My name is Johan and welcome to my article on Mrauk-U. After graduating from the Vlerick Business School in Ghent (Belgium), I started a corporate career in sales and trade marketing. For 10 years I worked for the biggest names in the food industry such as Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Nestle until I decided to quit my job in early 2019 and leave on a trip around the world.
With my former girlfriend, we traveled around Southeast Asia, Australia and South America for 15 months. Then the pandemic hit. Up until that point, I had never done any photography at all. It wasn’t until we started to prepare for the trip that I got the idea to buy a drone so I could take “cool” photos. The drone turned out to be a lot of fun and I was hooked. Place after place, I began to take better photos and give photography more of my attention.
Halfway through the trip, I was contacted by an aerial-only stock agency and that was a turning point for me. I upgraded my drone to a Mavic 2 Pro and started taking drone photography more seriously. I even thought about turning this passion into a full-time job. After seeing the world and tasting that freedom, I didn’t want to go back to my old job. Fast forward to 2022, I’m now a full-time drone photographer who travels the globe.
As well as working with tourism boards, travel agencies, airlines and hotels – I also organize drone trips (on-location drone photography workshops) and coach 50+ students in my Drone Adventurer Masterclass. During the past three and a half years, my Instagram has grown to 40k followers. I also run a drone feature page called Dronemperors which has 80k+ followers.
Visiting Myanmar for a Month
Myanmar wasn’t originally at the top of my list. But looking at the monsoon seasons, it was a good choice to start with. We chose Myanmar as the first country on our world trip before traveling to the rest of Southeast Asia. And boy, what a beautiful country! We stayed for a month and started with a three day trek to Inle Lake. Then we went past ancient temples in the Mandalay area to Monywa, with its giant Buddha statues and cave temples.
After a boat trip down the Irrawaddy River, we visited the ancient temples of Bagan. It was magic to watch the sunrise here. From Bagan we flew to Ngapali Beach for a few days in order to catch a flight to Sittwe, where our journey to the hidden village of Mrauk-U began. And finally, we ended our tour in the caves of Hpa-An before crossing the border into Thailand.
Mrauk-U wasn’t part of the original itinerary. It wasn’t until I saw photos on Instagram by Daniel Kordan, who coincidentally visited Mrauk-U a couple of weeks before us, that I wanted to see Mrauk-U for myself. However, it’s pretty desolate and tricky to get to. If you wander off the tourist sites in Myanmar, you will notice that transport becomes difficult. You need to find your way to Sittwe and then take a boat upriver to reach Mrauk-U.
Hidden Temples of Mrauk-U
When you first arrive at Mrauk-U, it’s not very impressive. It’s a tiny village in the middle of the jungle with not a lot of comfort. We stayed in a traditional hotel which was basic. Then again, they don’t have a lot of tourism in this part of the country, so what can you expect? Also, a couple of kilometers away, the army is fighting with the Rohingya who are Muslim and are being killed by the army and driven out of the country – genocidal level stuff.
Upon arrival you will notice that Mrauk-U is quite hilly. Therefore, it isn’t until you go out and explore (by bicycle) that you find hidden temples in the bushes on your left and right. Then, all of a sudden, this Indiana Jones rush comes over you and you just stare in complete awe of what this place must have been like during its heyday from the 15th to the 18th century.
There are a couple of large temples in the central area that are completely excavated and restored. However, the charm of Mrauk-U is that the other temples are not. You can see them on the peaks of the little hills, covered by leaves and thorns. Their domes get lit up by the golden light at sunrise – it’s a sight to behold early in the morning when you see this phenomenon.
I think the sunrises are what made Mrauk-U so special for me. In the early morning the locals start building wood fires to boil some coffee and prepare breakfast. So, the whole valley is covered in white smoke and mist, giving the sunrise a magical feel. Make sure you get to one of the unofficial viewpoints (they are marked on Maps.me) which will give you a good view of all the temples – and just take it all in! Or take some photos, like I did.
Best Temples to See in Mrauk-U
I think the big temples located in the central area of Mrauk-U (Shittaung Pagoda and Htukkanthein Temple) are really beautiful and give you an idea of how it must have been all those centuries ago. The architectural designs here are also quite different from the temples you see in Bagan. The Mrauk-U temples have more of a bell-shaped roof (15th – 18th century style), while in Bagan they are very conical in shape (9th – 13th century style).
The Kothaung Temple in the eastern group is a must-visit as well, with its 90,000 Buddha images. However, the most fun is to explore the temples you encounter while riding your bicycle. They are untouched and nature still rules over them. You will find numerous different shapes and formations, especially on the tops of each hill. Make sure you also check out the lake area as it hides another set of smaller temples around its shore.
Where to Stay when in Mrauk-U
There is not that much choice when it comes to quality accommodation in this part of Myanmar. We stayed in the Golden Mrauk-U Guest House, which has an average rating of 3.8 stars on Google Reviews. That is fairly good, given the difficult circumstances. You could probably find a few decent homestays as well but be prepared – Myanmar is an extremely poor country and Mrauk-U is one of the poorest regions. So it’s back to basics!
Tips for Visiting Myanmar
Safety is the main concern when visiting Myanmar. As the democratic government of Myanmar was overthrown in a military coup, the whole country is at risk. The locals depend on tourism so they are the first to feel the consequences. This has led to numerous protests in all of the big cities which is such a pity because honestly they are some of the friendliest people I have met in the whole world! They always have a big smile for you.
Secondly, the battle with the Rohingya is still ongoing and certain areas will be off-limits for tourists. I remember that two weeks after we visited Mrauk-U they instituted an evening curfew at 5pm because someone got shot accidentally in the crossfire. Thirdly, Mrauk-U is just difficult to get to. You will spend a whole day with a local flight, a boat and a rickshaw (tuk-tuk) to get there. However, it’s totally worth it. So are you feeling adventurous?!