Tourists trickle into violence-hit western Myanmar
It was dusk in a corner of Myanmar recently shaken by some of the bloodiest sectarian violence in a generation, and a dozen Canadian tourists climbed to the top of a grassy hill, cameras ready to capture the sweeping view.
Moss-covered pagodas rose from foggy hilltops all along the horizon, their bell-shaped silhouettes dark against the blue sky. Birds flitted through lush treetops. A small throng of children played on a dirt road nearby.
From here, it was hard to tell anything was wrong.
Just six miles (10 kilometers) to the south, though, security forces have blocked roads to a village that was reportedly overrun last month by a frenzied mob of Rakhine Buddhists armed with swords and spears who beheaded Muslim civilians and slaughtered women and children.
Across western Myanmar's Rakhine state, the United Nations is distributing emergency supplies of food and shelter to terrified refugees who have fled burning homes. A nighttime curfew is in force in several townships, including Mrauk-U.
But none of that has kept a small but steady trickle of determined tourists from traveling here to ogle at the monuments of this region's glorious past.
"We heard the news before coming," Caroline Barbeau, a French-speaking social worker from Montreal, said of violence that has shaken the region since June, displacing 110,000 people from their homes.
But "we've had no problems," she said. "The people are very nice, very kind."
Asked what had touched her most, Barbeau turned pensive. "Their smiles."
Mrauk-U itself has been spared the bloodshed between Buddhist and Muslims that has scarred other parts of Rakhine state. It is calm, and for foreign tourists, safe. But the Muslims who once worked and traded here just a few months ago no longer dare set foot in the town, part of a worrying new pattern of segregation that has split the two communities.
What draws tourists to this remote place are its storied relics - hundreds of them, scattered across the hilltops. Mrauk-U is the spiritual heartland of the Rakhine, the former capital of a now-defunct Buddhist kingdom that reached its height in the 16th century. The dynasty conquered a swath of mountainous territory along what is now Myanmar's western coast, waging major battles against rival empires - including Muslims from Bengal.
Their descendants - the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya - have been fighting and killing each other across this region in recent months.
The conflict centers around the question of nationality, scarce land, and some say, racism. The Rakhine consider the darker-skinned Muslims among them to be foreign intruders from Bangladesh, even though many have lived here for generations. The government denies the Rohingya citizenship, considering them "Bengalis." But Bangladesh does too, effectively rendering them stateless.
After three Muslim Rohingya men allegedly raped and murdered a Buddhist Rakhine woman in late May, violence rocked the state for a week in June, then again in October. In what may have been the bloodiest episode so far, a thousands-strong mob of Buddhists with spears, arrows and homemade guns overran the village Yan Thei, just south of Mrauk-U, razing most of it to the ground, according to Human Rights Watch.
Although the violence has subsided, tensions have not, and there are fears the worst is yet to come.
Which raises the question: Should any tourists be traveling here at all?
During Myanmar's half-century of military rule, which ended last year, only the most intrepid travelers made their way to places like Mrauk-U, and even then there was debate over whether traveling to the Southeast Asian country would bolster the oppressive junta.
But after the army ceded direct power last year to an elected but still military-dominated government, the new president embarked on a wave of widely praised democratic reforms, and the number of tourists skyrocketed.
The serene pace and historic legacy of places like this are a big part of the draw.
Even the route to Mrauk-U is worth the trip - a slow, meandering boat journey up the Kaladan River past a timeless horizon of shimmering rice fields. Thatched bamboo huts rise from the water's edge on stilts. Oxen graze. Golden pagodas rise from green hills.
Philippe Grivel, a retired Frenchman traveling solo in Rakhine state, said he was afraid not of the potential for violence, but of the possibility of missing one of Myanmar's grandest historical sites.
After the fighting began, the government banned local travel agencies from taking foreign tourists to the region. But nothing has stopped individual travelers from making the journey, and special permits have been granted to some larger tour groups.
When Grivel emailed a hotel in Mrauk-U to inquire if it was possible to visit, they told him that if the authorities didn't turn him back at the airport in Sittwe, the state capital, he was free to come.
Explorateur, the Canadian tour agency that arranged Barbeau's travel and advertises three-week trips to Myanmar called "Light and Harmony," assured its clients the trip would be safe.
And it was.
"This is still a virgin country without many tourists," said another of the Canadian tourists, a francophone from Montreal who gave only her family name, Allard, because of security concerns. "It's magnificent."
The sightseers - 12 tourists and one guide - spent several days bicycling through Mrauk-U's quaint, crumbling streets. They visited the town market. They saw nothing disturbing.
Allard, though, was surprised to learn that one of Mrauk-U's monasteries is home to more than 700 Buddhist refugees, nine of whom had just walked there after hearing rumors that Muslims armed with Molotov cocktails were readying for an assault.
The tour group did not visit the monastery. But they did express concern over the violence. Allard called the recent bloodshed "horrible."
On the eve of their final day, the group toured Mrauk-U's most famous temple, a stone labyrinth called Shittaung. Also known as the "Temple of Victory," it was built in 1535 to commemorate King Min Bin's conquest over the 12 provinces of Muslim-dominated Bengal.
As a Burmese guide explained the temple's history, the group snapped photos of the ubiquitous stone Buddhas lined up inside its dim, maze-like hallways. Some strained their necks to gaze up at the elaborate royal artwork painted on the ceilings above.
Kyaw Zaw Tun, who works at the temple and lost a brother in the October clashes, said it would normally be full of local Buddhist pilgrims at this time of year.
But its halls are almost empty, its guest book filled with, on average, one or two foreign visitors a day.
Asked if Muslims had ever visited before the violence began, he shook his head with disgust.
"If they came in here now," he said, pausing to tighten his right hand as if it were a knife about to slice meat, "chop, chop, chop."
As he spoke, the Canadians walked out of one of the temple's stone doors, one by one. They then climbed to the top of a nearby hill beside Shittaung, pulled out bottles of mineral water, and watched the sun sink beneath the hills.