. You can either take a boat up the Kaladan river or hire a private car with a driver from Sittwe. The car drive takes approximately 3 hours and the driver stops at two locations in between to allow you to use the restroom and freshen up. You may also ask him to stop by small cafes/confectionaries if you need refreshments. Within the boat option, you can either take a private boat which takes 6-7 hours or a public ferry. There are options for slow and fast ferries. The cost and other details can be found on Go-Myanmar.
Alternately, you could take a bus either from Yangon or Mandalay. The bus journey could take anywhere between 20 – 24 hours.
Things to do in Mrauk U
Mrauk U is a city of temples and will suit you perfectly well if you are a history lover. A day among the ruined pagodas is a must in your itinerary. In addition, you can take a trip to the nearby Chin villages, stroll down the local markets, enjoy some good Rakhine food, and interact with locals. The Burmese are a friendly lot and there is so much you can communicate even without knowing their language.
Visit the magnificent temples
Hundreds of temples and pagodas dot the landscape and it may not be possible to see all of them unless you are planning to stay more than 3 days. The monuments are split into northern, eastern, western, and southern groups. Locals still use many of these as places of worship. And considerably more are in ruins. It is not uncommon for you to come across a mass of stones from an erstwhile temple if you happen to trek the Rakhine Yoma.
The Northern Group:
This is the biggest group of temples in Mrauk U and features the famous Shittaung and the Dukkanthein temples. The Shittaung Paya or pagoda is named so because of the 80,000 Buddha images inside it. It is the most complex temple in Mrauk U with over 26 stupas, big and small, surrounding the main stupa. The main temple has an outer chamber filled with sculptures depicting Jataka scenes and Rakhine customs and an inner chamber which houses a number of Buddha idols. Lonely Planet has a detailed write up on the history of Shittaung Paya. At Shittaung, you need to pay an entry fee of K5000 for visiting the temples of Mrauk U.
The other important temple in the northern group is the Dukkathein Paya which has an interesting history behind it. Dukkathein looks more like a bunker than a temple. The main purpose of it was to protect monks and local people in times of war. It is set on high grounds and has only one entrance. The chamber inside has a spiral pathway that ultimately leads to an image of Buddha.
A few more impressive temples in this group are the Andaw Thein Temple and the Ratnabon Zedi. Andaw Thein is a collection of smaller stupas encircling a bigger one, none of which have entrances.
The Eastern and Southern Groups:
Temples in the eastern and the southern groups are more spread out and on an average less majestic than the ones in the northern group. But the Kothaung Temple here is impressive and should be a must-see on every traveler’s itinerary. It was built in 1553 and houses 90,000 images of Buddha, 10,000 more than the Shittaung.
The Western Group:
Very few tourists make it to the western group because, of what I would call, the pagoda fatigue. They usually travel to other groups first and are more than saturated by the time they are done there. However, there are some great temples here and I am sure you won’t regret it if you come. A notable one among them is the Lawka Man Aung Pagoda. It is one of the five most revered pagodas in Mrauk U.
Visit Chin Villages
You can head up north to the Chin villages near Mrauk U for a different experience if you have had too many pagodas for a while. A tuk-tuk ride would take about 30 minutes while a boat ride on the Lemro river may take anywhere close to 3 hours.
These villages are famous for the strange facial tattoos of their women. Women used to be tattooed between the age of 12 – 14 years to prevent them from getting noticed and kidnapped during times of war. The Myanmar government decided to ban the practice in the 1960s. Many older women still bear these scars on their faces. Head up to these villages to experience another example of female resilience. You can view some candid shots here.
Stroll down the local market
You can take a stroll down the local market, watch the making of some freshly-pounded fish paste, and observe people go by their daily lives, picking the freshest of fish or stopping by to indulge in some delicious, deep-fried snacks. We also loved visiting the markets of Thandwe – an absolute must-do when you are at the beach town of Ngapali.
Getting around Mrauk U
You can either hire a bicycle or a jeep to travel around Mrauk U especially for seeing the eastern and southern groups. You can easily explore the northern group on foot because all the temples are quite closeby. A jeep costs about K25,000 per day.
We opted for a private car along with a tour guide for two days. The car picked us up from the Sittwe airport and dropped us back there apart from showing us around Mrauk U. We had an English-speaking guide who was a resident of Mrauk U so he could take us to some wonderful local restaurants. His name was Myint Zaw and he has some wonderful reviews on Facebook and TripAdvisor. You can connect with him here. Our private tour cost us approximately $320.
Where to stay in Mrauk U
Mrauk U does have a number of comfortable staying options, a few even bordering on luxury. If you have some money to splurge, you can try the Mrauk U Princess Resort which is located in the outskirts of the town or the Shwe Thazin Hotel.
Since we were on budget, we chose the Golden Mrauk U Guest House for our 2-day stay. And I would definitely recommend it. The guest house has decent rooms and reasonable prices. I loved their breakfast which included toast, eggs, juice, and a Burmese delight.
What to eat in Mrauk U
Mrauk U can be an absolute treat for foodies if you are willing to explore. There are restaurants with English menus and waiters that can converse in manageable English. A few popular ones are Moe Cherry, Happy Garden, and Kaung Thant. You can try Rakhine curries (they are not quite the same as Burmese ones) and some Chinese-style dishes at these places.
However, I would suggest trying local restaurants without English menus for a more authentic Rakhine fare if you have some help with translation. These are small places, usually family-owned and attached to people’s homes. The family cooks the food in their own kitchen and lays it out on a buffet for the customers. I loved the Rakhine shrimp curry, sauteed cauliflower, and fish curry that I tried at a number of locations.
A Word of Caution before visiting Mrauk U
Rakhine has been the center of some serious religious conflict in the recent past thought it has not affected Mrauk U or its surrounding areas. Mrauk U is located quite far from the actual conflict areas and remains a safe tourist destination. Please make sure you have the facts right before you travel here.
Have you been to Mrauk U? What did you like about it? Do you want to go there again? Drop me a line below and let’s get the conversation going.
Are you planning a trip to Myanmar? Do not forget to check out our other posts on the country.
Best things to do in Bagan
Where to stay in Bagan?
Amazing things to do in Ngapali – the best beach destination in Myanmar
Best time to visit Myanmar
What to eat in Myanmar?
Cultural souvenirs to buy in Myanmar
Experiencing life and culture in Myanmar
3 Must-do day trips from Mandalay
Read more on my travels in Myanmar. Click here.