I had arrived in Mrauk U on Christmas Eve in the early afternoon. After lunch, and trying to make sense of the town map, I set off to start my explorations of the ancient site. I started off with one of the main temples, which happily was only a few minutes walk from my bedroom! Already the sun was sinking in the winter sky, and throwing a soft light in through the alcoves, bathing this Buddha in a golden light
Mrauk U is much much quieter than the more accessible and better known Bagan. However, the quiet was occasionally punctuated by the arrival of one of the ubiquitous “light trucks” which carry so many people. These were transporting large groups of school students around the temples, and many of them had loud modern music blaring from speakers adding to the air of festivity of these groups.
In the temple I had found a beautiful spot, giving a panoramic view of Mrauk U and sat down to watch the scene peacefully. Deep in thought, I hadn’t noticed one of these trucks arriving. The first thing I noticed was a stream of school students as they poured through the temple seeping out through the various exits and passageways. And all making their way towards me. Within moments I was surrounded by a cheerful, animated and enthusiastic group, asking me my name, where I come from and giggling at my responses. They were eager to practise their English, but I am not sure how useful it is with my Scottish accent. We all laughed together and before long they headed back to their van, to make their way to the next temple on their list. Suddenly it was again very quiet.
Trying to make sense of the map, I used the quiet time also to plot my vague direction of exploration and before long headed off towards another group of temples. On the way back, with the sun nearing the end of its day’s work in our part of the world, I found a little track up to a vantage point on the top of a small hill. I scrambled through some scrub, on a dried mud path, very glad that this is not rainy season and arrived at a clearing where I stayed to watch the sun set, the mist form and the evening rituals, activities and tasks taking place before me.
On my way back, I stopped off at a little stall selling coconuts and spent a peaceful interlude, sipping at was to become my daily evening cocktail (coconut water) and watching what was going on around me.
Back at the hotel, after a delicious Rakhine tomatoey fish curry, I tried to phone home to say I had arrived safely and all was well. The guide book had told me that there are only five phone lines to the town and with over 250 subscribers getting a line out is not easy. After numerous unsuccessful attempts I headed back to my room, to settle down for the night. My room was well equipped, and in addition to the hat and glow in the dark stars it had a well stocked fridge (no Andaman beer this time though) and a TV. However there was only one channel and that was the one which the staff were watching in the dining room! It switched from Star Movies to ESPN sports and on to Korean soap operas without warning, to my great amusement. I watched part of “Spy Next Door” before it switched to a football match which gave me a good excuse to read. The other great surprise which my room held was also revealed to me just before dinner. I wanted to wash the dust off my feet and turned on the tap in the bathtub, bracing for the usual chill of water. Within seconds though, the water from the tap was roasting hot to my utter delight as I realised that hot baths would be a further treat of my trip! How unfortunate that I hadn’t brought any bubble bath with me!! What a great way to round off a highly adventurous day! I slept fitfully, as is usual thanks to Tamoxifen, dreaming bizarrely of being unable to find my room in the rain, a strange dream considering this is the middle of dry season. I was also amused to hear gentle snoring from the room next door. Until I realised that if I could hear gentle snores, my neighbour would surely be able to hear my not so gentle snores!
There were few signs of Christmas as I started my day, and after a nice breakfast, I set off to explore more widely. For the day, I had hired a bicycle so that I could get a bit further.
The day was unusually cloudy, but given how hot it can become in the daytime in dry season, this was perfect weather for cycling! I had a look at the map, and headed off with little idea of where I was going or what was in store. I followed a main track initially, and then just kept going, turning left or right along village lanes on the basis of what drew my interest and curiosity. Inevitably, after half an hour of what I thought might be a wide circuitous route, I was clearly very lost! I was near a monastery so I stopped, parked the bike and sat myself down beside the road on a grassy spot and consulted my map. The monastery was not marked and there was no other landmark to give me any clue as to where I was. What a glorious feeling! In no hurry to go anywhere, and able to just sit and soak in the sounds and activities around me I was in no hurry to move on. First I needed clarification of which direction the town was, either continuing on this road, or turning off one of the lanes nearby. As I looked up I saw three children heading towards me. As they approached, I realised that one of them was holding what looked like a very angry cat. This was no ordinary domestic tabby cat though, its ears were differently shaped and although it was the size of a cat, it was clearly a kitten of its species. It was marked just like a little leopard and my first thought that this was in fact a leopard kitten. I quickly realised that was not possible, and took some pictures of it so I could find out later what this animal was.
A monk approached, heading towards the monastery and was clearly not expecting to see a strange foreigner parked in the lane and he asked me my country. Then he asked me if I was a Buddhist. After my replies, I asked him which direction was the town and he pointed back to where I had come from. Off he headed to the monastery, and I brushed the dried grass off my trousers and got back on my bike. I continued to explore the back lanes, asking periodically the direction towards town. It was nearly 12 o’clock when I started recognising the shops near the hotel and stopped off at a roadside stall for a cold drink.
I took advantage of this time to study the guide book map. There were only 2 eateries mentioned in the book and I had already eaten in one. The other was described as being in a teak house and sounded nice so I decided to set off and find it. Easier said than done. The map was rather confusing and I found myself repeatedly heading down the same road which was clearly not the right one, but persistently failed to find it! So I started turning off down different roads, and keeping an eye out for somewhere for my Christmas lunch, preferably the Restaurant cutely named “For You”. Before long, passing along yet another new road, I caught sight of a little place and saw the name “For You”! Success! It was beside a couple of parked buses and small stalls selling bus tickets so was in a rather noisy spot but that didn’t trouble me. I went in, and was surprised that there was no one else there. Ready to leave, a woman came up to me and I asked her if they were serving meals. Of course they were, she smiled, and what would I like? With no sign of a menu I asked for fish – the Rakhine staple and within minutes it was being served up, piping hot and smelling delicious. And it was. Simple, and utterly delicious.
Once I had finished I headed back to the hotel as one of the brakes on the bike had stopped working, leaving the one which was working on the Twang Arm side which was not so easy to use. I took advantage of the time to consult the guide book again, and look at the maps. It soon became very clear that the orientation of the map was rather different to the orientation of the actual town and the “For You” listed was nowhere near the bus park! Another mystery which I resolved to solve at some point!
I the afternoon I headed off in a different direction, aiming to find a group of temples in the north eastern area of Mrauk U, especially seeking to visit a small hill temple called Pi Sei. Following my nose, and asking directions at every temple on the way I soon found myself carrying the bike along a rough, steep and narrow trail. It eventually brought me out on a main road, busy with women carrying wood, bullock carts heading home, children playing, women carrying a variety of goods on their heads, villagers carrying water, young men playing chinlon (like “keepie uppie with a small woven bamboo ball) and monks walking along barefoot.
The road wound its way between a number of little hills, mostly topped with little temples and jungle. The great thing about cycling is that you are able to cover quite a bit of distance, and pass through areas without feeling as if you are intruding. The challenge is that there are so many fascinating moments and beautiful sights that you have to keep stopping, balanced at the roadside to take photos! (I even managed to locate the “For You” restaurant which I had originally been looking for and made a mental note of how to get back there at some point.)
With all the spontaneous diversions it took me rather longer than I realised to get to the northern temples. The sun was by this time sinking quite rapidly and I did not want to be lost in the dark. Lost in the daytime is fine but lost in the dark is a bit more scary and a step too far towards more extreme adventure! So reluctantly I turned back, deciding not to head back through the wooded track, and kept on the main road. Sure enough it eventually took me to the town and I was soon back at the hotel parting company with my trusty bike! I wandered round in the dusk to the coconut stall and slowly sipped my coconut cocktail, watching the sky turn various shades of dark purple thanks to the cloudy sky. Soon I was back in my room, pouring my second hot bath of the day, before heading to the restaurant for Christmas Dinner of fish curry!
I had decided to hire a tonga, or pony cart for the day so that I could explore the more distant temples, including the ones I had not reached the day before, and to minimise the “getting lost” time. I also made arrangements for a visit to the tribal villages for the following day, so that arrangements were in place in plenty of time.
After breakfast, the hotel manager rold me that my chariot was awating, in the form of her father, with his pony and tonga. I told him which areas I was keen to see and we set off, with me rattling around the back of the tonga. It was again cloudy and overcast, but dry and not cold.
Firstly we visited the Kothaung and Pi Sei temples and I spent a good bit of time exploring. Pi Sei is a small, overgrown hilltop shrine with four Buddha figures (facing north, south, east and west) and with a single Buddha figure on the top, visible from afar.
I loved this little temple, and spent quite a while exploring, taking photos, contemplating and enjoying the 360° view. I enjoyed the solitude and peace, and as I was coming down the hill, I met another tourist on his way up. That is how busy it was! We chatted briefly before heading off in different directions.
I spent a marvellous day, ambling through the villages, from temple to temple, climbing and clambering among ruins, walking respectfully and silently barefoot in larger temples, and all the while taking a ridiculous number of photographs. It was as I clambered up a steep and overgrown path towards a rarely visited hilltop set of temples that I suddenly remembered how much I had been dreading Christmas.
It was almost dark when I returned to the hotel, and parted company with my gentle and kind guides for the day, man and pony. There was just enough time for me to head round for my daily coconut water. Outside the temple, beside the coconut stall one of the pickups was parked, music blaring. Well actually, although I have quite a liberal and broad minded appreciation of music I am not sure that I would actually call it music. There was a thumping bass, and a screeching voice yelling out expletive after expletive. And not little mild swearie words, but the Big Naughty ones!! The students on this truck had the same enthusiastic smiles, and youthful exuberance but these were sporting extravagant mohawk and punk style hair styles along with black and purple make up! It was an innocent and incongruous sight as they piled out of their truck and bounded up the temple steps, the swear words continuing to blast forth from the truck!
It was all part and parcel of everything going around me, which I absorbed along with the delicious nutrients in the coconut water, reflecting on a magical day.
As well as reflecting, I could also feel a nervous flutter as I had made a Big Plan for the following day. If that went as hoped, I would be visiting remote villages and meeting some very special women. That account needs its own space and that will be the third and final part of the adventure!