The beaches of Myanmar are where few tourists tread. It's a blessing, perhaps but also a pity.
     A blessing because the beaches remain remarkably pristine...there areno loud beachside bars, no tows of suntan-oiled bodtes'basking in the sun arid no vendors pressing you to buy souvenirs. You will find only the three natural ingredients of a perfect seaside holiday - the sea, the sand and the, surf. But it's also a pity that very fewforeginers have visited Myanmar's glorious beaches to enjoy- one' of the country's most beautiful natural settings.
     In the past, with only 1 -day visas issued to tourists, Myanmar's magnificent archaeological sites and other cultural attractions have understandably taken precedence over its beaches. But now with 30-day visas the norm, there is ample time for foreign travellers to take a good look at the country's extensive coastline.
     Myanmar has two coasts - the western Rakhine coast facing the Bay of Bengal and ,the Indian Ocean, and the southern Taninthayi coast along the emerald-green
Andaman Sea.
     The southern coast, including the reputedly stunning Myeik (formerly Mergui) Archipelago of islands is still off limits. The western seaboard is open to visitors for eight months of the year, from October to May. At other times, strong winds and heavy rains batter the coast. The premier beach resort on Rakhine coast is, without a doubt, Ngapali Beach in the state of Arakan, so named, as the story goes, by a homesick Italian after his native Naples (Napoli in Italian). It's easy to fly there from Yangon, the capital. An hour's domestic flight is all it takes, but if you are trying to get there overland from anywhere. in the country, it's a Herculean effort But for us, in hindsight, it was well worth it. We were in Pyi (formerly Prome), visiting Myanmar's most ancient archaeological site dating from the 7th century when we decided to head for Ngapali Beach. Onthe map, the route to thecoast seemed short enough and more or less a straight line due westward. But alas, we forgot about the mountains. After 32 hours on serpentine pothole-ridden roads, one ferry crossing, five passport checksand achilly overnight stop in a remote mountain village, my, verdict is still:go for it. For it is a journey that affords foreigners a rare glimpse of a relatively unknown and incredibly beautiful part of Myanmar. Our overnight stop was in Nuaungu Camp next to Nuaungu Village, where smoked venison is a local speciality. Women seemed to appear from nowhere the moment we arrived at 9 pm to sing the virtues of their respective accommodations. We chose to follow the recommendation of our driver and found ourselves, after a simple but delicious meal, bedding down, dormitory-style, on the floor of a verandah in a wooden hut, with 12 other passengers. We had to spend a night at Nuaungu Camp not just for practical reasons but out of necessity as well, since a barrier to all traffic to and from the mountains is lowered each evening. It was also one of several immigration checkpoints we were to encounter throughout our two-day road trip. After a second bumpy day on the road, it was a welcome relief to reach the coastal town of Taungup where we transferred to a bus heading for Thandwe (formerly Sandoway). It took another four hours to get to Thandwe which is the jump-off point for Ngapali, seven kilometres away. (Travellers by air arrive at Mazin airport, close to Thandwe). Our arduous journey to Ngapali's glorious beach was still by no means over. As we had arrived in Thandwe late, we were obliged to spend the night there and try to reach Ngapali the next day. The following morning, we did a quick tour of Thandwe. It's a laid-back town that was named after a British army officer. Thandwe has an interesting mosque and some very picturesque timber houses characterised by airy porches and roofs with finely detailed wooden eaves. Buses that look more like lorries and pickup truck "taxis" are the only means of transport between Thandwe and Ngapali. Buses are fewer, each place on a bench costing five cents (US), while the more frequent taxi-trucks charge 15 cents (US) a person and they depart only when filled. Alternatively, you can hire a whole taxitruck for US$2.50 and avoid the long wait. They all depart from Thandwe's market square.
     Ngapali Beach is a three-kilometre ribbon of white, soft-as-talc sand beach that stretches from the village of Ngapali to Gyeik Taw. Although it's possible to find rooms in guest houses in some villages near Ngapali, the best stretch of beach is claimed by the Ngapali Beach Hotel, which boasts of being the oldest seaside resort in Myanmar. Built by the British some 60 years ago, the hotel was originally named the Ngapali Strand as it was operated as a sister hotel by The Strand in Traces of its antiquated past linger on in the bungalow-style, high-ceilinged guest rooms with spacious bathrooms, creaky floor boards and oldfurniture. The best part about the 34 rooms is that they all open out into verandahs that face the ocean. Each bungalow is surrounded by its own garden so there's plenty of privacy. A new wing called the New Ngapali Beach Hotel, built around 1980, is a more modem three-storey affair housing 20 rooms, again with balconies that overlook the sea. And, ahhhh, the sea ....cobalt-blue, clean and clear, set against an equally stunning blue sky. Its gentle waves ripple ashore onto. shimmering sands fringed by coconut palms. An idyllic scene,pure and simple. There are no windsurfers skimming over the waves and, certainly, no noisy power boats to shatter the calm. What one does see riding the waves though-at the break of dawn-are a scattering of fishing vessels and canoes manned by sinewy fishermen in conical hats, scouring the waters patiently for fish to net. The boats come ashore as soon as it gets too hot or when they have harvested enough fish for the day, bringing their catch to coastal villages nearby. You can walk along the beach, or cycle on the only existing road, to these villages about a kilometre or two from the hotel. They are huddles of thatched-roof huts on stilts bustling with fishing-related activity. There are nets to repair and clean, boats and sails to maintain, shrimps to dry in the sun and to sort out after they have dried. Curious children, who seldom see foreigners in these parts, will follow, giggling, wherever you go. The nearest village to the Ngapali Beach Hotel is Myabyin. In the afternoon, you can join the locals from the coastal villages as they go beachcombing looking for clams or shells to collect. The fiery sunset, for which the Bay of Bengal is noted, can be watched from the comfort of your own verandah back at the hotel. But for a more picturesque composition, it's best viewed from the villages, for you are likely to catch the silhouette of a fishing canoe against the shimmering sea and brilliantly coloured skies before a red ball of a sun. Ngapali Beach Hotel is a favourite among Myanmar's elite as a family holiday hangout. It has an outdoor bar and a restaurant with an open-air dining terrace that looks out to the sea. The menu is rather good, and the seafood dishes - especially lobster and crab - are recommended. And unlike the room rates which are charged in US dollars, food and beverages can be paid for in kyat. Apart from swimming, beach-strolling, golfing on a nine-hole course nearby and snorkelling, there is little to do on Ngapali Beach except to savour the tranquillity of an unspoilt haven that is a rare find among today's increasingly commercialised Asian seaside resorts.
     The fastest way to get to Ngapali Beach is by air from Yangon. For more information, please contact Myanma Air, tel: 74874. If you intend to travel by road, you should start your journey from the main bus station at Pyi (Prome). There are a number of buses leaving for Taungup each day. The fare of US$3 covers transportation for the entire trip. The overnight stay at Nuaungu costs US$1.

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