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Burma: Sittwe, Mrauk U, & the Chin villages

February 3rd, 2009 · No Comments

We decided to take 2 months off work to take an international adventure. First stop on our trip, Burma (also known as Myanmar). We started by visiting a very remote part of the country, the Rakhine State: the fishing town of Sittwe, a six hour boat ride past tiny villages, the ancient capital of Mrauk U with its hundreds of pagodas. We ventured even further into the isolated Chin State and visited villages where the women still follow the custom of tattooing their faces.


For photos, click here:

Sittwe & Mrauk U

After a day in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, we headed out for the remote Rakhine State on the west coast of the country. It was a short flight to Sittwe, but wow the cities are so different. We met our wonderful guide, Than, at the airport — we could tell right away that he was going to be great. (Note that we have changed the names of all the people we met to protect their identities.) We had barely left the airport before he started talking about the government and worsening conditions in the country. I was surprised that he would speak so freely, but this was just a taste of what would come. Over the next four days, we learned a lot about Than’s attitude towards the country, and what he was willing to do to help his people. It was very inspiring.

Sittwe is a reasonably large town in the Rakhine State, but very small and poor compared to modern Yangon. On our flight (which only operates 3 times a week), we were two of maybe 10 foreigners. Once we got into town, we didn’t see another causasian all day. The locals clearly don’t see many Westerners either, as they were enthralled with our presence. I’m sure the fact that we were young also added to our mystique. (The few other Westerners we saw in our time in this part of the country were all at least 20 years older than we are.) And then, to top it all off, I’m blond… Needless to say, there were many stares. After a while, I got used to it –but still, I would notice that crowds were assembling and people were following us around, all curious about the young, white couple. Everyone wanted to know if we were a couple or brother and sister, and seemed surprised when Thun told them we were married….so young, they would say.

Than took us around the city and showed us the cinema (with rows of bicycles parked outside), the seashore, and the monastery he attended as a chiled. When we visited the monastery, we were surpised that the head monk invited us to sit with him. He was curious about us — where we were from, how old we were… Than acted as a translator in what felt like a magical time.

The following morning, we rose early to catch out boat to the old royal city of Mrauk U. We had a small private boat just for us, and, I must say, it was the most magical 6 hours I have ever spent on a boat. Watching the scenery as we floated by, seeing the fishermen and sailors pass as they headed downstream, taking photos of buffalo and small settlements, it was just breathtaking. As we got further upstream, children would rush out to the riverbanks and yell and wave as we went past. Their smiles were so bright.

We arrived in Mrauk U mid-day and immediately set off to see the many pagodas. Mrauk U is like a smaller version of Bagan, with considerably fewer tourists. The pagodas were interesting, and the landscape quite beautiful. But I must say that would not have been sufficient to warrant such a long journey. Rather, it was the people we met who made our time there so worthwhile — the novice monks, no more than 6 or 7, who would follow us around the pagodas and smile and giggle when we would catch their eyes, the old men who would stare in an uncomfortable manner, the women who eagerly smiled at me, but wouldn’t make eye contact with Daniel.

The next day, we set off on an even more exotic adventure, to the remote Chin villages upriver. The Chin’s are known for their unique custom of tattooing the women’s faces. The story is that it was done to ensure that other minority groups would not steal their women, but that is not certain. The practice is fading away now, as the younger generation do not find it fashionable. The Chin state is heavily controlled by the government of Myanmar, so you can only visit with a permit. I had arranged this part of our trip with a wonderful travel agency in Yangon, so we were all set.

We were excited to be visiting a place where so few tourists went. It was another 3 hours upstream, this time on a small boat, to reach the villages. At the first village, we were eagerly greeted by the el
der women of the village. They came to us, their tattooed faces smiling, with their right hand extended. It was such a privilege to meet these women, to shake their hands, to be welcomed into their village. The most respected woman took us to the school that she was building and had us meet the children. The kids were thrilled with our arrival, and eagerly recited their mathmatics timestables for us. Before we left for the next village, we made a small donation to help finish with the building of the school. Click here for a video of the school:

The next village was similar, except that the women were much more reclusive, and the children even more outgoing. This time, when we arrived at the school (already finished), the teacher had the children stand for us. The next thing we knew, the kids were all singing “Brother John, Are you sleeping…”, followed by “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It was such a heartwarming moment.  Click here for the video:

We used a fantastic travel agent to book all our flights and tours in Burma. We highly highly recommend him. William, at Good News Travels, went so far above and beyond in helping us plan our trip — answering all sorts of questions, and even brining me caladryl to the hotel in Yangon for my itchy mosquito bites. He plans the travel arrangements for the US Government Officials — and has been recognized as a “Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Naste Traveler. Shockingly, he’s incredibly affordable and is happy to book an all inclusive tour or a la carte flights and hotels. If you’re planning a trip to Burma, you should absolutely use William. Our trip to Sittwe, Mrauk U, and the Chin villages was organized by him.

William Myatwunna
Good News Travels

Tags: Burma

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