AMONG the green hills of the Rakhine Yoma mountain range, about
70 kilometres away from the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe, lies
an ancient city that was once the centre of a powerful dynasty.
The city is commonly called Mrauk U but is often referred to
as Myo-Haung (old city) by locals.
Ancient chronicles claim that the Rakhine founded their first
kingdom thousands of years ago and went through 16 dynasties and
kingdoms before Mrauk U was built by King Minsawmon in 1430 CE.
The king was a descendent of the former dynasties, and the city
he created was the centre of Rakhine until the state became part
of the Bamar kingdoms based in the Mandalay area in 1784.
Modern historians do not readily accept accounts of Rakhine
dynasties going back thousands of years, claims that have not
been borne out by archaeological evidence gathered at ancient
However, the old pagodas and buildings that remain in Mrauk
U, as well as textual evidence provided by the writings of foreign
merchants and missionaries of the 17th century, point to the city’s
Among the chroniclers was Friar Sebastien Manrique, a Portuguese
Augustinian missionary who visited the region during the 1600s.
In mid-century he published book in which he wrote of witnessing
the 1635 coronation ceremony of King Thiri Thudhamma. He was surprised,
he said, by the large amounts of precious stones – diamonds,
rubies and sapphires – being sold at the local market.
Mrauk U is now labeled an ancient cultural zone by the Myanmar
government, and has become an alternative to Bagan for tourists
looking for a quieter, more remote set of ruins to explore.
Although the city has fewer pagodas than Bagan, some Rakhine
people believe that large numbers of structures are buried beneath
the earth and vegetation and need to excavated. Some pagodas are
believed to have already disappeared due to lack of preservation
“There are about 60 ancient pagodas throughout the city
but they are not like the ones in Bagan. The city feels more like
a fortress than a collection of pagodas,” said Ma Soe Soe,
a Yangon-based tourist guide who leads trips to Mrauk U.
She said tourists are most interested in the Shitthaung, Kothaung
and Dukkanthein pagodas, but look displeased when they see new
Shitthaung Pagoda was built in 1535 by King Minbargyi, also
known as King Minbin. Ancient chronicles state that he built it
after scoring a great victory during a defensive war against the
As others in Mrauk U, the pagoda is distinguished from those
in Bagan by the fact that it was built with astonishing skill
out of sandstone rather than brick and mortar.
“That is why our pagodas still exist. If the builders
had used brick and mortar instead of sandstone, the heavy rainfall
of our region would have destroyed them all long ago,” said
a local resident.
“But even now, the fascinating artwork of some of the
pagodas like Kothaung are on the brink of disappearing because
it cannot be adequately maintained,” the resident said.
Excavation work on Kothaung Pagoda was started by the government
in 1997, before which time it was hidden by the earth.
When it was uncovered, the pagoda appeared to be in poor repair.
According to legend, the building was toppled by lightning to
punish King Mintaikkha, the son of King Minbargyi, who built Kothaung
(meaning 90,000) to house 10,000 more Buddha images than Shitthaung
(80,000) to indicate that he was a more powerful king than his
About 100 metres northwest of Shitthaung Pagoda lies Dukkanthein
Pagoda. It was built by King Minphalaung in 1571. It is well-known
for its vaulted passages that are lined with sculptured figures
of seated ladies, who look like they are offering lotus buds to
Despite its grandeur, Mrauk U does not yet rival Bagan as a
“The number of foreign visitors to Mrauk U is low compared
to Bagan, still in the five-digit-a-year range,” said Daw
Yin Saw, the managing director of Vesali Resort Hotel in Mrauk
“Besides the ancient pagodas, foreign tourists like the
city because its geography is hilly and the trip there is a little
adventurous,” she said.
“Visitors must travel to Sittwe by flight, and from there
take a boat to Mrauk U,” she said.
In addition to the inconvenience of the trip, another deterrent
to visitation is the region’s heavy rainfall.
“Mrauk U gets between 200 and 400 inches of rainfall a
year, so most people come during the tourist season – October
to April – when flight schedules are regular,” Daw
Yin Saw said.
A good time to visit is April, during the Shitthaung and Dukkanthein
pagoda festival, when traditional Rakhine rowing and wrestling
competitions are held.
Among the other area attractions are boat rides from Mrauk U
to Chin villages, where visitors can see the traditional facial
tattoos sported by the women.
For the 2004-2005 high season Air Mandalay plans to offer direct
flights between Yangon and Sittwe five days a week (except Thursday
“Travellers can hire small ship to get to Mrauk U to Sittwe,
a trip that takes about six hours,” Ma Soe Soe said.
“Tour companies can arrange package tours to Mrauk U for
about US$500,” she said.