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Bengal was an ancient  ingdom that the 2nd century Greek cartographer Ptolemy referred to in his writings as Argyre. A list of kings carved in stone found on the site indicates that it flourished as early as the 6th century BC.

Separated from the rest of Myanmar by a range of high mountains and thick jungles, Rakhine State retains its unique traditions. Visitors must come through Sittwe, a busy seaport that has traditional houses along the waterfront. There are monasteries with a mix of European and traditional architecture, and the fish market is a lively place full of men hauling nets and women selling the catch of the day and fresh vegetables.

The ruined city of Mrauk Oo, dating back to the 15th century, is reached by a five-hour boat ride from Sittwe along the Kaladan River. The river meanders through farmland, passing fishing villages and sailing junks, and sometimes through flocks of migratory wild birds.

With its fortress-like temples, Mrauk Oo is a site that has a cultural importance comparable to Bagan. A Portuguese priest named Father Manrique, who lived in Mrauk Oo in the 17th century, wrote about what he had seen in the palace: of halls with ceilings lined with vines of gold bearing gold fruits like pumpkins. He described a pavilion with “seven idols of pure gold, each the size and proportions of an average man. … These idols are adorned in the forehead, breast, arms and waist with many fine precious stones, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, as also with some brilliant old rock diamonds of more than ordinary size.”

According to folklore there were once 6342 temples in Mrauk Oo but harsh weather conditions have eroded many. What remains are solid constructions carved from stone. They are nestled among hills, valleys and small villages, providing a more intimate experience than the vast plain of Bagan.

One of the most majestic temples is Shittaung Pagoda (Shrine of 80,000 Images), built in the 16th century. Figures of the pagoda’s builder, King Minbagri, and his queens were carved high in one corner, attended by nobles and ladies. Scenes on the lower level depict common people dancing, playing musical instruments or training for war. Minbagri’s son later tried to outdo his father by building the sprawling Kothaung Pagoda (Shrine of 90,000 Images), located on the eastern edge of Mrauk Oo. The dark, bunker-like Dukkanthein Pagoda was designed with a spiralling passageway whose images include women sporting the 64 traditional hairstyles of the kingdom.

The Mrauk Oo era was preceded by several earlier kingdoms, including Dhanyawady (circa 1st to 6th centuries AD), Wethali (4th to 8th centuries) and Laymyo (15th century), and their remnants can still be seen in the region. The ruins of the capital of Wethali lie about 10 kilometres north of Mrauk Oo, and 30 kilometres farther on visitors will find the ancient pagoda that once housed the famous Mahamuni Buddha image, which now resides in Mandalay.

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