Tucked away in a remote corner of Myanmar is Mrauk U; an ancient city where locals still live, building their homes and planting their fields in between temples that are hundreds of years old.
It’s quite a sight to see, from the misty morning sunrise to the scorching afternoon heat, stunning sunsets over the temples and quiet evenings, Mrauk U never fails to enchant.
But getting to Mrauk U is difficult.
From Yangon or Mandalay you can take a bus via Magwe; a bone-jarring, squished in, non-sleeping 24 hour ride on a vehicle that looks like it was built in the 1950s and hasn’t been repaired since. When you buy your ticket they’ll tell you the bus is air conditioned; if you’re lucky that might be true. If you’re really lucky it’ll be on time, but don’t count on it.
Or you can take the boat up the Kaladan river from Sittwe to Mrauk U. Of course you have to get yourself to Sittwe first, either flying from Yangon or taking a series of boats from the beaches on the south coast.
I’ve also been told that there’s a bus from Sittwe to Mrauk U, taking about four hours. But really? It’s a couple of hours quicker but worth the extra two hours to be on an open air boat and seeing the river life instead of cramped up on a hot bus.
There are a couple of choices for boats from Sittwe to Mrauk U: a government boat leaves a few times a week at 7am and takes about 6 hours, or private boats run occasionally. Things are changing constantly in Myanmar so it’s best to check what’s available when you get there.
I took the government boat, and on the crowded upper deck I was happy to pay 1000 kyat to have a chair for the entire journey instead of sitting on the floor.
Whichever boat you take, it’s an excellent chance to see life along the river.
The ferry leaves just as the sun is rising through the mist; seagulls follow the boat as it makes its way from the dock up the river, hoping it will churn up a tasty snack.
Cargo and fishing boats chug down the river, some loaded down until they’re barely peeking out of the water.
The Burmese deal with the monotony of a long ride much the same as anyone; reading books, sleeping, chatting, playing cards. Children posed for my camera, grins widening their thanaka-smeared faces.
An occasional village popped up on the shore, stilt houses and boats lining the muddy bank. The houses here are made of whatever material can be found; wood, reeds and corrugated metal are common. The rich do not live on the riverbanks in Myanmar.
The ferry from Sittwe to Mrauk U stopped at three of these villages to drop off and pick up passengers and cargo; a welcome break in the monotony of brown river and green banks.
The river was so low at the time (February; the height of the dry season) that the boat couldn’t get in close to any of the docks, so each time the crew had to figure out how they were going to rig things to get the passengers on and off.
Rickety boards were propped up against boat and dock, and passengers carefully made their way up and down them. Belongings and bags were placed on heads and shoulders while the people clung on to each other, desperately trying not to fall off into the water. I was glad to not have to do this myself with my large backpack!
At one stop the board did not reach the dock, and went straight down into the water a few metres out from the bank. From here the passengers just had to wade through the water to the muddy shore, hiking up their longyis to a length that would be considered indecent in any other situation. A family with small children got ferried to the boat in a narrow canoe.
At each stop girls boarded the boat to sell food and snacks, and I felt bad for them having to slosh through dirty water, sucking mud, and garbage just to get on the boat and make a living, only to have to go back the same way.
The garbage was horrifying. At the first stop in particular, it covered the shore and was obvious that the river was the village’s dump. I wonder how long it might be before people realize what this does to the very environment they live in. But…is it ignorance? Or is it a lack of basic sanitation services such as garbage collection that prompts them to dump it in the only place that seems logical to them?
At the final stop a small crowd had gathered, and I thought it was to meet arriving passengers, but few seemed to be greeting anyone. It’s possible that the arrival of the boat was the most exciting part of the day around here.
Finally the ferry arrived in Mrauk U, the dock crowded with hotel owners and tuk tuk drivers anxious to help me out. But there’s far too much to say about Mrauk U right now, so keep your eyes open for a future post!
A couple of things to note before you go from Sittwe to Mrauk U:
Check that the region is open to foreigners before you go. Because of the Rohingya/Burmese conflict, both Sittwe and Mrauk U sometimes close to outsiders.
Make sure you have your passport easily accessible, as you’ll need it when getting on any bus in the region. They keep careful track of foreigners in this area.
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