Mrauk U 1

April 20th, 2015
The truck around which men had loudly been shouting now pulls out and leaves the bus staging area. A few motorcycles slowly putter into view, men disembarking and disappearing into one of the adjoining ramshackle structures.
The distant sound of a bus engine becomes apparent, the vehicle pulling into place on the lot near where I am sitting. I stir from my position slumped over the table and wander over to the bus. No seats?
I return and collapse onto the table again, taking note of the slowly emerging daylight. I can’t believe I have been sitting at this table all night, waiting for a bus. This is not what I envision in traveling, or ever want to experience again.
For what it’s worth, almost everyone boarding the bus in Yangon or Mandalay will be heading all the way into Rakhine state, as there would be no point in taking Rakhine-bound vehicles only as far as Pyay or Magwe and paying the full fare.
Men busy themselves opening their shops, arranging their modest merchandise, a few more motorcycles amble through and then another bus, which would allow people to sit in the centre aisle, but don’t want to risk it for foreigners. And I really don’t want to consider spending hours on winding roads, with the liquid constitution of my stomach, not being able to sit comfortably or even get any amount of rest – moreover for the generous ticket prices being charged.
The exhaustion and discomfort of sitting here is becoming excruciating – I just want this hell to end. And yet even when I get on a bus, I will have another lengthy and uncomfortable bus ride, never mind having to find a suitable place to stay in Mrauk U.
Finally, a bus pulls in that offers an actual seat all the way to Mrauk U for 8,000 kyat, a steal compared to what I had been offered before. In fact, the driver and conductor seem reasonable and sweet, the latter throwing my heavy pack into the back of the bus prior to finally departing from the station, something I had almost lost faith would ever happen.
My stomach is so tender that I couldn’t bare entering the grimy food stalls adjacent the parked bus and get anything into my system – I am afraid at this point that I would have little control over my poor fragile body on another lengthy bus ride.
And while the trip is nowhere as daunting as what I imagine would have been experienced prior to the apparent renovation of the road, even at relatively low speeds the tight serpentines along the sloppy, uneven tarmac is painful and exhausting. The sullen faces of the passengers are a testimony to how fed up they are at having to sustain the awful road conditions. Occasional retching is heard from the back of the bus, although it is not clear if the group of carousing young men seated there are entertaining themselves at the expense of the rest of the bus.
The landscape is both parched and fecund, the expanses of tilled soil and scrubland dry while the terrain abutting the many rivers and marshes often quite lush. Little coherent forest is visible from the winding roadside, however prevalent the untamed dry tropical scrub we pass by may be.
Just as I observed in yesterday’s lengthy odyssey from Magwe, there are very few dusty villages visible from the winding rudimentary road, other than small collections of woven bamboo and thatch huts squatting grimly in the oppressive heat of the dry season. The few people visible from the roadside look resolutely Burmese in their physical appearance, nothing of what can be seen here suggesting the presence of the Rohingya or the proximity of the border with Bangladesh.
Again, I would love to be taking photos, but despite sitting next to a somewhat opaque window and the slowly wending bus offering many superb shots, my camera battery is dead and needs recharging. Assuming I return the same way, I suppose I can just make up the missing visual exploration then.
Virtually no one gets off or boards the bus on the lengthy journey to Mrauk U, not that you would wish the searing desolation of this landscape on anyone. I attempt to cobble together an understanding of this region from the exceedingly little that I have read about it, attempting to understand what organic relationship the region has to the rest of Myanmar, if any.
Historically, Burma’s natural boundaries were defined by the mountainous regions that bounded the broad riverine plains surrounding the Irrawaddy, although the kings were intent on expanding outward, their clashes in the Rakhine and to the west in Indian principalities inevitably provoking the engagement of the English.
Today the first towns of any size are a searing 15 hours by bus from the nearest city in Burma proper, not the kind of commute anyone would want to embrace, although judging from the numerous buses seen on the road between Magwe and Ann yesterday late afternoon, there are obviously many who do ply these roads. And flying from Yangon to Sittwe would not fit the economics of many in this region.
The gruelling journey seems to take much more than the four to five hours that had been predicted. For one, the bus hardly races on the bumpy asphalt, slowing down and veering away for the occasional oncoming vehicle, given that the road conveniently only fits a single carriage. There is little traffic to be seen, even the plethora of buses visible on the highway yesterday has been reduced to a very occasional occurrence.
I am too overwhelmed by exhaustion and numbing pain to really be able to think of much beyond simply wanting to get off the bus and lie down somewhere, although the inevitable search for a hotel will be the last point of frustration on this epic journey.
The dramatic rolling landscapes, twisting rivers and serpentine roads dissipate to a far more pedestrian linear alley flanked by modest hardwoods in the final approaches towards Mrauk U, although considerable distance still remains. Uniformed soldiers board the bus, eyes quickly scanning the passengers, although surprisingly, not picking me out of the crowd. I am told later they are looking for Moslems, as none are allowed in Mrauk U.
We pull into one very uninteresting town, and after letting the throbbing heat surge into our reasonably air conditioned bus, we are off again, the last 17 miles agonizing, finally broaching the exceedingly innocuous roads around Mrauk U, a far cry from the visual fantasies of the place exhibited on the internet.
As we finally come to a rest at the eroding gates of the ancient palace, I reflect on the fact that this has been an absolute trip though hell and back, not something I want to have to repeat. There are certainly redeeming aspects, but it largely amounts to having to suffer through the ignominy of terrible infrastructure and its concomitant challenges, and yet pay high prices for the privilege – not a combination I enjoy when traveling. Of course, the people of the area face far grimmer challenges …
Descending across from the crumbling walls of the ancient palace, arrival in town seems anti-climactic after the gruelling journey here. A few shade-bearing trees line the dusty boulevard, some locals gawking at the few disembarking passengers, most of the people on the bus continuing for the even far longer journey to Sittwe.
One passenger recommends the Moe Cherry guesthouse and eatery situated next to us, but the deafening music emanating from the gigantic speakers guarantees that I will never want to stay in this place. Two young and eager motorcycle taxi drivers have just the place in mind for me, but there is no way the 10,000 kyat would assure AC and wifi, although continued discussion reveals that most of the places probably have no wifi anyway, irrespective of price.
Normally I am not a fan of touts, but I anticipate the hotel situation in town will be precarious, given that I have booked nothing in advance, I am totally exhausted, and have no sense of where things would be located here. I decide to try the Mrauk U Palace, at the far west side of town, where the receptionist haughtily dismisses my claims that the $45 a night for the uniform and functional-looking new bungalows set up in a neat row on the unfinished lot is excessive – the hotel is virtually full anyway, and they don’t need to waste their time with people vying for concessions.
True – the demand for accommodation is excessive in this country that has become the bell weather for trendy tourism, so the hotels can ask whatever they want, although that logic will also backfire as the country is eventually held to the same standards as its neighbors. Tourism is fickle, and a few years down the road you may get fewer guests as the place goes downhill and vigorous competition appears.
The government intervention in the hotel industry itself is a big factor in limiting the number of hotels available in Myanmar. The picture does not get rosier as we continue to some inexpensive hotels and guesthouses, either too basic for my liking, full, or in the case of another place that just opened up, priced well beyond the acceptable, the new structure characterless and unfinished, a small and chaotic lobby leading to mid-sized fan rooms with shared bathrooms for $25, so overpriced that I refuse to even look at the all-inclusive rooms for $45 upstairs.
The Prince Hotel that is spoken of dismissively in the Lonely Planet and even more so on Tripadvisor will be the last option, although I am not optimistic. The town of Mrauk U seems to not even remotely evoke the romance of the temples drenched in sunset sepia as shown in the romantic tourist photos, nothing more than drab and dusty alleys with little character.
Returning to the side of town we arrived in, I pass through the gate into the shambolic leafy grounds, the setting expansive, rustic and somewhat surreal, the grounds leading to a series of connected bungalows at the back of the mouldering terrace, the room I am offered weather-beaten but quite large, with very basic amenities, comfortable wooden twin beds. However, the hot water, electricity and AC are functional, the ceiling enormously high, the place very private and quiet, a country idyll if any, and a testimony to perseverance in looking for a place to stay. The family members running the place are also friendly and gracious, hardly out of the ordinary here, offering breakfast any time I want, bicycles for rent and excellent wifi courtesy of one young woman’s cell phone.
I would love to start exploring town beginning this very afternoon, and beginning with the stern stupas beckoning from the cliff overhead, but my exhaustion is too severe. It will actually take time to get to the point of relaxing so that I can sleep, but it would probably be best just to lie low for a while – and give my battered stomach a break too.
Early in the evening, the inevitable trek to the road lining the ancient palace walls, a few sprawling roadside eateries waiting for clients, the spacious establishment doubling as office for the bus company I arrived in town with, the remaining tables quickly filling with local families upon my arrival.
The Burmese hin is always a shot in the dark inasmuch as the side dishes may or may not contain copious amounts of the reviled fish paste, but today’s offering is extraordinary: a large tiger prawn in an oily garlic chili sauce is accompanied with slightly steamed cress, baby eggplant stewed in minute amounts of onion, garlic, chili and fish paste, potato salad with a dry curry, garlic and onion sauce, and a sour green soup amended with traces of what tastes like corned beef.
Following this delicious meal, I can only think of returning to the room at the Prince Hotel and enjoying a glass of my strawberry wine before my mind descends into the depths of the nights darkness, all the vicissitudes of preceding days disappearing alongside …