The fertile delta region south and west of Yangon has long been of great importance, due to its abundant agricultural production and strategic location for trading. It made news headlines around the world in 2008 after being devastated by Cyclone Nargis, when the military regime blocked foreign aid claiming that they had the situation under control. This worsened an already appalling situation and the official final death toll was 138,000 people, although in reality it was probably much higher.
While a lot of the region was closed after the cyclone, it is now completely open again, but most people rush straight through its lush green rice fields and sleepy towns on their way to the beaches at Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung. If you don’t mind roughing it a bit, one good way to see more of the region is to travel by public ferry to Pathein, famous for its handmade parasols, before carrying on to the beaches.
The west coast of Myanmar lies to the north of the delta region. First comes the long and thin stretch of Rakhine State, separated from the plains to the east by mountains, then Chin State and its border with Bangladesh. The most touted destination in this part of the country is Ngapali Beach, but it’s a long, hard journey by bus and rising hotel prices have squeezed out anyone on a very strict budget. Of more interest to most budget travellers is Mrauk U, capital of Rakhine when it was a separate country, but it was closed to tourists following violence in 2012. Until this situation changes, it is also impossible to take boat trips from Mrauk U into Chin State, which had previously been the easiest way to see the rarely-visited state without a permit.
Top image: Ngapali beach © Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock
The sand isn’t the whitest you’ll see, and it isn’t kept as clean as you’d probably like, but Chaung Tha Beach isn’t a bad place to relax. What’s more, if you show up at the weekend or during holidays, then joining the locals at play is a cultural experience in itself. The few foreigners who visit mostly hide from the sun on loungers under palm-frond shelters, while local kids run into the sea clutching huge inner tubes as flotation devices. Meanwhile, teenagers play football around the food vendors who cross the beach selling grilled crabs and prawns on skewers to their parents.
If you’re looking for pristine white sand, clear blue sea and little to do other than kick back with a cocktail and the freshest seafood you’re likely to find, then Ngapali Beach is your kind of place. While it’s on many package tour itineraries, however, it’s less popular with independent travellers. This is largely due to the cost of accommodation, which has spiralled in recent years, plus the time or expense involved in getting there: from Yangon it’s either a fifty-minute flight or a gruelling eighteen-hour bus journey. That said, those who do make it to Ngapali Beach rarely seem to regret it.
Several places on the beach offer massages for K6000 to K8000, while if you’re feeling a little more active then you can arrange snorkelling (K15,000/person) through hotels. The boat trip, which usually includes a stop to swim off a secluded beach, tends to overshadow the snorkelling itself.
The 15km-long stretch of pale, fine sand at Ngwe Saung is more appealing than the beach at Chaung Tha, not least because its length means that it is much less densely developed. There are plenty of resorts but the beach is cleaner and more laidback here; it also has clearer water, which unlike Chaung Tha isn’t full of kids clinging onto huge inner tubes. The flipside is that Ngwe Saung attracts a lot more foreigners and wealthy locals, meaning that prices are higher and that it’s arguably a less interesting experience.
There’s a small village with a main street almost entirely devoted to fulfilling tourist needs; generally speaking, the priciest resorts are north of the village and the cheapest are strung out to the south. If you fancy a wander then Lover’s Island, just offshore around 500m south of the two hotels listed here, is an easy destination at low tide.
The largest settlement in the delta, PATHEIN is mostly used as a staging point between Yangon and the coast but makes a worthwhile stop for its busy markets, famous parasol workshops and tree-lined lanes of colonial-era buildings. As an additional incentive, it’s possible to get to the city by boat from Yangon, on one of the most interesting stretches of the Ayeyarwady River.
The biggest pagoda complex in the city is Shwemokhtaw Paya, which dates back to at least the twelfth century, although local stories claim that there has been a pagoda here much longer. One legend says that a Muslim princess asked her three Buddhist lovers to build her a pagoda each, and this one was the greatest. It’s certainly a grand example, with a 40m-high golden stupa topped by a t’ì (ornamental umbrella) made from tiers of solid gold, silver and bronze.
Otherwise, the main attractions are the city’s workshops: Pathein is famous for its cotton parasols, many made in small family-run establishments. These are scattered throughout the city, but the most convenient are located south of Shwemokhtaw Paya on Merchant Street.