Travel north from Phuket, following the coastline round and beyond Yangon, and you will find Rakhine State, home to some of Myanmar's stunning beaches in the Bay of Bengal.
Ngapali Beach (close to Thandwe) is probably the best known, and said to have been named by Italian mercenaries for whom the stretch of sand brought home memories of Naples. The beach is striking in it's natural and unspoilt beauty. The sea is clear, clean and free of speedboats, the sand white and free of hawkers, hair-platters and masseuses.
North from Ngapali beach, where Rakhine State in north-west Myanmar borders Bangladesh, the city names on the map sound interesting: Sittwe, Myaungbwe and Mrauk U.
Until recently, it was difficult to find information about the ancient city of Mrauk U and access to the area was virtually impossible. Although still suited only to the adventurous traveller, Mrauk U is a growing destination in Myanmar. It has been described as a 'lost city' and the boat trip from Sittwe has been compared to Bogart's African Queen!
Arriving at Sittwe is like stepping back in time, with the airport consisting of one huge room with ceiling fans. The local people are still surprised to see foreigners and you can expect to be the subject of stares and whispered conversations, all friendly!
Many of the Rakhine people are Muslim and the call to prayer sounds from the numerous city mosques each morning
Sittwe boasts several interesting pagodas and a fascinating monastery on the main street. The Abbot and other monks have a wonderful collection of Buddha images and it is well worth spending some time exploring the few rooms of their 'museum'. Some images are copies but many are also originals dating from the 15th century when Mrauk U was at its peak of prosperity.
Another highlight of Sittwe is the beach where a promontory makes an ideal place to sit and absorb the sunset. The rock formations around the promontory are interesting and a stunning black sand beach stretches as far as the eye can see.
Sittwe is the gateway to Mrauk U, an ancient capital city back in the 15th century. The five hour trip up-river from Sittwe to Mrauk U starts at dawn and, aside from the rather uncomfortable boats, the trip affords an insight into life on the river and the surrounding countryside.
Mrauk U was a thriving city in the 15th and 16th centuries, with a complex network of canals allowing large boats access to the area. A visiting Dutchman in the 16th century is said to have described Mrauk U as one of the richest cities in Asia. The city prospered for close to four centuries.
What Mrauk U lacks in luxury, it certainly compensates for in historical, cultural and natural interest. The town, which is actually more like a village, snuggles between hilltops, rivers and two lakes.
A wander through its streets is captivating and the people very warm and friendly. They are often as interested in what the traveller is doing as the traveller is interested in what they are doing! There are hardly any vehicles in Mrauk U, apart from hsaik-ka (trishaws). The best way to visit the ancient city is by horse and cart.
The most well preserved temple in Mrauk U is Shitthaung, built back in 1535 by King Minbin, the most powerful of the Rakhine kings. The caves, tunnels, passages and Buddha images of Shitthaung temple are intriguing, and some say the construction is similar to Borobudur in Indonesia.
There are many other temples to visit in the area surrounding Mrauk U, as well as the ruins of the royal palace and city walls. Once the infrastructure improves, Sittwe and Mrauk U will one day be firmly on the itinerary of visitors to Myanmar.
Ngapali Beach focus
The area contains many small islands that can be visited on day trips from main center. Ngapali beach is a three km ribbon of white, soft-as-talc sand beach that stretches from the village of Ngapali to "Gyeiktaw". The fiery sunset, for which the Bay of Bengal is noted for, can be watched right from your doorstep.