Mrauk U

Mrauk U, Rakhine and the invisible Rohingya

I visited Rahkine as part of a one-month trip around Myanmar in January 2017.

Once in Yangon, I simply booked a flight to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, an uneventful 50 min flight away. Arriving after midday in Sittwe, I walked through a lazy sea-side town, where various hotel staff tried to charge me 150 dollars for a private boat or car to Mrauk U, the remote temple sight and main touristic draw of the Rakhine State.

Traveling like the locals, Rakhine State
On the way to Mrauk U with the locals, Rakhine State

I politely declined, walked to the bus station, and arrived in Mrauk U after 5-hour drive in the back of a local pickup, crammed with locals who eagerly touched my skin, impressed with how white it was. In fact, all the markets are crammed with all sorts of skin whitening products.

Mrauk U
Mrauk U

Mrauk U is the name of both a village with about 50.000 inhabitants and a wide-spread temple. Still off the beaten track, being occasionally deemed off limits to tourists depending on the political situation in Rakhine, and with locals still living between the ruins as they did 40 years ago in Bagan.

Mrauk U
Mrauk U

There are no Rohingyas here, I was told. They are all up by the Bangladesh border. There is no trouble here. Considering that I had read that the Rohingyas of Mrauk U had been expelled to a camp approximately 8 km south of town, I silently wondered but left the subject. I traveled by boat up the river and visited remote Chin villages, only accessible by water, where the elderly women still wear the characteristic facial tattoos, a practice abolished 50 years ago.

Woman with the traditional Chin tattoo
Woman with the traditional Chin tattoo

The woman who made them suddenly died, and then no-one knew how to make them, my boatdriver told me. However somehow there seems to be more to this story. I asked again about the Rohingya. I was told that all the tourists asked about them, and many had decided against coming due to the perceived unrest (and to the British Foreign Secretary´s general advice against all non-essential travel to Mrauk U).

School in a Shin village, Rakhine
School in a Shin village, Rakhine

However, upon insisting, I was also told by my boat-guide that there was indeed a Rohingya camp located 8 km south of Mrauk U, but ”it is more like a village, they are fine, they live just like us with markets and everything. No problems”. On the contrary ”the problem is the Rohingya who tried to cross the border from Bangladesh to Myanmar, because Myanmar is a richer country than Bangladesh”. The rural villages I passed in Northern Rakhine state were by any standards very poor though.

Shin villages on a river near Mrauk U
Shin villages on a river near Mrauk U

I then travelled by bus from Mrauk U to Kyaukpadang (1 hour from Bagan), an overland route only opened for foreigners within the last year. Another uneventful overland travel in Rakhine State. To the ordinary tourist in this area the Rohingya are invisible and those locals involved in tourism tries their best to make them stay that way, knowing well that travel restrictions to this part of Rakhine State will severely impact their business.

Mrauk U
Mrauk U
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One thought on “Mrauk U, Rakhine and the invisible Rohingya”

  1. Hey, how long it takes the bus from mrauk u to the city near bagan? I would like to do the same itinerary you did in December, is it safe for a solo woman?

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