The medieval ruins are so remote that time nearly left them behind. Mystical fortresses crafted with jaw-dropping architectural panache, towering over rice paddies and rural villages as the petrified remains of a long-lost empire. This is Mrauk U, the enchanting capital of the old Arakan kingdom, home to some of the most unique archaeological ruins on earth.
Traveling up the Kaladan River in Myanmar’s western delta region is journey back into time; simple homes with rainwater collecting clay pots are scattered amongst a countryside tilled by water buffalo and wooden oxcarts. Conical straw hats and cylindrical longyi skirts with sandals are the apparel of choice. Life moves slowly, and globalization has yet to take hold.
Ratanapon Paya at Mrauk U
Evoking a sense of architectonic vertigo, Mrauk U emerges from the pastoral hillside seemingly out of nowhere. Colossal structures topped with bell-shaped domes and spiraling stupas engulf the landscape like celestial palaces fallen from heaven. Resembling a Frankenstein-like fusion of martial fortifications and royal mausoleums, the tributes to religious zeal and political zest are the last remnants of a once mighty empire forged during the age of exploration.
Dominating trade throughout the Bay of Bengal during the 15th-18th centuries, the Arakan kingdom controlled the lands between the Ganges River to the east and Irrawaddy River to the west at the height of its power. Forgotten by outsiders, Mrauk U became something of a ghost town after the kingdom’s collapse, its remaining inhabitants adapting to an agrarian lifestyle alongside the crumbling ruins.
A passing farmer approaches me near the oversized Hershey Kiss-shaped stupas encircling the Ratanapon Paya, an eminent Buddhist shrine which translates to “pile of treasures”. Grazing on the thin patches of grass surrounding the temple, his herd of brown cows navigates through the ruins as if the spiraling stupas had grown organically from the soil beneath our feet. Thrilled with the opportunity to practice his English, he introduces himself as Kyin.
Locals play among the ruins
Using a flurry of hand gestures to complement his heavy Myanmar accent, he points ahead to the Andawthein Temple while explaining that a tooth relic of the Buddha is enclosed inside its lofty central pagoda.
I scan the landscape for a more formal guide before realizing the obvious- tour guides do not seem to exist here. Outside of a $5 entrance fee collected by an elderly man who occasionally sits alone outside of the Shittaung Temple, travelers are on their own.
Mrauk U may be a destination for others, but for locals like Kyin, this is home.
Barefoot children using sticks for goalposts play soccer on the beaten swaths of grass next to the Htukkanthein Temple. Dressed with million-dollar smiles shining with excitement and curiosity, the Arakanese youngsters ask me who I am and where I’m from, delighted in their chance encounter with their new American friend.
A massive bell-shaped dome rises from the center of the Htukkanthein Temple like an imperial crown, dwarfing the neighboring shanties constructed near the ruins. Exploring its dark interior, I follow its spiraling, dungeon-like corridor adorned with carved statues of the Buddha to a deserted meditation chamber, not another traveler in sight.
Harvesting rice from paddy fields planted around the Laungbanpyauk pagoda, an older woman waves to me as I walk by, offering a trademark Myanmar smile from beneath the shade of her broad, cone-shaped hat. Ascending above the trees as if it were growing from a misplaced seed dropped from the pocket of the Buddha himself, the moss-covered Laungbanpyauk pagoda might appear oversized and out-of-place anywhere else, but the juxtaposition of ancient ruins and rustic lifestyles illustrates the extraordinary setting that makes Mrauk U unique.
Farther down a dirt road, past the endless fields of checkerboard-patterned rice paddies, the otherworldly Kothaung Temple strikes a portentous pose amidst farming enclosures and cattle pastures. A visual assault of wonder and intimidation, the imposing temple displays five of rows of spiral stupas encircling its rectangular base like nuclear missiles positioned for launch. Often referred to as the shrine of 90,000 Buddha’s, the spiritual fortress resembles a post-apocalyptic Stone Age stronghold more appropriately designed for the set of a Mad Max movie than the Myanmar countryside it calls home.
A lone Buddhist monk clutching a large alms bowl to his chest passes by the Kothaung Temple, prompting me to conjure my best Myanmar accent in an attempt to spark a conversation. His eyes light up at my clumsy attempt to speak the native language, chuckling with cheer as he responds with a jovial exchange of laughter, smiles, and comments of which I could not decipher. Bowing to him as he moves along, he bursts into a comical fit of more laughter, stammering the words “Goodbye, friend” while walking farther away.
Sneaking into an unlocked gate in the Lemyethna Temple as the sky releases a torrent of rain, I find myself accompanied by four large Buddha statues, each facing outwards in a different direction. Allowing just enough natural light to illuminate each statue, the shadowy crypt-like sanctuary overlooks a lush hillside dotted with rural villages and spiral-shaped Buddhist shrines penetrating the horizon.
I’m quickly joined by five local men also seeking shelter from the pouring rain, erupting in laughter to find a like-minded foreign traveler hiding in the dark, dank temple. They had been playing chinlone, a popular Myanmar game similar to hackeysack, and with the animated persuasion of a Price Is Right audience, my new friends insist that I participate in their next game once the rains let up.
Forming a circle outside the Lemyethna Temple gates, we kick the woven rattan ball back and forth with our bare feet, displaying as much artistic flair as possible to keep the ball from hitting the ground. I couldn’t quite grasp the scoring system, but no one seemed to mind; much like touring the temples of Mrauk U, a game of chinlone is more about the journey than the final destination.
Embarking up an unmarked hillside stairway hidden behind swaths of tree branches near the ruins of the former palace, I find the elusive Hariduang Paya. Notable for its panoramic view overlooking Mrauk U from its hilltop setting, the glimmering golden stupa appears like the all-seeing Eye of Providence from the ground below. A crew of edgy, young teenagers dressed in western attire sits near the stupa, blasting music from their smartphones while engaging in animated conversation.
Startling the group as I unintentionally invade their secret hideout, I point to their smartphones and smile while nodding my head to the music, a gesture of approval which piques their curiosity about my taste for Myanmar pop-culture.
Hariduang Paya at Mrauk U
“Arakan music,” boasted my new friend Ko, a charismatic kid wearing a backwards hat and polo shirt, “My favorite song… You like?”
Nodding in approval, I pull out my smartphone while inquiring about their taste in foreign music, particularly hip-hop and reggae. Collectively nodding in curious agreement, I play a few tracks from Wu-Tang and Bob Marley, the latter of which causes the group to detonate into a jubilant display of smiles and head nods.
As we jam to Bob Marley’s “Jammin’”, two novice Buddhist monks appear at the top of the staircase, laughing at the shenanigans displayed by the motley crew directly ahead of them. Usually amongst the most tranquil and solitary vistas in Mrauk U, the Hariduang Paya momentarily transforms into a lively amalgamation of Myanmar’s cultural spectrum, reflecting the country’s embryonic collision of its traditional past and globalized future.
Mrauk U receives a small fraction of the attention drawn by the more famous Southeast Asian ruins at Angkor Wat and Bagan, and perhaps it is better that way. Unlike theme-park styled archaeological tourism which often converts humanity’s historical past into cultural caricatures-for-hire, Mrauk U is the rare phenomenon amongst ancient ruin travel destinations- it is pure. Ancient monuments make great backdrops for selfies and social media posts, but alas, buildings do not speak back. Mrauk U presents the opportunity for inspired travelers to connect with the local culture, providing a glimpse into the past and a living connection with the present. I came to this remote corner of the world to explore the forgotten ruins, but it’s the priceless memories of the Arakanese people which I treasure most.
Written by: Kevin Dimetres
An educator and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., Kevin has a passion for exploring the diversity of cultural expression. A travel addict and basketball aficionado, he enjoys nothing more than good conversations with good people. A three-time Solas Awards medal winner for travel writing, his stories have been published on Passion Passport, The Culture-ist, GoNomad, Travelers Tales, Transitions Abroad, and The Washington Post.