The near 5 hour boat journey from Mrauk U to Sittwe commenced at 8 in the morning.
Both floors of the ferry became packed with half awaken local commuters.
The final whistle had blown and the cruise began with half of the passengers unpacking their eatables. In less than 15 minutes the top floor resembled to a floating restaurant. Noodle soups, rice, spinach to fried eggs next to unfamiliar local dishes came out of the boxes. Chewing, crunching and gnawing pushed back the annoying noise of a grumbling engine. For this is a country of endless rice dishes – sticky, fried to steam you name it, it has it.
Unlike us, people here like short and frequent treats and ends them by chewing a betel leaf. Marks of red spittle are the ubiquitous litter in this country.
Soon vast expanses of paddy fields dotted with small fishing villages emerged. No wonder, why Myanmar is dubbed as the “Asian Rice Bowl “.
In about an hour the Kaladan became wider as the sun was rocketing straight up.
Before 12 we had reached the shores of Sittwe. Scores of wooden boats, trawlers and a navy patrol boat were seen to be anchored near the jetty.
I have arrived from the rustic to a more refined part of Rakhaine.
Ports across the globe have some common kinesics and Sittwe was no different. Touts , rickshaw pullers to traders; sailors to clam diggers all seemed to welcome the passengers by giving a fretful gaze – as if trying to spot a convict among the many.
I boarded a local taxi (Here it’s a motorbike attached to a wagon) and after a half hour bumpy ride arrived at a hotel located on the left of Sittwe’s main road. It was a dusty ‘bed bugged boxed coffin’ - a cannily built flooring between the ground and the first floor.
As said before, the backpacker’s resting place is not only undecided but also the cheapest and that’s why i found myself standing in front of the “Prince hotel”. The photos hung in the wall suggest it saw it’s heydays some 20 years ago when it was opened.
The less than $10 room was offered with a lockless shared bath on the fourth floor and a commode that was probably last flushed in the previous millennium. The charpoy screeched at every move. The bugs didn’t bother as i slept on my towel. The countless holed particleboard walls threatened the occupier’s privacy – a perfect domicile for peepers. The 1 by 1 squared window beside the bed oversaw the receptionist’s chair and his unstoppable snort reminded me of our security guard back in Dhaka. If you’re a couple, the lure to make love will not even get into your wildest thoughts. Sleep will be slept in one’s imagination.
I got out quicker than i had checked in and headed for the Strand Road running along the city’s eastern shore. Guessed right, the name itself is a reminder of Myanmar’s colonial past and i have come across at least three Strand roads while travelling in Myanmar this time. Yangon, Sittwe and Mawlamyine all have a Strand Road that either runs along a river or the sea. Sittway’s one is the most vibrant and scenic.
Besides endless eateries, fish and vegetable markets and vendors’ barrows parked on the right and left it’s dotted with battered traces of colonial architecture. The narrow alley leading to the jetty is occupied by a fish market stinking agonizingly, but once inside it’s difficult to stop gazing at the array of river and sea fishes being traded - a meeting point for fishermen, sellers and buyers.
A port isn’t a port without a pulsating fish market and the stench is there to remind you of that.
Dried fish (Shutki) is also very trendy in this part of the country and the varieties seen here are completely different from the ones in Bangladesh. However, after 20 minutes of ‘window-fishing’ it was time to have a glimpse at the jetty crammed with locally built trawlers. Some anchored some arriving while some leaving. A group of local sailors looked at me with utter neglect and continued to play cards and drink.
But wait, what was that massive construction in the north of Strand Road?
It’s the $120 million bilateral project for a new deepwater port complex between India and Myanmar. Echoing Myanmar’s increasing trading ambitions. The country is targeting large-scale shipping plans via using the Kolkata port. For India it’s more than just trade, to create an alternative route to India's landlocked north-eastern states.
Coming out of the jetty i paced towards straight south along the Strand Road and hit the city’s serene waterfront road and didn’t stop till reaching a viewpoint commonly known as “the Point”.
Undeniably, the distant scenes from here make this port town unforgettable. Stand beside this writer and you’ll find the natural setting spell-binding –the Kaladan with other inland waterways draining into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh stood barely 100 kilometres as the crow flies. Not far from the scattered misty lush hills of Arakan Yoma that you can see in the direction of north-west. A sense of joy overtook me.
Spotting Bangladesh from a foreign country has always reinforced me with a strong sense of security, protection, and of course pride. I was overwhelmed with the same feeling whenever i viewed the plains of Sylhet from the peaks of Cherrapunji. Teknaf may not be in sight, but i could smell its shores.
The point, built on a rock jutting out into the Indian Ocean, is now going through a massive facelift expansion programme aiming to turn Sittwe into a major tourist attraction. It also provides an excellent view of both the Sittwe beach and harbor complemented by a natural foreshore.
Here an old Cannon, too, has been cemented into a single block of concrete, pointing towards the Indian Ocean - meaning many things. Fortified by a lookout tower and a light house its one awe-inspiring spot to be missed.
But in the midst of such sweetness Sittwe tasted sour when i was not allowed to enter or take photos of the town’s main jama mosque. Need be known, Myanmar has some of the finely built mosques outside the Indian subcontinent. From Yangon to Hpa-an; Mandalay to the hill station of Kalaw; mosques were scattered around everywhere. I went inside and prayed in them, found the small communities to be welcoming and friendly but that was not to turn out in Sittwe.
Not only the more than 150 years old Jama mosque left to a derelict state, but also shielded by high walls and barbed-wire-festooned-crash barriers. Gun-toting policemen were seen to guard the mosque for no good reason. Also the area smacked of strong anti-Islamic sentiments. On an attempt to take a photograph from the outside this traveller was immediately pushed away by a local and advised not to reveal my identity as a Muslim and that too from Bangladesh.
For this writer nearly forgot that he was roaming about free in the birthplace of the radical monk U Ottama , also the city has a long tradition of radical Buddhism. Being a tourist here was okay but not a Muslim. Moreover, like many places in Myanmar there wasn’t a Muslim community to be seen anywhere. Fact not fiction, it’s the town’s Rohingya Muslims , who once made up half the town’s population but now have been driven out of their homes ,Whereas i believed Buddhism to be a religion of peace. Now the stark contrasts stood right in front of me.
On the subject of Buddhist monks this writer often refers to one memorable encounter happening in 2012, in one of the isolated pagodas located in one of the hills surrounding the hill station of Kalaw.
It was during my first trip to Myanmar. Sometime during late October i was climbing to see a pagoda located on top of a nearby hill. By the time i had reached the top it became dark and also began to drizzle. I took refuge inside the pagoda. On my entering, a couple of middle-aged monks welcomed me. This traveller introduced himself to them. Sensing the time and my religion, the next thing they did was the unthinkable. One of them arranged a rug for me by pointing the direction to the west while the other went to get a brass-pot full of water so i could wash and get ready for my prayers and this writer had not even asked for anything. By now the drizzle turned into heavy drops.
I washed myself in one of the corners near the entrance to the pagoda and got inside and said my prayers. It was the first time that i prayed inside a pagoda and no sooner than i had finished a plateful of fruits was offered to me. After half an hour of conversation with my monk friends in broken English it was time to leave. I mark that memorable event with much reverence.
However, the ruined but built in the neo-classical style jama mosque with Doric columns could not be entered but a photo, however, was taken from the outside. Today it stands as a sheer symbol of Muslim oppression. We pray the situation changes.
The decision to explore Myanmar’s south had to be taken quick and my time was running out even quicker. Not by a bus, train or a boat i would take a flight to Yangon – complete the opposite direction a backpacker would travel. I have always wanted to have the domestic flight experience in Myanmar. This was to happen by taking a stop-over flight from Sittwe to Yangon.
Flights are expensive in this country and the one-way could range anywhere between $110 and $150 especially during the tourist season. I was scheduled for the next day’s noon flight via the Golden Myanmar Airlines, the country’s first Aviation Public Company. But still i had before me the whole night and half a day to explore Sittwe.
Hangings around Sittwe’s beach most certainly ensure to come across the company of unending teenagers, foreign NGO workers and Europeans. Drinking, playing, chatting and singing they seemed to be always in a high – a distinct character of the port city. The party seems a never ending one. Like many places in Myanmar the roadside eateries here, too, offer good food from barbecued fish, fried prawns to roasted chickens. Ordering food in the big restaurants could be annoying since none of the menus come with price and also as they’re quite expensive. For a modest dinner you may have to count as much as 10,000 kyats for two people, whereas in these eateries one can getaway within 5,000.
Despite all appeals nothing is perhaps more intriguing than the meaning of the name Sittwe itself. It literally means “the place where the war meets”. No other city or town in Myanmar is named so reasonably. War with the Mrauk U kingdom in 1784, the first Anglo-Burmese War, battles during the Second World War’s Burma campaign have all riddled its history with a long list of conflicts. Enchanting within the list is the story behind the Battle for the Ramree Island of the Arakan campaign during which some 1000 Japanese soldiers are said to have been eaten up by crocodiles. To this day, it is considered to be one of the worst crocodile disasters ever says The Guinness Book of World Records.
Since defines Sittwe so it may be that’s why next to a big naval base it also has a huge military barrack. Be as it may, Sittwe is oozing with potentials to become the eastern hub of Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry. Maybe trickling in numbers, but the inflow of western tourists have begun and become more regular. I was soon to experience it firsthand in Hpa-an.
At around 10PM i got inside the less than $10 coffin. Pledged to ignore reality by reading, praying and writing, but nothing worked. The small fan mounted on the top-left forced me to lie down in a 180 degree awkward position. The couple staying next to my coffin jabbered in local lingo till 2 and clients climbing up and down through the staircase above me never stopped. I could only think of the slogan ‘this too shall pass’ with some effect.
A little after the wee hours i sprinted towards the shower on the fourth floor got inside before anyone could and had a long shower. The sunrise could not be missed. With all shutters down and doors closed the city was still asleep but for a few foreign joggers. But the day for the fisherman had already begun. A couple of trawlers were being unloaded near the jetty against the setting of a dark blue ocean. A lone farmer got down in the foreshore to check his paddy, a local came out behind me gurgling and spitting and someone pulled up a shutter in the fish market. To the fore the first rays of the sun reflected on the water.
Sittwe was waking up.
After a quick bowl of noodle i strolled along the old market building packed with marine creatures and bundles of air-tight dried fish tied up by their tails and returned to get luggage, paid and headed for the airport. A small single storey building with a just a chopper parked near the runway. No passengers, no security and no planes with a wide open door, entirely lifeless. It will open at 1, told one of the sleepy policemen from inside a cafeteria opposite the airport. However, entered and walked up to inspect the British made vintage luggage weighing scale. The Avery something thick, red and heavy piece of iron is there since the colonial times when it had its offices in Rangoon, Colombo, Madras and Calcutta.
With no one in sight i weighed myself to mere 58 kilo and my backpack at less than 12. The airport came to life barely two hours before departure time. The counter opened and luggage was scanned. The departure lounge was opened and the whirling noise of a propeller aircraft was heard.
With one stopover at Ngapali beach (Myanmar’s answer to our Cox’s bazaar) we will kiss the grounds of Yangon and from there a bus would take me to Hpa-an – more of a base for exploring the south-eastern miracles of Myanmar.
Till then enjoy viewing the blue waters and scattered mountains spread across the refined Rakahine from your window seat.
The writer is a journalist and a keen traveller