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.