Why you need to make Mrauk U your priority when you visit Myanmar – and not Bagan
August 20, 2017
About nine months ago, I fulfilled a longtime dream by going to Myanmar (Birma). With one of my besties being half-Birmese, I had been very curious about this special country for years. And boy, Myanmar did not disappoint – just have a look here.
I was particularly looking forward to the temples of Bagan, where you can take wonderful pictures during sunrise as air balloons cross the sky. Have I told you I’m crazy about sunrises and sunsets? Bagan is perfect for sky lovers like me.
But I was wrong..
It quickly became apparent, though, that for a more off the beaten track experience with beautiful sunrises, we needed to go to Mrauk U. Mrauk U (pronounced as Myow Oo) is a town and large archeological site with temples and pagodas from the 15th and 16th century. At first you might think this is probably similar to the Bagan site, but Mrauk U is different for two main reasons. First, the surroundings of the Mrauk U temples are not like those from Bagan at all and are, in my view, a lot nicer. Mrauk U is surrounded by greens and located within local life, so to say: as you go from temple to temple, you cross neighbourhoods (some temples are located in the city!), pass rice fields and encounter cows and farmers. In Bagan, on the contrary, you won’t see much more than the temples themselves and tourists.
And this is reason number two – Mrauk U is incomparable when it comes to tourist numbers. Only a few thousand tourists visit Mrauk U every year, whereas Bagan receives up to 250.000 visitors annually. When we stayed in Mrauk U town, we only saw one other tourist, and we shared the most popular sunset site with only 20-30 others (and elsewhere with just one other guy). But Bagan was a different story: I was shocked when I saw the dozens of large buses waiting for the hundreds and hundreds of tourists to return right after the sun dropped below the horizon (rookie mistake number one, the sky gets much more beautiful afterwards!).
The beauty of Mrauk U
I loved Mrauk U. It felt quiet, magical and not spoiled by tourism at all. We rented bikes and cycled from temple to temple, being passers-by of local daily life. It felt like a hidden gem, that unfortunately will probably turn into tourist hot spot in a couple of years.
You need to be an early riser to see Mrauk U at its best. Leave well before sunrise to climb the ‘Golden Hill’ to the Shwetaung Pagoda, for a 360 degree view of Mrauk U and its beautiful green surroundings (no guide needed). It will be one of the most breathtaking sunrises you will see in Myanmar – the view is spectacular.
During the day, it’s very simple to visit the various temples and pagodas. Rent a bike and wander around – it’s so nice to explore not just the temples, but also the fields and the town itself.
The reason that not many tourists visit Mrauk U is because of its remote location and poor infrastructure. To get there, you either need to take a Birmese flight with questionable reputation, or take a number of buses and boats, like we did. We came from Ngapali (another not yet very popular town in Rakhine state) and the road itself was worth the long trip. We didn’t run into other tourists: Rakhine life at its purest.
Despite the very long trip to get there (or maybe because?) Mrauk U was without doubt the highlight of this trip – even if that meant we had to skip Inle Lake. If you plan on visiting Myanmar any time soon, make sure you have enough time left to visit Mrauk U and experience this relatively off the beaten track place itself. It will be all different in a few years’ time. And don’t forget to enjoy the view from the road towards it! 🙂
Finding accommodation in Mrauk U is pretty straightforward. There are people waiting for you when you get off the boat to bring you to one of the hotels, but it’s very easy to walk it yourself with your guidebook.
If you prefer to go by plane, the closest airport is in Sittwe, from where you can take a bus or boat to Mrauk U (see below).
I’ve heard that are direct buses from Yangon, but I’m not aware of the details and when they run. A useful website is Go-Myanmar, where you’ll be able to find lots of practical information.
Coming by bus from Ngapali, you’ll need to take a tuktuk to Thandwe and from there a van to Taunggok, which will take a few hours. Taunggok is a sleepy town, where you will be one of the very few tourists around. Very simple hotel rooms are available for around $25 near the bus station, but make sure to bring your own cotton sheet, as it wasn’t very clean. The following morning you can take a very early boat to Sittwe, which may take up to 6-8 hours. Decent food is provided on board. For most of the time you can sit outside on the small deck, which I would recommend as it’s freezing inside (air conditioning blasting away)! We also spent the night in Sittwe and left early in the morning again for our final boat, which was a large, open one with good views, making it a pleasant trip.