Rakhaing State is today one of the most remote, under-developed parts of Myanmar, yet 350 years ago, its coastal strip formed the heartland of the rich and powerful Arakan kingdom which was the most cosmopolitan in the history of southeast Asia.
Its capital was Mrauk-U (literally “Monkey Egg”), a port founded in 1430 by King Naramithla. Thirty years later, this was a sophisticated kingdom with Buddhist traditions mingled with those of Indo-Islamic India. The arts and philosophy flourished, and splendid pagodas, temples, and palaces were erected on the banks of the River Kaladan.
By the mid-15th century, Mrauk-U had 160,000 inhabitants of many nationalities and the kingdom stretched from the shores of the Ganges River to the western reaches of the Ayeyarwaddy River.
The end came when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, dispatched an army to annex the eastern portions of Bengal which was then occupied by the Arakans. The loss was the beginning of the end for Mrauk-U as the port went into decline and the countryside lapsed into poverty. In 1784, the Burmese took the sacred Maha Muni image, and Mrauk-U never recovered from the sacking.
The vestiges of Naramithla’s once resplendent capital now serve as a backdrop to a still-active village of goat herders and cauliflower farmers. The great empire felt compelled to leave behind reminders of its glory days but now the place has the feel of a languid backwater.
Many of the brick stupas and temple complexes are now choked with weeds and creepers but the romance generated by this remote site more than repays the time and trouble required to reach it. The crumbling walls of the one-time royal palace can still be seen and there is an Archaeological Museum just inside the walls on the western side.
What to see
The area has no defined route for visitors but you shouldn’t miss the Shittaung Pagoda and its Shittaung Pillar to the north of town which was built in 1535-1536 by King Min Bin to commemorate his conquest of Bengal. Three layers of maze-like corridors encircle the main hall and contain countless reliefs of Buddhas, and other items both real and mythical.
Close by is the Htukkanthein Temple (Cross- Beam Ordination Hall) designed as a dual purpose “fortress-temple” and one of the most militaristic buildings in Mrauk U, built on raised ground, with a single entrance and small windows. The brick and stone temple enshrining the statues of Buddha was built in 1571 by King Min Phalaung.
You should also see the large, restored Kothaung Temple (Temple of 90.000 Buddha Images) to the east of the palace. This is the largest temple in Mrauk-U and was built between 1554 and 1556 by King Dikkha.
Although Mrauk U is primarily a Buddhist site, there are several religious buildings of other faiths. The most notable would be the old Santikan Mosque, built during Min Saw Mon’s reign, in the southeast of the town.
A government ferry and small private boats operate from Sittwe to Mrauk U. The trip takes from five to seven hours. Alternatives are a rough five-hour road trip in the dry season or an expensive speedboat transfer. It is now possible at certain times of the year to reach Mrauk U direct by bus from both Mandalay and Yangon, and even from Bagan via a change of bus in Magway but it is a very long and rough journey.
Amazingly, a controversial new rail line was being bulldozed through the edges of Mrauk-U but because of considerable protests, this was suspended late 2014 while awaiting further cultural evaluation. It is believed that this is because the Myanmar government would like a UNESCO heritage rating for the site.
There are several small hotels and guest houses of quite reasonable quality in the village with Mrauk Oo Princess Resort probably the best, but don’t expect a palace.