As the tourism boycott has ended, Myanmar (Burma) is becoming a popular destination on the Southeast Asia trail. John Oates has been travelling across this untouched country for the upcoming Rough Guide Snapshot to Myanmar (Burma). Here he escapes the fast paced city of Yangon to relax on the sandy beaches of Myanmar.
After several days roaming the stifling streets of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar and still its most interesting city, I was ready for a change of pace and looking forward to my trip to the west coast beaches of Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung. Things began inauspiciously, though, as I got off the bus to hear a grouchy backpacker complaining about the price of a room – the last thing I wanted to hear after a six-hour journey. It had, he claimed, increased three-fold in the last two years.
Although I didn’t appreciate it at 3am, in retrospect he probably had a point. It’s true that accommodation prices have been skyrocketing in Myanmar since the main political opposition – the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi – dropped its tourism boycott. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand: many more tourists are arriving in the country each year, but there are not enough new hotels opening up. This is particularly true at the budget end of the market, due to the levels of bureaucracy involved in getting a permit to host foreign tourists.
Instead many existing guesthouses and budget hotels are increasing their capacity, and my accommodation of choice – Shwe Hin Tha – had opened a new and cheaper block a couple of minutes walk inland. The grumbling backpacker was partially placated and I got a room for myself. The price was right at less than $10 but the trade-off was that it had no air-con or even a fan, and the lack of a generator meant that there was electricity for just a few hours a day. Nobody ever said that a guidebook writer’s life was all about creature comforts.
Family fun at Chaung Tha
After a short nap, I surveyed the scene over breakfast at a beachside restaurant. Young kids were splashing around in the sea, many of them clutching onto large inner tubes which they’d hired from vendors on the beach. Older boys kicked footballs around, while their parents sat on loungers or on the sand. Occasionally the families ordered prawn skewers from the women who spent all day traversing the beach, carrying their wares on their heads in large plastic buckets. The few foreigners I could see were hiding in the shade.
Chaung Tha is popular with middle-class families from Yangon, and although the sand isn’t the whitest or cleanest beach you’ll see in Southeast Asia, it’s a lively place particularly at the weekends and during school holidays. The beachfront hotels are all packed into a relatively small space, though, and I was disappointed but not surprised to see a big and ugly new block being constructed on a ridge at one end of the beach.
Away from the beach there isn’t a lot to see, although the main road running parallel to the sand has some basic restaurants. There’s also a government-run tourist counter, but you’ll get much more help from the unofficial information point run by Mr George. At this one-stop-shop you can arrange snorkelling or a trip to see working elephants, hire a bike or get a massage. His sister Thin Thin – pronounced like the name of the Belgian boy detective – arranges informal cookery classes and so whipped up an array of local dishes for my dinner.
The path to Ngwe Saung
Mr George can also, like most hotel reception desks, arrange transport to Ngwe Saung beach a little further south. It’s a prettier stretch of sand than the one at Chaung Tha, partly because the accommodation is much more spread out, and it attracts more up-scale visitors as well as significantly more foreigners. Accommodation is generally pricier than in Chaung Tha, but there are still a few relatively cheap options – starting at around $20 – south of Ngwe Saung village.
The real high point of my whole trip to the coast, though, was the two-hour journey between the two beaches on the back of a motorbike. The route runs on bumpy tracks alongside rice fields and through villages, emerging from time to time onto beaches where the driver picked up pace and raced past fishermen standing in the shallows hauling nets. It was at these times that I gave in to my most touristy urges, waving and yelling out a mingalaba (hello) or two.
Most memorable of all though were the short boat rides, which punctuated the trip. While we waited for each boat my driver would smoke a cheroot, a simple hand-rolled cigar, then once it arrived he would set about the cumbersome task of getting his motorbike on board. Since I was little use in the process, I struck up conversation with anyone who had a smattering of English. At a little over $10 one-way, I reckoned that even the grouchiest backpacker would find this trip a bargain.
Buses run from Yangon to both Chaung Tha (6hr) and Ngwe Saung (8hr 30min). It’s also possible to take a bus or ferry to the delta town of Pathein, then a bus to either destination.
You can explore more of Myanmar with the Rough Guide Snapshot to Myanmar (Burma).