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Published: January 18th 2007
Passing Scenes #1
The Buffalo Climber
Mrauk-U was the former capital city of the Rhakine Kingdom in the pre-colonnial era. In order to pay his respects to his Buddhist beliefs a local king built hundreds of pagodas throughout the landscape. It doesn't quite rival Bagan in scale but folklore says that every single hilltop was capped with a golden pagoda. Even now the hills teem with spires of dark stone and glinting gold. When the Rhakine Kingdom was torn apart by rivals, the king hired Japanese samurais as personal body guards. This all occurred just prior to the arrival of the British, expanding east from India. A busy and fascinating time although not well documented. Nowadays Mrauk-U is only accessible by boat from Sittwe for tourists. The crowds that plague Bagan are non-existant which allows a very nice opportunity to sink everything in peacefully, reflect on Buddhist teachings, or use it as an unspoiled backdrop to a tasty lunch of noodles and Chinese tea. A bicycle is the preferred method of transportation, and Dagon beer is the tastiest. Mrauk-U is a great place to experience local culture, see amazing historical sites, and relax the mind and spirit.
My journey started when I negotiated my boat fare
from Sittwe, a rather difficult venture. The information in Lonely Planet, published in March 2006 is already innacurate. There are no 'fast boats.' There are local government boats that are quite cheap ($2-3) that run every few days. The other alternative is to rent a private (but still slow) boat. The boat costs about $100 round trip, so if you haggle individually you should agree on a price based on how many other people are onboard. They'll take you for what they can get you for otherwise. Mraung-Gree is the name of a local tour guide we paired up with. He's quite honest and has all the inside knowledge that makes a visit here much much easier and much more informative. Since there is very little to nothing to read about the place, you need someone around to tell you. Thankfully Mraung-Gree's english was far superior to my non-exist Bumese or Rhakine. In addition to Mrauk-U he took us up river a bit to visit some Chin (pronounced Shin) villages. As travel into the actual Chin state is rather long and not necesarily allowed by the government, we stayed on the northern edge of the Rhakine state. It was here
that we learned the story of the women with the facial tattoos.
The tattoos are not a traditional adornment. The young girls do not follow in their grand mother's footsteps. The story is in fact quite sad. When the these women were around 9 years old it was decided that they should have their faces tattooed. The intent was to make them ugly. Yes, perposefully make these very cute young girls ugly. The reasoning behind doing this wasn't explained in much detail other than the fact that the Chin women were considered very pretty and saught after by other peoples from neighboring areas. It's something along the lines of "well you can't take away our beautiful girls if we take away their beauty first." These women all appear to have families now but their whole lives they were, and still are, considered ugly. Of course as a foreigner we see it as quite the opposite. We are intriqued and stare because of its uniqueness and beauty. In fact one lady was very happy and even joined us as we were treated to try Chin beer. Usually only used for special occassion, we sat down to a large clay or
metal jar with two bamboo straws. Two at a time, facing each other, you drink through the straws simultaneously and only stop when the other person stops. The 'beer' seemed to be made of rice, more a sake than beer. It was quite delicious and surprisingly cool given that there is no electricity and refrigeration (and it was quite hot outside.) A sit down with the village leader, then our guide, then the tattoo faced woman lead to me feeling quite buzzed. This stuff was strong to boot! And so capped off this short trip upriver to the Chin villages.
The rest of my time there was mostly eneventful. I would bike around town admiring large pagodas and temples, drinking Chinese tea, and lazing about. I will however remember the day I went for a jog and happened to run through a military village (where I am not allowed), and scrambled up to an overgrown pagoda to look over the countryside. The kids were more surprised to see me than other kids in town I noticed. Soldiers strolling with their wives casually asked what I was doing and I acted out 'going for a run' without running away from
Passing Scenes #5
Pagas and Paddles
them which I deemed might be rude if not supicious. They mostly just smiled and gave no indication I was in a government area. Some local kids with machetes lead me up the hill to the mostly neglected pagoda. They took me on a trail that only a kid can see as a trail. I thought they were going to start hacking away but they just slipped into the large overgrowth as I did everything I could to keep up. It wasn't until I ran back through the village that a soldier turned me back and sent me onto a main road. On the way back I noticed a very large and unmissable entrypoint that had 'government only' written all over it, but I had turned into an earlier entry point and never saw it. Whoops, no harm done, and everyone was very friendly, as always everywhere in Myanmar.
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