Mrauk-U, a town surrounded by hills in northern Rakhine State, is known as the ‘Stone City’. It was given the name because its 14th-century pagodas are made of stone.
Mrauk-U is home to 1552 ancient stone pagodas – historic structures that are still standing strong today, owing to the wisdom of the old Rakhine kings who ordered them to be built from stone that can withstand the weather on top of the hills.
“These pagodas are over 800 years old, but younger than those in Bagan in the Mandalay Region that were built in the 11th century,” local hotelier U Hla Myint from the Mrauk-U Princess Hotel said.
Although Mrauk-U’s pagodas are similar to Bagan’s pagodas in being located close to residential areas, giving the location huge tourism potential, Mrauk-U has not attained international stardom like Bagan.
Mrauk-U’s tourist arrival numbers are still much lower. While Bagan recorded 280,000 tourists in 2016, Mrauk-U only managed to hit 4000 the whole of last year.
Hoteliers said the reason for the poor numbers was the instability affecting Rakhine, even in areas far from Mrauk-U, since 2012.
Since the crisis that brought political instability, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism imposed an order prohibiting hotels from accepting guests without official permission.
Foreign ministries abroad also notified their citizens of the danger in Rakhine and discouraged them from visiting the state.
Tourism in Mrauk-U has not been able to recover since then, even though the town is more developed, better connected, and even has an airport in the pipeline.
Rakhine Hoteliers Association member Daw Ohnmar Khin said travellers needed to be informed that Mrauk-U was safe.
She said there should be more familiarisation trips organised with the collaboration of hotels and tour companies.
“For Mrauk-U’s tourism growth, we need political stability. But we also need to get the right information out to let people know that Mrauk-U is a safe place to visit.
“Not everyone knows about us so we need better promotion. We need to help travel agents bring visitors here,” she said.
Mrauk-U has several prominent heritage sites such as the palace, Shit-thaung (80,000 Buddha images) Pagoda, Htukkanthein Pagoda, Koe-thaung (90,000 Buddha images) Pagoda and Laungbanpyauk Pagoda.
In the Chin ethnic villages in Mrauk-U, visitors can meet women who have kept the tradition of having tattoos on their faces. For beautiful sceneries, tourists can visit the Laymro River that has water so clear the stones on the river bed can be seen.
In 1996, local authorities first applied to UNESCO to get Mrauk-U’s archaeological zone recognised as a world heritage site, but were unsuccessful.
The Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library of Mrauk-U is now trying again, with a team of experts conducting surveying work such as 3D mapping of the ancient architectural and cultural site, to draft a new application.
There had been some conservation challenges when work was carried out to restore some of the ancient pagodas in Mrauk-U.
One example was the the loss of the Shit-thaung Pagoda’s heritage value when conservation was not properly done.
There were also concerns by nearby locals that they would be forced to move if the sites became UNESCO world heritage sites, Mrauk-U guide association chair U Kyaw Hla Maung said.
“The people are worried about possible relocation. The authorities should talk to them and hear their views and suggestions before proceeding.
“Do it like what State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi suggested for Bagan. Then they can also educate the people and help them understand why the UNESCO listing is a good thing,” he said.
U Hla Myint said tourism would bring prosperity to the locals, who could sell crafts and find jobs in tourism-related businesses.