Beaching in Burma: Not Your Typical Beach Vacation

My friend was coming from a work trip in Hong Kong and we both needed a break, so we thought we’d check out the beach scene in Burma for a few days. Not being much of a beach person myself unless I’m doing some sort of water activity, I imagined that even a beach trip in Burma would offer some kind of interesting adventure, so I was in.

We had done a little research into the coastal options and settled on a beach called Ngapali which, as legend has it, was so named by a homesick Italian after Italy’s Napoli. I don’t know about all that, but the distortion of something familiar into something very much Burmese was certainly part of our experience.

It didn’t take long to realize we weren’t going on your typical beach vacation. Once again projecting my experience in Thailand onto Burma, I imagined the flight would be filled with happy, elephant-pant clad tourists. Yangon might not be a huge tourist destination, but surely the pristine white sands of Ngapali on the clear waters of the Bay of Bengal would be, right?! Think again, at least the time of year we went. Waiting in line to board our prop plane, it suddenly occurred to us that we were the only non-Burmese people getting on the plane. There was a slight moment of panic during which we wondered whether we had, in fact, booked a flight to the right destination and, if we had, whether we were unaware that we now needed a government permit to go there. No one to answer these pressing questions, we figured we’d just find out on the other side.

We arrived at the Thandwe airport, and were greeted by someone from the hotel who, to our great relief, found us right away, assuring we hadn’t royally messed up in our trip planning. The resort was stunning. Really world class accommodations and service. (A big thanks to my friend here for subsidizing our accommodation. Alone I likely would’ve been in a guest house in the village, or not at the beach at all, a fine but not fancy alternative, to be sure). And filled with Germans. Leave it to the Germans to travel to the ends of the earth for a beach vacation. You’ve got to be seriously committed and hearty to get to this place. 

For a few days we did our fair share of lounging and eating the freshest fish on the beach.

The best restaurant experience? Hands down The Sea Queen, which is run by a Burmese family. The seafood is outrageous. Our waiter, a flamboyant boy who called himself Lola and who had panache and maturity well beyond his years, provided excellent service and even adorned us with gifts of his handmade shell bracelets at the end of the meal (“my customers love my presents”).

The best drinking experience? A place I took to calling “bar island,” but I’m certain it had a different name I couldn’t quite make out from our boat guide’s broken English. It’s an island, so goes without saying that you have to take a boat there, but it’s pretty much paradise, where you can sit and have a drink under thatched roofs and think about how far away you are from your real life.

 

For me, however, the highlight of that boating trip was seeing the traditional fishing villages that line the coast. I wonder how they will fare as tourism develops in the coming years. 

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 Burmese fisherman hat woven from palm that our boat guide procured for us after my friend complimented him on it and asked where we could find one. I had to leave this with my friend Feroz in Chiang Mai for safe keeping until my return. 

Burmese fisherman hat woven from palm that our boat guide procured for us after my friend complimented him on it and asked where we could find one. I had to leave this with my friend Feroz in Chiang Mai for safe keeping until my return. 

Of course, leave it to me to get antsy and want to explore. After one day of being lazy on the beach I decided to head into the nearest village. The hotel called a tuk tuk driver for me, and I had the great fortune that it turned out to be Koh, a lovely man, probably in his 50s, with smiles to make up for his lack of English. In an open-air tuk tuk, we drove towards Thandwe, all the while taking in the rural beach landscape and life as a passerby. I knew Koh and I got each other when, after another tuk tuk passed us with nothing but a cow in the back, I laughed and Koh made an eating gesture, laughing with me.

 Koh!

Koh!

Koh took me to a weaving workshop I had heard about. Down dirt roads in the village with not a foreigner in sight, the tuk tuk came to a stop and I got out. I guess I was there? No one at this workshop spoke English, and there were definitely no tour procedures in place. I wondered how many foreigners had actually visited this place. I started walking around the looms, exchanging smiles and curiosity with the handful of women working them to make bamboo placemat and longyi (the ubiquitous wrap skirt worn by both women and men in Burma). The open-air looms were on the ground level under the raised house. They are, as far as I can gather, flying shuttle looms constructed from local bamboo, operated by feet and hands working together at a near incomprehensible clip. The longyi they wove was made from cotton, silk or a blend, and in the traditional patterns of their state, Rhakine.

After nosing around, I went upstairs to where the owners home to check out some of the textiles they had available. I picked up several different kinds for friends and family. Koh also did some shopping for himself, presumably because I had teased him about the fact that he was wearing board shorts and not a longyi. He really got the best lot of silk cloth. I did pick up a couple cotton longyi in Rhakine print that are available as part of The Chiang Mai Collection (photo below). Ya won’t be getting these anywhere else, anytime soon.

The husband-wife owners were sweet, and found me amusing. The man finished the sewing on my cloth while I waited. His wife then tied it on me properly and I walked out with a new longyi – voila!

 Finishing touches on my new longyi. 

Finishing touches on my new longyi. 

Sporting my new longyi, Koh took me to the town market. If you didn’t know already, I love markets. I visit markets wherever I go, and not just clothing or artisan markets. I had no idea what I’d find at this market. I quickly realized I wasn’t there to shop but, rather, to offer entertainment to Burmese women in the market. I literally made a toothless old lady fall onto the ground laughing. I got some nodding approvals, so I think there was some mix of amusement and admiration happening.

 Thandwe Market. Rhakine State, Burma. 

Thandwe Market. Rhakine State, Burma. 

I told my friend all about the trip when I got back, and we decided to return to the weaving shop so she could get her own longyi. So, the next day we were back with Koh at the weavers. We had long been struggling to understand how to properly tie these things for men and women. It’s a little more straight forward for women but it’s like a magic trick watching men tie them. On our way back to the hotel Koh pulled over at a little shop off the road and motioned for us to get out. Okay, not sure what this was about, but sure. When we got inside, we met Koh’s daughter and wife. His daughter, a police woman by day, was also a seamstress. Koh, who had visibly seen us struggling to tie our own skirts, brought us to his daughter, who offered to tailor the skirts that night for us. Bright and early the next day, Koh arrived at the hotel with his usual smile with the skirts. They fit perfectly and had a metal fastener at the waist, no longer requiring any convoluted tying!

I hadn’t expected to have any such encounters as the one with Koh or the weavers during this beach trip. I love these unexpected connections, and have my mind set on returning if I ever build a full collection form Burma down the road. 

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