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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

The boy with the bladder stone

I was standing in the courtyard outside the surgical ward, when a man approached me with his 14-year old son. Are you the surgeon, he asked? Then he went on to tell me how his son had suffered from recurrent urinary tract infections the past 4 years, resistant to the available antibiotics. They finally saved enough money to have an ultrasound examination that showed a 3*3 cm stone in the bladder. They came from a city 6 hours away by bus, and they had visited 5 hospitals already asking for advice, and everywhere they were met with the same answer: “No, this we cannot do. We do not do specialized surgery here.”

Hospital Duekoue Ivory Coast
Sterilized surgical equipment, Ivory Coast

In fact, the operation itself: A small incision, open the bladder, remove the stone and close again is relatively simple and takes no more than 15 minutes, however bladder stones are not common in the Ivory Coast and none of the general practitioners (with surgical competences) or surgeons had done it before. As recurrent UVIs may well harm the kidney on the longterm, there is good indication to remove the stone. I did not have access to ultrasound but I trusted the father´s description and scheduled the boy for surgery the next day where I removed the bladder stone uneventfully and inserted a normal Foley catheter. The only adverse event came after 7 days where it was entirely impossible to remove the Foley catheter as we could not empty the balloon, thus I had to open the bladder and puncture the balloon, remove the catheter, replace it with another Foley, wait another 7 days, after which this catheter was finally removed and the boy discharged. The last thing I remember was his father hiring a photographer for the money he did not have to take a picture of me together with his son as he was convinced that ”God and I had saved his life”:

Bladder stone Ivory Coast

March 2012, Duekoue, MSF supported hospital, Ivory Coast.

All stories and photograph with permission of the involved patients.

Everest Base Camp – how to do it independently

Contrary to what many websites suggest, the Everest Base Camp trek is a very straight-forward trek and, as such, even for a moderately experienced solo hiker, neither guide nor porter is necessary.

What documents/permits need to be arranged in advance: TIMS (get it on the spot in Kathmandu), National Park Fee (in Kathmandu or on the trail).

Everest Base Camp Trek
Everest Base Camp Trek – starting the ascent to Namche Bazaar

Getting there: The trek starts in Lukla (plane from Kathmandu). It is also possible to walk in from Jiri (12 hours bus-ride from Kathmandu and an additional 5-6 days hike).

The trail: Is like a highway. Up and down valleys bordered by 6000+ meters high mountains. On the standard route to Everest Base Camp I would say it is impossible to get lost. If crossing the three high passes more care may be needed.

Everest Base Camp Trek
                                                Namche Bazaar

The backpack: Pack light, though remember temperatures may drop to minus 10 degrees or more and snow may be encountered at any times: Down jacket, shell jacket and pants, sturdy hiking boots. Consider a four-season down sleeping bag. Consider hiking poles. A backpack with all this equipment need not weigh more than 7 kg.

The teahouses: Are widely distributed. They all serve food and beverages and sell snacks. The accommodation is basic, blankets will be provided, however heating is only available in the dining room. The last teahouses before Everest Base Camp, mainly in Gorak Shep may be full, in which case accommodation will be in the dining room.

Everest Base Camp Trek
                                    Chhukung Valley

Electricity: Sporadically available after Namche Bazaar. I brought solar panels. Note that when temperatures are below zero, the iPhone looses battery power rapidly.

The altitude: Altitude sickness is the major danger. The recommendations from the Himalayan Rescue Association is a maximal daily ascent of 3-400 meters after 3000 meters. As it takes only 1,5 hours to ascend 300 meter and many people are impatient, I saw many guided tours ascend too rapidly with their parties. I saw helicopter evacuations every day. Some recommend intake of Diamox for prevention, however this is, in my opinion, not an alternative to ascending slowly.

The weather: May shift at any time. Above 4500 meter it gets very cold, especially when the sun is not out. Pack accordingly.

Everest Base Camp
I met this porter on the way up to Tengboche. The weight of these two cylinders is 80 kg. I tried but could not even lift them up.

The Most Memorable Moment:
Hiking up the Kongma La Pass at 5535 meter I was surprised by a heavy snowstorm, a genuine whiteout, at about 5400 meter, just below the summit. As I could see nothing I had to turn back down the valley, the track being obliterated I had to find my way down scrambling off-track for 6 hours until I reached Dingboche:

Everest Base Camp Trek
                             On the way to Kongma La Pass
Everest Base Camp
                             Same as above, one hour later

The highlights:

  • Generally, the really spectacular scenery opens up above the tree-limit around Pheriche and the most spectacular scenery was around Chhukung and Kongma La pass.
  • Watching the porters carry impossible loads on their backs and still walking past me.
  • Everest Base Camp itself. Walking around the camp thinking about the history. When I was there the camp was empty as expeditions had been abandoned after an ice avalanche  caused the death of 16  nepalese a couple of weeks earlier.

Itinerary (as walked in April 2014):

I planned to hike over The Three Passes, however after I was forced  to descend the Kongma La Pass by a snowstorm, I walked the ordinary route up via Pheriche and back.

Lukla-Benkar-Namche Bazaar-Tengboche-Pangboche-Dingboche-Chhukung-Kongma La (return)-Dingboche-Dughla-Gorak Shep-Everest Base Camp-Pheriche-Namche Bazaar-Lukla.

Everest Base Camp
                                                 Everest Base Camp

Click for photogallery of the hike to Everest Base Camp in April 2014