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Friday, 24 March 2017

Mrauk U and Sittwe

Mrauk U.

Myanmar’s second most important historical site, Mrauk U (‘Old City’) was the capital of the Rakhaing civilisation during its golden age from the year 1430 onwards. Founded by King Min Saw Mon, the city, 45 miles from the Bay of Bengal up the Kaladan River, became a free port with a European Quarter visited by Dutch, Portuguese and Middle Eastern traders. Father Sebastiao Manrique, a Portuguese priest who came to live in the city, attended the coronation of King Thudhamma in 1635 and wrote of the palace’s riches. He described ceilings covered with vines and fruit – made from gold, life-sized gilded images of past Kings and a chest of jewels containing rubies the size of a chicken egg. The city and civilisation’s heyday came to an abrupt end with the invasion of the Bamar, led by King Bodawpaya in 1784. In 1826, Rakhaing State became a British possession and was ruled from the coastal town of Sittwe; Mrauk U fading to the pagoda-studded farming backwater it remains today.

Some 700 temples, buildings and pagodas remain today, some recently excavated and restored. Many remain covered with vines and vegetation, forgotten at the edge of farmer’s fields. The larger pagodas certainly rank alongside some of the well-known structures in Bagan due their scale, historical importance and well preserved interiors, statuary and bas reliefs. Mrauk U is scenically-set against a backdrop of small hills and scattered with lakes and moats; the whole area could be flooded to deter attack. The area is inhabited and farmed; the ancient pagodas still in use by the local people. Some of the best statuary is now protected in a small museum which also displays cannons, old coins and British-era photographs of the city.

Mrauk U is also the starting point for daytrips further into the interior, to the ancient city of Wethali and the Chin ethnic villages of the Lemro River. Whilst almost all visitors to Myanmar travel to Bagan, this whole area, a tentative world heritage site, sees only some 4,000 visitors a year. If you have some time, and a sense of adventure, we certainly recommend a visit to this remote and fascinating corner of Myanmar.

Highlights.
Andaw Thein Pagoda.

Built under the reign of King Minhlaraza in 1521, this pagoda was reconstructed in 1596 to enshrine a piece of a Buddha tooth – the name means ‘Royal Molar’. This 40 feet tall structure has an octagonal main chamber around an octagonal central pillar, each side of which displays a Buddha image set in a domed niche. The Buddha images show the Buddha’s robe tied at the chest, symbolising Buddha and his attendant monks travelling through the air. Between the Buddha images are figures of a minister holding an umbrella, a Kinnara birdman, a King, and Ganesh; the elephant-headed god of Hinduism. The tooth relic is believed to be buried within the sandstone central pillar.

Dukkanthein Pagoda.

Arguably the most interesting pagoda in Mrauk U, Dukkanthein stands on a small hill close to the older Shitthaung Pagoda. Built under the reign of King Min Phalaung in 1571, it is constructed of sandstone with layers of brick on top. Stone steps lead up the south and east sides of the pagoda, the east steps bringing you to the entrance. Inside there is a long vaulted passageway lined with images including that of 64 women offering lotus buds to the Buddha, each with a different hair style. The internal passageway spirals around the building and ends at a 15 feet high central shrine room.

Kothaung Pagoda.

Recently restored, ’90,000’ Pagoda is so named after the number of Buddha images it was supposed to contain. The pagoda was constructed in 1553 by King Min Taikkha, son of King Min Bin in an attempt to better the 80,000 Buddhas of his father’s Shittaung Pagoda, but left unfinished when the King was assassinated. This is the biggest pagoda at Mrauk U, a fortress-like structure with massive sandstone walls with outer passageways featuring thousands of reliefs and Buddha images. The top terrace, set around an octagonal central pagoda features the remains of 108 stupas. It is believed that treasure; artworks, sculptures and jewellery lie undiscovered beneath the structure.

Shittaung Pagoda.

This complex fortress pagoda with six feet thick sandstone walls was built between 1531 and 1553 by King Min Bin, after his forces repulsed a Portuguese attack on the City. Meaning ’80,000’ it is named after the number of Buddha images it was designed to hold, though 84,000 have since been discovered.

The temple’s prayer hall leads to two passageways. The outer chamber is lined with over 1,000 sandstone relief slabs showing scenes from the Jataka, as well as daily life featuring dancers, musicians and wrestlers. The inner chamber has scores of Buddha images and what is said to be a Buddha footprint. Outside the southwest entrance is the Shittaung, or Anandacandra pillar. This 10 feet sandstone obelisk dates from the 5th Century and lists the succession of Rakhaing Kings between 638BC and 729 AD.

Sakyamanaung Pagoda.

Built later than the other pagodas, in 1629 during the reign of King Thirithudhammaraza, this pagoda shows distinct Bamar and Shan architectural influences. The lower half of this 280 feet high pagoda is octagonal; the higher portion circular and topped by a decorative ‘hti’, or umbrella.

Daytrips from Mrauk U.
Wethali and Mahamuni Pagoda.

To the north of Mrauk U lie the ruins of the ancient city of Wethali (also known as Vesali). The city was founded by King Mahataing Chandra in 327. The city was built in an oval shape and the walls of the palace are still visible. Apart from the ruins, the main attraction here is the Hsu Taung Pre image, a stone, 16 feet tall Rakhaing-style sitting Buddha said to date to the founding of the city.
Near Kyauktaw, 25 miles north of Mrauk U lies Mahamuni Pagoda. This centuries-old site was the original home of the ancient and highly venerated Mahamuni Buddha image, housed in Mandalay since its capture by the Bamar King Bodawpaya in 1784. The current pagoda, built in the Konbaung style dates to the 18th Century and boasts three golden Buddha images. The hilltop pagodas visible to the east mark Salagiri hill, a site supposedly visited by the Buddha himself in 554BC.

Chin Villages.

As Chin State itself is mostly closed to foreign visitors, a day trip to ethnic Chin villages on the Rakhaing side of the state border is a rare opportunity to interact with this friendy and interesting ethnic group. The journey to the area where the villages are located starts by car or jeep, east from Mrauk U to Pophru village and the Lemro River. Here you board your boat for the scenic 2 – 3 hour ride upriver. The Chin are famous for their old custom of tattooing their women’s faces. Though the practise has now been stopped, many older women can be seen who were tattooed in their youth. It is also possible to observe the weaving of Chin-style fabrics on wooden looms, explore the villages and interact with the villagers with the help of your translating guide.

Sittwe

The joint capital of British Burma (along with the southern city of Moulmein) between 1826 and 1852, Sittwe is situated on an estuarial island where the mouth of the Kaladan River meets the Bay of Bengal. The city, known as Akyab to the British, boomed during the colonial years as a trading port but has lost its importance in recent years. Sittwe is the gateway to the historical heartland of the Rakhaing at Mrauk U, therefore all visitors to the ancient city must pass through here on the way. Flight and boat schedules mean that all visitors will spend at least one night in the city and there are some interesting attractions to keep you busy.

The most memorable sight is probably the dawn fish market, right on the jetty across from the central market which sells fish straight off the trawlers. The local fishermen trawl for a wide variety of species – expect to see sharks along with the more common fish and rays. The Maka Kuthala Kyaung Daw Gyi or ‘Large monastery of great merit’ is housed in a grand colonial mansion and boasts a museum that includes the bone-relics of dead monks. The cultural museum details the history of the 5,000 year old Rakhaing civilisation, known to Europeans as long ago as the 2nd Century. At sunset, we recommend you head along the riverfront Strand Road to the view point – the best location for memorable Bay of Bengal sunsets.

Mr Myanmar Travel can make all the arrangements for a fantastic and memorable tour of Mrauk U and Sittwe. Flights to Sittwe depart from Yangon and stop in Thandwe (for Ngapali Beach) en-route. These flights are currently scheduled for the afternoon which means that your first night in Northern Rakhaing State will be spent in Sittwe town. There will be time for breakfast the following day before the departure of your chartered boat up the Kaladan River and its scenic tributaries to Mrauk U. The journey takes approximately five or six hours travelling upstream. Returning to Sittwe, boats leave in the morning after breakfast for the slightly shorter journey downstream. After lunch in Sittwe you can meet the afternoon flight and continue onto Ngapali Beach for a few days of relaxation, or head straight back to the city of Yangon.

Mr Myanmar Travel can arrange good value hotels in both Sittwe and Mrauk U. The first high standard hotel has recently opened in Mrauk U and we can obtain very competitive rates for you here if you would like more comfort and facilities. Our friendly and knowledgeable guides will take you on comprehensive tours of the best known, and lesser known pagodas of Mrauk U and also accompany you further afield should you wish to visit Wethali and / or the Chin villages.

A comprehensive tour of the Mrauk U area with a night in Sittwe, your flights and return river journey would take a minimum of 5 days. If you have the spare time we would suggest that you extend your trip to this hidden, remote and unspoilt region to 6 days. Please ask us for more details.
 

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