A LAND WHERE TIME STOOD STILL

Wong How Man
Mrauk-u, Arakan State, Myanmar – 01
January 2010

Yesterday’s sunset was perfect, the last one for the year 2009, and the last one for the first decade of the 21st century. The sun disappeared under the tropical plain at 7:45pm local time. Stupas of a Buddhist TempleStupas of a Buddhist TempleAt the same time, the moon had already risen in the east, almost at a 10-degree angle to the horizon. It was a perfect moonrise, as it was a full moon. It was also a perfect moment for me, appreciating a sunset while enjoying a moonrise.

Today, the first sunrise for a new year and a new decade must also be special. That is why I came to this distant land, that promises to be a very special place. Maybe I am a romantic. But my romance is with the land and the people, and everything that dwells under the sun and the moon.

My wake-up call came at 5 am. The Mrauk Oo Princess Resort is owned by Ohn Maung, my Burmese friend who also owns the Inle Princess Resort. An open Jeep was already waiting. In the chill morning air, we drove for 15 minutes to a nearby monastery. Along the way, everything was still dark, except a few fires ignited along the street to keep the early risers warm. A handful of eatery stalls were already open, barely lit by candles or oil lamps. An occasional rooster call was the only other sound besides our Jeep’s coughing engine.

We stopped at the bottom of a hill and climbed to the top where an old pagoda stands. From this vantage point, I had an unobstructed view over the plain below and far into the distant hills. Three pagodas cast a silhouette as the mist rose in this twilight hour. In the vast jungle below, I could just make out a few isolated houses and tiny villages.

Woman with CigarWoman with cigar at Mrauk-u market

A paradise unfolded as the sky gradually changed from dark gray to bluish, then light pink to orange and red. I was a spectator in nature’s theater, quietly observing its grandiose performance for over a full hour. Finally the sun peeked through the hills as a tiny sparkle. It grew in size as if removing its veil of shyness, until suddenly it showed its full face and its brightness shone over the entire land. It was a most satisfying feeling as I took in this exhilarating first sunrise of a new year.

I have come a long way off the beaten track not only to witness this sunrise. This journey is a long way back in time as well. The pace here is so slow that limping along with a cane after a recent ankle injury seems to be in perfect rhythm with the life of the Rakhaine people.

Mrauk Oo was capital of the former kingdom of Arakan, rising to its height between the 15th and 17th century, before declining into relative obscurity. Dutch and Portuguese seafarers and emissaries reported on the kingdom’s epoch and its defining days. Nearby is a huge expanse of rice paddies with a labyrinth of waterways that help irrigate the field. An abundance of monsoon rain further blessed the plains during the critical growing season as neighboring Bangladesh and India were faced with droughts which decimated their crops.

Since the demise of the earlier kingdom, time has stood still in this land Mrauk Oo Morning MarketVendors selling seafood at the Mrauk Oo Morning Marketsandwiched between Bangladesh and the Burmese mainland. The only remnant of its glorious past is perhaps the old palace walls and the many Buddhist pagodas which dot the peaks above the undulating plain. But in nearby villages, rice mills continue to husk the grain and churn out sacks upon sacks of rice which are sent off eastward to faraway Yangon (Rangoon) or westward into Bangladesh. Mrauk Oo is indeed the rice bowl of Myanmar. Another former item for export, the elephant, is no longer seen. Transport is mainly by boat, so shipbuilding remains an important vocation.

Even in these modern times, the town of Mrauk Oo provides only two hours of on- and-off electricity each day. A walk along the village path in the evening or early morning reveals lighting, heating and cooking are accomplished with candles, oil lamps and firewood. Morning markets are most colorful and “organic”, if I can borrow that modern and rather cliché word. I love the fishmongers at the marketplace. From tiny shrimp to tiger prawns and small minnows to sea bass, this corner of the market is most alive, in a sense that the buyers, sellers, and even the objects to be sold are all moving. Water beetles are also on sale. A high protein delicacy, they come in different sizes and varieties. Fish and shrimp that are not sold fresh are dried and sold at other specialty stalls.

Tiger prawns half a kilo in size sell for 3,000 kyats, a huge sum for the locals but for us a meager US$3. Prawns can be bought for 300 kyats. Other seafood items are fractions of those prices. The old banknotes changing hands are all worn and torn almost to threads. Circulation of such tattered notes reminds us of what currencies were originally printed and intended for - as a substitute for bartering and to assist as a medium for transaction, rather than to be saved up or invested.

The Thainkanadi River where Mrauk Oo is located has a few motorized riverboats, but row boats and canoes are more common. Along the Kaladen River where I boarded a slow riverboat from the coastal town of Sittwe to Mrauk Oo, the delta is still filled with small boats with colorful patchwork sails. Even some larger boats have multiple rowers working the oars as they cruise up and down the widening river. SailboatsSailboats on the Kaladen River between Sittwe and Mrauk-uOccasionally, schools of river dolphins swim alongside and flocks of parrots fly overhead. The natural scenery is idyllic and the setting has changed little over the centuries.

For those of us in the modern and fast-paced world, a retreat in Mrauk Oo would be therapeutic, offering a journey back to an age when life is simple and basic. Those who find life boring here are likely infected with a malady of the modern city. Here in Mrauk Oo, “back to basics” is not a slogan or a cliché. It is how life is and has always been. But like many other such places in the world, in time the river may get polluted and the people corrupted. I however will certainly be back before too long, hopefully for another perfect sunrise and sunset.