Crumbling pagodas and putrid pork

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Mrauk U, Rakhine, Myanmar
We had quite a lot of rain on Tuesday night. Wednesday morning started grey and damp which made leaving Ngapali beach a little easier. Until a few weeks ago there had been a direct flight north west to our next destination Sittwe. However Air Bagan had recently changed their schedules and we now had to fly in the opposite direction back to Yangon to connect there with a flight back to Sittwe.

We left the hotel in their vintage bus and reached the small airport about 30 minutes later . The flight was delayed we were told because the plane was coming from Heho where the weather was bad. Having experienced the morning mists at Heho ourselves we understood the situation and were assured that we would still get our connection in Yangon. The weather was starting to brighten up here and there was a pleasant outdoor coffee shop where we settled down to wait. We were disappointed to find though that the coffee shop had no coffee. It provided us with some amusement however as we watched each new batch of tourists arrive, choose a table, sit down, order and then be told “sorry no coffee”!

The plane arrived from Heho an hour later than scheduled. Security was virtually non existent at the airport. Departing passengers were wandering all over the tarmac as the plane taxied to a standstill. We watched as the arriving passengers disembarked and then, just as if we’d been waiting for a bus, as soon as the last one got off we walked out to the plane without any instructions from the airport staff and got on .

Despite the frequent delays we have been impressed with Air Bagan. The planes are clean and new, and the service excellent. During the flight to Yangon we were given cold towels, a choice of cold drinks, a snack, tea or coffee, more cold drinks and finally boiled sweets, all in 45 minutes!

At Yangon we were 30 minutes late for the flight to Sittwe. We dashed to the check in counter somewhat rashly leaving our luggage receipts with someone who told us that he would take care of our bags. Once in the departure lounge we found that the flight hadn’t even started boarding and in fact we had quite a long wait.

It has been bright and sunny in Yangon but we bumped our way down through rain clouds as we approached Sittwe. Thandwe airport had been rather primitive in our eyes but Sittwe airport was in another league altogether. We had to wait half way down the steps from the plane as some army wives who had been on the flight were greeted by their uniformed husbands . The arrivals area was dark and dingy and the smell of the gents toilet filled the room. We had to have our details entered in a large ledger at the immigration desk and then we waited for our luggage to arrive. It had been offloaded from the plane and piled onto a trailer but was standing in the pouring rain whilst military personnel poked and prodded the pile identifying the luggage that belonged to their party and which clearly was to be given priority. Eventually the remaining damp bags were deposited at the door of the terminal building and it was a free for all as everyone scrambled to reclaim theirs.

We were met by a driver in a very old minibus. There were some worrying grinding noises as we set off. The indicator made a loud and annoying beeping sound and the windscreen wipers, completely devoid of any rubber, grated backwards and forwards. We received instructions for the next morning and were left at the Noble Hotel in the town centre. It was a bit of a come down after our recent accommodation . The room was tiny and there was nowhere to put our two bags. We had to take it in turns to move and even then climb over things to get from one side of the room to another.

It was around 3.30pm and we felt we ought to venture out despite the rain. There was a museum opposite the hotel but it closed at 4.00pm and so we settled for a wander around the town. It was such a shame that the weather was bad as it seemed a really interesting and photogenic place. We were stared at here much more than anywhere else we had been. They clearly did not see too many foreigners. There were cycle rickshaws everywhere. The town of Sittwe is situated at the mouth of the Kaladan River and is the starting point for travel upstream to the historic town of Mrauk U.

We picked our way through the muddy market to the river. This looked grey and decidedly choppy. I started to have misgivings about our long river journey next day. We were looking for a restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, as somewhere for our evening meal, but on finding it we decided to call in now to shelter from the rain for a while . We were the only customers and it was dark and damp. There was a grassy area to the rear overlooking the river which was probably quite pleasant on a nice day.

When we returned to eat later the rain had eased off but everywhere was really muddy. The restaurant owner greeted us with a bucket of cold water to pour over our feet. The restaurant was still damp and gloomy but we could see shadowy figures at other tables. Our arrival however prompted them to switch on the lights. The food was surprisingly good but we weren’t so impressed with the cabaret act - a keyboard player and a procession of female singers.

We were both awake early on Thursday in anticipation of the river journey ahead of us, upstream to Mrauk U. The ancient minibus was waiting for us at 8.00am and we rattled and squeaked our way to the jetty where the river ferries departed. We had to clamber across a couple of larger boats to reach ours moored further out in the river . We had the boat to ourselves. There was a crew of three and we were impressed to find comfortable seating either under cover or on the top deck as we preferred, and a table laid with water, bananas, tea and coffee. There were fresh flowers on the prow to appease the spirits of the river and ensure a good trip. There was even a western type toilet (non flushing but it looked good).

We enjoyed the trip more than we expected. It was not raining but overcast as we set off. The breeze out in the middle of the wide river was quite chilly. There was a lot of river transport around Sittwe - ferries, fishing boats, cargo boats and police launches. As we progressed though we saw fewer other vessels. Gradually the river started to get narrower and by mid morning we had a little hazy sunshine which made it feel a bit warmer. On the final section we were close enough to the banks to be able to observe small fishing settlements and grazing water buffalo. It was clearly the time for haymaking as every home seemed to be busy constructing an enormous haystack, all by hand of course .

After five hours we glimpsed the first of the temples and stupas of Mrauk U and were soon moored up at the colourful waterfront. We were met by a bright orange beach buggy type of vehicle (the sort that requires you to climb in through the window which we found somewhat difficult with our stiff, old limbs) and drove through the town to the Hotel Nawarat. We were given a bungalow which, although of only normal proportions, seemed amazing spacious after last night’s room.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and getting lost in Mrauk U. It was really just an overgrown village where motor vehicles were few and far between. Again the bicycle ruled and again we caused a bit of a stir wherever we went. My Lonely Planet guide, which is 7 years old, noted that the children here, for some strange reason, don’t call out “mingalaba” or “hello” as elsewhere, but “bye bye”. Well nothing had changed in that respect . We heard calls of “bye bye” all over the place. The children also often asked for money which was not something we had encountered much elsewhere.  

We were well used to a complete absence of street lighting by now and later ventured out with our torch to a nearby restaurant. The food was good. They did an excellent chicken curry and provided several vegetable dishes to accompany it. As ever we were the last in the restaurant at 8.30pm and with no where else to go we returned to our room and finished the evening with a beer on the terrace, sitting in the dark and listening to the night time sounds of the insects, birds and other unidentifiable creatures.

Our guide for the next two days arrived after breakfast next morning. He was a diffident chap whose name we didn’t catch. His English was poor and we could tell straight away that he wasn’t going to be much good. Our transport, we weren’t impressed to find, was the same orange beach buggy that had collected us from the jetty yesterday . We squeezed into the back and set off to see Mrauk U’s temples.

Unlike the brick pagodas of Bagan Mrauk U’s were constructed of stone. Most were 16th and 17th century but some were a lot older. Mrauk U was an important trading town from 1430 to 1784, dominating the Bay of Bengal with a naval fleet of 10,000 ships. Little is left of the Royal Palace in the town centre but the surrounding area is full of pagodas and we spent the day driving from one to the next. Many were impressive with galleries of Buddha images, some boasting as many as 80,000. We also visited the archaeological museum and several very old monasteries. The latter were often full of antique Buddhas cast in bronze which were taken to the monasteries to avoid theft by the British. Our guide gave us little or no information. There were one or two other tourists around and we found that we learnt more from eavesdropping on what their guide was saying. We were also quite envious of their air conditioned minibuses or cars.

After lunch Keith asked to sit in the front of the vehicle which he found a bit more comfortable and we continued our round of the sights.   We were given such useful information as “this is an old monastery”, and when asked how old something was were always told, after the question was given due consideration, “500 years”. It was very hot and it wasn’t too long before pagoda fatigue started to set in . We were also tiring of having to remove our sandals and limp painfully over rough terrain. The afternoon ended with a climb to yet another pagoda to watch the sunset. It was a good viewpoint and the temples below looked atmospheric wreathed in the smoke of the late afternoon fires lit by the locals to burn their rubbish. However, we chose to wait for the sun to go down under a large spreading tree from which hundreds of tiny black flies descended onto us prompting a lot of un Buddhist like swatting.

We chose a different restaurant that night in the hope that it might be more lively. Several tables at the Triple One were already occupied by locals eating and drinking when we arrived, and although the food wasn’t too special, they had draught beer and we felt a lot more comfortable lingering there for a couple of beers after we had eaten.

Our guide seemed to think that we would want to see the sunrise at 6 .00am on Saturday morning. We soon put him right on that score and arranged to start our day’s trip at 8.00am.

During the night though I was ill and couldn’t face a 3 hour bumpy trip in the back of the beach buggy. Keith didn’t feel 100% either and so we cancelled the trip. This was a good decision as we both deteriorated during the day. I couldn’t even keep any water down. We blamed it on the pork we had eaten the night before. Bored with sitting in our room I suggested at lunchtime we go for a little stroll. It was very hot and although I didn’t feel too bad initially I suddenly started to feel faint and had to sit on a chair outside a little shop. When I regained consciousness I was surrounded by a group of concerned people offering me tissues to wipe off the vomit all down my front - how embarrassing!

By teatime we were both still feeling rather rough and so made enquiries about getting some medicine from a doctor . The hotel manageress was very helpful. She phoned the doctor in town to make an appointment for us and accompanied us in the hotel minibus. The surgery was an open fronted shack with a mud floor, a bench for patients to sit on whilst waiting, a curtained off consulting room, lots of public health posters and a cabinet on top of which was a dusty ramshackle pile of medicines. We had to wait around 20 minutes for the doctor to arrive from the hospital and were then taken into the curtained off area. We were glad that the hotel manageress was with us as his English wasn’t very good. We had a full examination with the stethoscope and our blood pressure measured. He diagnosed gastro enteritis but seemed more concerned with Keith’s blood pressure which he said was very high (contrary to all the tests he has ever had at home). Clutching a variety of tablets we were driven back to the hotel.

It was New Year’s Eve but celebrations were the furthest thing from our minds. We were tucked up in bed by 10.00pm, feeling sorry for ourselves and facing a 5.00am get up in the morning to begin the long journey back.

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