For 350 years, the Arakan kings reigned from a great capital upriver from the Bay Of Bengal. Arakan navies controlled the sea from Dhaka to Mawlamyine. Traders- Dutch, Mon, Burman, Arab, Hindu, Muslim – mingled in the markets and courts of Mrauk U, whose name means “monkey egg.”
The splendid legacy of the kingdoms sits in jungle, in farmland and on the edge of town. A local’s front garden looks out on a fortress-like monastry, and ancient stone chedi cast shadows on the village soccer pitch. Arakan’s history haunts modern Rakhine State: in the south Arakan Buddhists fight the Myanmar army, which itself slaughters Rohingya Muslims further north.
The temples, libraries and monastries built by the Arakan kingdom in Mrauk U form arguably the greatest archeological wonder you've never heard of.
It's an oft-forgotten destination in a country which itself is a bit player in world tourism.
The road from Yangon - 21 hours by bus - passes through some beautiful rural scenery. With a stop in Pyay, we took 2 days to drive.
Nestled amongs green hills on the Kaladan river, even flying in from Yangon involves a boat ride.
A few thousand foreigners come a year, at best, making visitors an object of curiosity.
Unlike Bagan, residents were never expelled from the historical area, so farms, markets, shops and houses mix with fortress like temples of stone.
Established under Arakan King Min Saw Mon, Mrauk U was at its grandest in 1660s, described by Bengali poet Alaol, “a matchless place on earth.”
Literally hundreds of temples dot the landscape. Ratanabon Paya stands out for its size, and 24 smaller stupa surrounding its central chedi.
The vast artworks inside the sprawling Shitthaung Paya give it its name, literally "80,000 images."
Arakan ruled the Bay of Bengal as far as Dhaka, with up to 10,000 naval vessels. Kings employed Japanese samurai and traded with Arabs and Europeans.
From India and Persia came cotton, slaves, horses, spices and textiles. Their sellers depared carrying rice, ivory, and elephants from upper Burma.
Trade these days is much less international, although lively and colourful.
The city's seafood market a raucous affair, much squatting and squabbling.
Many small tea shop front the market, perfect for breakfast and street watching.
The traditional "thummy" garment worn by women of Burma is elegant at all times, but their formal silk add a touch of class to special occaisons.
The cotton longyi was originally introduced by Indian migrants. Gentleman also manage to dress up in this simple garment.
It was just good luck that we chanced upon this long, colourful and musical procession. Over 100 particpants snaked through the town centre, past the old city walls.
Regrettably, I never found out why. I suspect the young lad was being ordained as a monk, although it may have been a wedding.
Cultural poles apart, these party trucks rocked their way around the sites of Mrauk U, with AC-DC to Ace Of Bass for company. The speakers pack a huge punch.
Party trucks aside, exploring Mrauk U town and temples is peaceful.
A village soccer match goes in under the watchful eye of 400 year old Mong Paung Shwe Gu Paya.
Zina Man Aung sits off to the east of town, overlooking a lake where cows graze and villagers forage.
A hilltop temple across the lake houses a holy Buddha cast centuries ago. And a wooden one knocked up last week.
A large temple was built to house the image, to which pilgrims come to pay respect. A small team of women prepare lunch for the monks.
Scenes like this would be a rarity in Bagan, but historical and contempary Buddhist life co-exist in Mrauk U.
Farmers bag their grain in front of Mrauk U's oldest temple Lay Mwet Nya Paya (left).
A farmer's vehicle chugs past 1571 monstry, Dukekanthein, which contains not only Buddha images, but also landlords and officials.
Woman carry buckets of rocks to build a road past Laung Ban Pyauk and Htuparon Paya, a scene not unfamiliar to their builders 500 years past.
Buddha image sits ignored in the jungle behind a library, Pitaka Taik.
The elements have taken their toll on the monuments, now also threatened again by conflict.
It is not unusual to see stone guardians in the long grass, or Buddha images leaning against a damaged wall.
Perhaps the most outstanding work is the "90,000 Images" Koe-thaung Paya. Four 77 metre walls enclose 5 stacked terraces.
Rows of 108 identical stupa line each level. The builders borrowed from India Muslim deisgn for interior vaulted ceilings.
Escape to the counrtry 35km north to Kyauktaw, where the relatively new (19th C) Mahamuni temple sits gloriously on a hill.
Earlier structures were destroyed by fire, but it was the theft of the Mahamuni Buddha image by invading Burman troops in 1784 which punctures Arakan/Rakhine sentiment.
Legend says the image was cast in 554BC when the Buddha himself visited the area. It now sits in Mandalay.
Some surprisingly excellent restaurants line the road outside the temple, although these local ladies tucked in on the temple grounds.
From here, 100km down the Kaladan on the Bay of Bengal is Sittwe, where the Arakan armies encountered the invading Burmans. The name means "the place where the war meets."
Much remains as it always has in Mrauk U, and indeed all of Burma.
In pleasant rural vistas, contemporary Buddhist temples dot hills, a habit centruies old.
Weeks after we visited, fighting broke out between the tatmadaw and the Arakan Buddhist Army. Mrauk U has been closed to tourists since.