Monks, draped in saffron robes, with razor-shaved heads illumined liquid gold by the late afternoon’s honeydew beams, collected evening alms amidst clouds of woody, pungent smoke wafting from the village’s cooking fires.
Here in Mrauk U, a small town in western Myanmar, monks are as woven into the city’s fabric as the 16th century temples scattered amidst its rice fields and thatch-hut villages.
Arriving here requires patience and perseverance; and five days: a 15-hour overnight bus through jolting, roller-coaster mountain roads from Yangon to Thaunggok. An 11-hour high-speed ferry from Thaunggok to Sittwe - a fishing town on the Gulf of Bengal - after waiting 2 days for the ferry’s departure. Then a 5-hour slow ferry up the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Mrauk U, past parched fields of rice and breast-shaped mounds of rice straw capped with gleaming chrome nipples, that required a day’s wait to catch.
After disembarking from the jetty in Mrauk U, sorting out accommodations and a quick walk through the town, I needed a fix. So I threw on my running gear and headed out. Not before penning the path - on a hand drawn map given to tourists – of my planned run.
I ran south, feeling the energy build, my pace uncontrollable in sprinting fits, loping over bumpy, rocky roads. Groups of children in their green and white uniforms shouted “hello” as I raced by.
Villagers stood on the sides of the dirt road, betel-stained lips and teeth, some smoking long, green Burmese cigars, loitering, talking. Most stopped to stare as I passed, smiling: “minglah bah (hello)” and “tata (good bye)”.
I continued straight, looking for my turn but unsure where, so I pulled out the map and asked a villager, “Where is Laymyethna Paya (temple)?” But the map, only in English combined with my jumbled pronunciation, proved useless. The reply: a confused stare.
I cut right at the next intersection and continued, watching the afternoon’s shadows thicken like mascara on a lover’s eyelash.
Young girls smiled and darted their eyes away as I passed. Elderly monks walked by, barefoot and supported by canes, their faces carved with years of hardship yet buoyed by meditation’s peace.
Past stilted, low-slung huts with thatched roofs rustling in the breeze. At times I could see inside, a man or child sitting quietly.
Past the Dukkanthein Paya, an imposing, fortress-like temple built in 1571 and whose labyrinthine interior walls are carved with images of Buddha and farmers, merchants, athletes, from 16th century Mrauk U.
Nearby, young monks, shirtless and ribbed with sweat, lifted logs and sifted sand as they repaired the gravel road leading to their monastery.
Who would of thought: a meditative road crew?
Map in hand, I kept running, having no idea where the road led, but knew where I wanted to be. Like all travel: you’re never truly lost if you have a destination in mind.
Then I arrived at the Sakyamanaung Paya, whose 280-foot spire erupts from its octagonal base into the now, oceanic blue sky. I asked a young woman, standing in the temple’s shadow where was Shwetaung Paya, a golden temple perched high on a hill overlooking Mrauk U.
I followed her directions, unsure if I understood, down a narrow rocky dirt path, a bamboo fence on my right, on my left, a steep hill spilled into jungle. Three young monks played stick ball in the middle of the path and I hopped out of their way to avoid getting smacked. Ahead, the path dead-ended into a sunbaked field skirted by a dusty paved road.
Left or right?
Back to the map, now rumpled from sweat. I went left, past women with faces painted white, balancing mounds of cauliflower on their heads, passing men on bikes wearing lungees (a male skirt), toward the temple, but not the one I needed.
I was going the wrong way.
So I turned around, the waning sun blindingly ahead until I reached a road I’d explored earlier in the day. I wasn’t ready to finish running so continued straight, up crumbling stone steps and through the ruins of a 15th century palace, its floors overgrown with grass and dimpled from incomplete excavations.
Up ahead my guesthouse loomed so I turned left, passing loitering trishaw (bicycle taxi) and motorbike drivers arguing, smoking, spitting. Through a street with clouds of smoke and dust mangling the air, over two arched, rickety bridges made of salvaged 4x8s.
Cutting right at the next intersection, smiles and young children yelling “bye bye,” the only English words they seem to know here. Right through the heart of Mrauk U, its bustling thoroughfare with merchants, jewelers (who also serve as the town banks), mechanics, beer gardens (they love their beer in Myanmar). Past the town market, over a bridge whose span covers a dead, trash-strewn river.
A bit further and I was finished, panting outside my guest house with the sun quickly fading, tired and sweaty, from blazing through Mrauk U’s dusty streets.
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