While researching the new Rough Guide to Myanmar (Burma), Jo James discovered the Tanintharyi Division – a blissful corner of the country that has only recently opened up to travellers.
As we coasted downhill towards the village I tried, briefly and unsuccessfully, to suppress a grin. The road ahead curved along a soft sweep of sand. The village, San Hlan – a few rows of wooden huts topped with shaggy palm-frond roofs – ran right down to the water’s translucent edge. Teak fishing boats the colour of dark chocolate bobbed in the bay, primary coloured flags fluttering from bow and stern. Just beyond, the Andaman Sea stretched to the horizon, a sheet of silky blue. Try not smiling with that kind of view.
I was just outside the town of Dawei in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi Division, researching the new Rough Guide to Myanmar. Until recently Tanintharyi was a rather tricky place to visit. Foreign travellers were restricted to flying in and out of the three main cities (Dawei, Myeik and Kawthoung), and day trips to places like San Hlan were impossible unless you were in possession of a sheaf of permits from Yangon or Naypyidaw. Tantalising rumours of the Myeik Archipelago’s islands leaked from the visitors who made it that far – along with James Bond-esque tales of island military bases, crony-owned casinos and semi-aquatic sea gypsies – but there was little information about the mainland beyond.
Late in 2013 the travel restrictions were relaxed, and it’s now possible to travel as far south as Myeik overland. (Between Myeik and Kawthoung it’s still necessary to fly or take one of the boats that thread through the edge of the archipelago, passing palm-edged islands and scaring up shoals of flying fish – a rare instance of official restrictions being anything other than an annoyance.)
While the Myeik Archipelago may be Tanintharyi’s main draw, the coastline around Dawei is the surprise star. With a motorbike, a full tank of petrol and a sense of adventure you’re free to beach-hunt at will. Fishing villages spill right down to the gloriously clear water at San Hlan and elsewhere, a lone golden stupa looks out over the Andaman Sea at Shin Maw, and dirt tracks lead to gorgeous stretches of sand everywhere. Save for the fishermen, there’s seldom another person in sight.
The region’s tourist industry is still in its infancy. Thirty minutes’ drive north of Dawei, Maungmagan Beach is the only spot on the coast that’s even remotely prepared for visitors, with one government ‘resort’ and the charming Coconut Guesthouse near its dark sand beach – oddly one of the less attractive in the area. Dawei itself is the most convenient base for exploring the beaches south of Maungmagan. Fortunately the small town has plenty of decent accommodation and a pleasing lack of sights – there’s little to distract you from getting out to the coast.
The only shadow on the sunlit horizon is the question of how long Dawei’s alluringly undeveloped shoreline will remain intact. Just a few hundred miles north of Phuket, the area will be catnip for hotel developers. While I was in San Hlan the fishermen told stories of mysterious businessmen who were already busy buying up swathes of the coastline for a pittance, in preparation for a future property boom.
The Myanmar government also has grand plans for Dawei, with a vast deep-sea port planned for the ridiculously long Nabule Beach. I rode out to there during my visit to see the project site. A wide, sandy track led to the isolated shoreline, and a series of ambitious signs stood in front of scrubby deserted lots, proclaiming things like “LNG Terminal – 35 Acres” and “Main Port 2km”. However, in 2013 the lead developer was booted off the development, and while there is a chance that it will be resuscitated, the port is in limbo for the time being.
Where the access road met the shore, a lone flagpole stood with the Myanmar flag whipping in the wind. Six fishermen were building a bamboo raft in preparation for a festival a few days later. The villagers would gather on the beach to push the raft, decked with tinsel and carrying a Buddha statue, into the waves to protect their boats for another year. While Dawei’s days as a beautiful backwater may be numbered, for now the area is still home for the fishing communities who have lived here for generations – as well as a handful of grinning travellers.
The Rough Guide to Myanmar (Burma) will be released in February 2015, but you can buy the Rough Guides Snapshot Myanmar (Burma) here, and you can explore Burma in depth with this immersive guide.