Spending a few days in Mrauk U gave me the chance to see what life is like outside the big cities. Most people in Myanmar (around three quarters) live in rural areas and work on the land. This is the main street of Mrauk U, a small rural town with around fifty thousand inhabitants:
and these are some of the shops:
This shop, like many in Myanmar, sells copies of DVD’s; I bought The Revenant for around 60 cents. Most of the shops were more like stalls, selling everything from shampoo to biscuits in little packages hanging like bunting on strings:
I didn’t find any supermarkets but this was a pretty good grocery store:
I headed as usual for the market, which sold a wide variety of goods including lots of fishing tackle, and many types of baskets and water carriers (more on those later):
There was also some fruit and a variety of grains
and many kinds of beans:
and plenty of dried fish. Lots and lots of dried fish! Whole avenues of dried fish, which in case you’ve never encountered it, smells truly dreadful! Pity you can’t experience it on the blog…
There was also some fresh fish:
At the bottom left of the photo you can see the scale which was used to weigh the fish using a piece of clay as counterweight.
Houses were mostly made of wood, palm leaves and bamboo, and some of them didn’t seem very different from those in the Chin villages:
There were some picturesque scenes along the water, though it wasn’t like the holiday brochure version of the ‘romantic tropics’ as the water was very dirty and there was lots of rubbish lying around. It also smelt pretty bad.
During our trip round the temples our guide also showed us something of daily life in Mrauk U. Before seeing any temples we visited an initiation ceremony for novices. These ceremonies are held frequently all over Myanmar, especially in April. This picture shows you how different life is here when you compare it to the rich colours and abundant donations of similar ceremonies in Mandalay. The hall was very simple:
and the food was served outside:
Our guide also took us for drink of coconut beer in a local bar (visiting temples is thirsty work):
The beer is made by leaving coconut milk in the sun to ferment; you can see it in the silver vessels which the goat is checking out in the photo below:
I enjoyed the beer (which was quite alcoholic) but my new-found Japanese friend was not really a drinker:
Our guide also took us to see a friend of his who makes fans out of palm leaves. We watched as she made this fan; it took her around ten minutes and cost around 30 cents:
There’s not much ‘real’ coffee drunk in Myanmar, even though coffee beans are grown here. Most coffee outside the cities is what they call ‘three-in-one’, which means Nescafé, sugar and powdered milk in a small cup-sized packet. Being a coffee addict I looked for some real coffee but all I could find was a ‘three-in-one’ in this café on the high street; the water was boiled on a wood fire in the back:
Perhaps you’re wondering what sort of place I stayed in. Hotels are generally the most solid buildings in a town like this (apart from the bank, and army and government buildings) and mine was very solid and comfortable, and had airco too. This is me taking a photo in the entrance hall. You can also see a table with a stone slab, a piece of wood, a small tin bowl with water and a spatula; these are the instruments for making ‘Thanaka’, the yellow colour you see on peoples’ faces. You make it by scraping the bark of the wood on the stone slab and mixing it with water to make a paste, which you apply with the spatula. The hotel had thoughtfully provided this for guests. People say it protects you from the sun and keeps you cool. I tried it once but it didn’t do much for me.
My impression of life in Mrauk U was that it was hard work for most people and especially for women, who, as in Mandalay, were doing most of the carrying, generally on their heads:
Everywhere and constantly I saw women carrying not bricks (there aren’t many in Mrauk U) but water… like this:
Most people outside cities don’t have running water (nor electricity) and some have to walk for 20 minutes to fetch water I was told. Hence the many water vessels for sale in the market!
There were also many wells around town, where people were washing as well as drawing water, which you also see in Mandalay.
Some people carried water using a yoke over their shoulders, with two yellow buckets suspended from it like the ones in the photo above. It reminded me of illustrations of ‘Life in the British Empire’ in the old Geography books we had at primary school. At first I found the sight of women carrying water quite picturesque. But thinking about it a bit more I found myself being angry at the waste of time and energy, and the dreadful inconvenience it caused. Why, in a country which has plenty of water, has it not been possible for the government to supply people with running water? And electricity too for that matter. Happily though life here has not stood completely still. Some of the women carrying water were simultaneously talking into their mobile phones!
I also found an art gallery next to one of the temples:
and saw a painting, which I now very much wish I had bought, the ‘perfect mango’:
especially because now that it’s mango season I have discovered there is a special variety of mango here (called Sein te Lone, meaning diamond) which is positively the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted! I told my students how much I like them and as well as receiving daily offerings of mangoes during lessons, we now also have 15 mangoes waiting to be eaten in our fridge.
Wandering around on one’s own can be a bit lonely at times. But luckily I was warmly greeted everywhere I went, especially by kids. They generally shouted ‘goodbye’ or ‘thank you’ as I cycled by, presumably because these are words they often hear from tourists. Sometimes I got off the bike and tried to start up a conversation (or mini fluency lesson) introducing them to ‘Hello… What’s your name? …How old are you?’ Some kids, like these two girls, seemed to like talking to me:
Others would say something and then run away, giggling at the idea of actually having spoken to a foreigner. Some kids were afraid of mobile phones like this young girl, who ran away when I tried to take a photo of her, dragging her sister behind her:
But when I showed her the phone and let her take photos herself and look at them she was an immediate convert and couldn’t get enough of seeing herself on screen, though she still held her sister very tight:
After four days in Mrauk U, I left in the same scruffy boat I had arrived in:
Climbing behind these fellow passengers into the crowded stuffy hold:
and taking a last photo of the jetty in a place which had shown me a very different side of Myanmar.