Escape to Ngapali, Myanmar

In South East Asia we are definitely blessed with an abundance of beautiful beaches to visit, and you don’t have to travel very far to find your idea of paradise – be that the hedonistic haven of Haad Rin, or the idle tranquillity of Gili Air. You may even have your own secret little spot that you keep returning to, one that you’re keeping under wraps for fear that it’ll be ruined should the word get out that it is still beautiful, tranquil and the perfect place to build a concrete monstrosity and 24-hour nightclub. You may even hold dear and distant memories of locations changed beyond recognition; Phi Phi for example before both nature and man decimated it.

Ngapali Beach in Rakhine state is not a well-kept secret, but it is a place that a surprising number of people travelling through or living in Myanmar haven’t visited. If you’ve been then perhaps you’d agree that it would give some of the best, and more well known beaches in the world a run for their money when it comes to beauty, serenity and quality, and its only an hour away from Yangon.

For the cost of return ticket to Bangkok you could fly direct from Yangon to Thandwe, and be on the beach sipping Margaritas in the time it takes to get from North Dagon to China Town during Thingyan. As you wade into the crystal clear and calm waters of the Bay of Bengal to wash away the dust of Yangon you’d be forgiven for wondering where everyone else is.

Looking back at the three kilometres of pristine golden sands from your watery vantage point, Ngapali appears pretty much deserted. There might be a few hardy tourists foolishly worshiping the sun, the odd beach seller balancing fresh fruit on their head and, depending on the time of day, some fishermen managing their catch, but a busy beach it is not. The numerous hotels and resorts, although large and sprawling have allowed a sufficient number of palm trees to remain in their compounds to disguise the intrusion of their buildings to a great degree; and as such the beach manages to retain a semblance of a wild and unpopulated place.

The beach proper is located about 7km from the airport; although there are a number of places to stay between the two. Transport to and from your hotel is often included in the room price and usually involves a delightful and short journey in a beautifully renovated vintage bus with wooden bench seats and bad tempered suspension, the road has recently been paved which has made the journey less painful on the bottom. There is a local bus, taxis and various other forms of transport available to get you to your hotel as well.

Where to Stay

Ngapali isn’t a cheap spot when it comes to accommodation, in fact you’d be hard pressed to find a room for less than $100 per night. If waking up to a view of the car park is not how you imagined you’d be spending your weekend then you can easily part with several hundred dollars for a luxury beachfront bungalow. Many resorts offer a bewildering array of accommodation options between the two extremes depending on your budget and desire to see the sea from your bed. Descriptions often include sea view, partial sea view, half garden half sea view, main road, overlooking the bins and so on and so forth. Although last minute discounts can be found on the internet, you should be able to get a clean, well appointed room with a partial view of something nice to look at from your veranda for around about $150. Many of the resorts also have lovely pools, if getting into the sea isn’t your thing.

Due to this dearth of cheap accommodation, if you are on a tight budget you might have to settle for a room that is not actually that near to the beach. If you are the kind of person that sees a hotel room as somewhere just to sleep and brush your teeth, then this shouldn’t be a problem. But if you are adamant you want the sound of waves to rock you to sleep, and don’t want to splash out on a luxury resort, then one of the few options available is Laguna Lodge. This German run place has been a stalwart of the Ngapali beach scene for twenty years, and although some of the rooms feel like they were last decorated in the mid 90’s it has a magnificently peaceful vibe, and the bright and airy beach front rooms are literally a few feet from the sea.

Slightly north from the main Ngapali strip you’ll find the wonderful Yoma Cherry Lodge in the village of Lin Tha. This compact and elegant hotel overlooks a busy working beach, so you can idle your hours away watching the fishermen bringing in their catch, and observe and smell the daily process of drying fish in the sun on tarpaulins and bamboo mats. The accommodation, food and service here are outstanding, and quite rightly they are generally fully booked months in advance. If planning that far ahead is not an option then it’s worth calling them to enquire about cancellations.

What to do

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Find some shade, grab a cold drink, lie back and catch up on your reading, dip in the sea every 30 minutes, repeat.

Ngapali goes to bed at a reasonable hour, dresses and behaves respectfully and gets up early, there really is no reason to do anything but comply with that format. In fact the early morning is the best part of the day as the sun rises behind the beach, so the shade is plentiful and the temperature cooler. At the other end of the day you might decide just to stay in your hammock to watch the sunset.

The sun does seem to set quickly here, the sky is so unusually clear and unpolluted that you can actually appreciate the movement of the earth as our rotation turns us away from the sun. There is nothing quite like a sunset to remind you that you are standing (or reclining) on a massive revolving (and evolving) sphere in an infinite universe – especially if you’ve had a couple of mojitos whilst you were waiting. As the sun kisses the sea you almost strain to hear the hiss as the flames lick the water before sinking into the depths, and although it has disappeared for another day its memory lingers long after, leaving a scarlet sky that then travels through a spectrum of reds and blues before finally descending into darkness. The blackness of night perforated only by stars, and a pearl necklace of lights on the horizon, created by hundreds of squid fishermen, their spotlights attracting some tasty cephalopods.

If you really must do something whilst you are here other than eat drink and ponder about Life the Universe and Everything, then there are boat trips to islands, snorkelling excursions, art galleries and many more activities to fill your time. Though I’m more inclined to catch up on my backlog of books, each to their own. You won’t be hassled by hawkers, or beach boys selling trips on this beach, and if you fancy taking an excursion, a stroll along the sand will more often than not lead you to someone prepared to facilitate your desires.

Where to Eat

Every resort and hotel has a restaurant, most seem to be fairly standard and of a decent quality, though they can be quiet expensive. They usually have a mix of western and Asian food, so if you really crave a burger and chips, you don’t need to look hard. There are numerous delightful independent restaurants on the beach such as The Green Umbrella and Angel, all are inexpensive and highly recommended if you like your seafood as fresh as it gets. The time between your order being taken and your food arriving can sometimes feel unnecessarily long, but hey you’re on holiday. What’s the rush? Dig your toes into the sand and order another beer. If you really have had enough of the beach then there are many places on the road behind the resorts offering up reasonably priced and deliciously cooked traditional Rakhine food for a fraction of the beachfront prices, Two brothers is a popular choice.

Where to drink

The beach restaurants are cheaper than the resorts, but don’t expect an extensive wine or cocktail menu. Many places have happy hours (that go on for several hours) and if you really want to push the boat out then head to the far south of the beach and visit the beautifully located Pleasant View Islet restaurant for a fancy cocktail. You access the restaurant via a wooden bridge, but don’t be surprised to find yourself wading back to the beach through knee deep water if the tide has come in whilst you were busy.

Getting around

You can rent motorbikes, quad bikes, bicycles and e-bikes if you fancy escaping for the day. Thandwe town is a bustling busy market town where you can pick up a longyi woven at the local factory, Lon Thar and Jate Taw villages both have interesting fish markets, and there are of course numerous Pagodas dotted around the hillsides to explore.

If you can’t face the long walk back up the beach to your accommodation after a long lunch you should be able to pick up a lift on the main road, often without charge, or a more exciting prospect is hiring a boat to take you back the way you came, giving you a great view and a bit of sea breeze to blow the cobwebs and caipirinhas away.

What to buy

There are small shops in most of the hotels and resorts where you can pick up souvenirs, and some small stalls on the beach selling jewellery and carvings. In Lin Tha village the long established Ngapali art Gallery has some wonderful works of art, and more and more shops are opening along the main road selling carvings and trinkets. Please don’t buy coral and shells, as beautiful as they may look, they belong in the sea not on the mantelpiece, and the trade in them should not be encouraged or condoned.

Fresh fruit sellers patrol the beach and will crack a young coconut open if you need a refreshing drink, and you can pay to have a relaxing massage either in a fancy air-conditioned spa or on a sunbed under a palm tree.

When to go

The season is September to April, at the height of which rooms book up fast and prices are at their top end. At either end of the season you can quite often pick up a bargain on the Internet, or you try your hand at haggling directly with the hotel. Most resorts close during the rains, Laguna Lodge being an exception.

If you want to escape the heat and the hustle and bustle of Yangon, and enjoy generally lounging about and doing nothing much in nice surroundings, getting sand between your toes and seawater up your nose, then you’ll not be disappointed by Ngapali.

A version of this article appeared in MY Yangon Magazine – April 2015

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