There is something about the ocean that attracts our modern souls; a respite for rest, relaxation and restoration. Some aspect of the sun, the surf and the sand calms and soothes us; the quintessential paradise that we soak up. Ngapali sits on a nice 2-3 mile beach of white sand on the Bay of Bengal. We flew in over the water and landed on a lonely airstrip whose only purpose is tourists for the ocean. We caught a bus and road down the very bumpy road past resort after resort to nearly the end of the road. We piled out and immediately were drawn to the beach. The water was warm, warmer than Hawaii, just cool enough to be refreshing but not too warm like Florida which I think is uncomfortable. The waves were not as big as Vietnam in Hoi An, though those were the result of the side winds from the edge of a typhoon. The ocean floor is shallow and the kids played for hours in the lolling rollers. Our place at the Amata Resort was next to the last hotel on the beach, reputedly one of the nicest on the beach. The rooms were nice and the beach was gorgeous. Beach chairs with umbrellas made from bamboo and palm fronds lined the beach where sun bathers and kids laid out and played.
The first morning I woke early and was out of the room by 6 am in the dark walking down the beach heading for the Jade Tawe fishing village. I tucked my Chaco’s in my pack and the sand was firm and flat beneath my bare feet as I strode on in the dark. I crossed a small river and rounded the bend where in the early morning dark I could see the outline of fishing boats in the bay. A fire flared down the beach in the dark as a palm frond was thrown on; when I reached the fire I found a group of 6 women and a very short man squatting around the fire keeping warm. They invited me to squat with them and get warm. They were bundled in coats and hats while I was in shorts and very thin short sleeve shirt. Their openness and warmth was characteristic of everyone we met in Myanmar. I sat on my haunches for a while while the conversed, the wind was blowing the smoke in my face and before too long I excused myself and kept walking. My goal was to find the Buddha that sat high on a hill on the next bay over. Before too long though I rounded several small rocky points and came to the end of the beach with a headland rising to cliffs. I climbed up some steps in the hill to a point covered in banana trees to see the Buddha sitting on top of the hill on the bay opposite from where I stood. The sun was rising and there was a bit of color in the sky. I watched for a few moments before turning back and retracing my steps up the beach.
By the time I reached the village of Jade Tawe the fisherman were returning with their early mornings catch and the sun was just cresting the palm trees and lighting up the bright colors of the boats. The fishermen I saw were off loading laundry baskets full of sardines. Girls would wade out into the water and collect the basket on poles and carry them up on to the beach to where straw covered the sand, which was in turn covered with a blue tarp. Women would take the baskets and using large shallow oval baskets gather up some fish and throw them across the blue tarp. Mixed among the sardines where a few large fish, flat round as several silver dollars. Other women walked among the sardines and gathered these larger fish in baskets. The sardines dried in the sun and were sold to inland locations in Myanmar. I was told that inland dried fish actually sold for more than fresh fish because of it was highly prized, not that Myanmar had the capability of delivering fresh fish inland anyway.
We spent the rest of the day playing in the waves and laying on the beach reading and enjoying the sun. Not many better ways to spend a day. Local women would walk up and down the beach with large baskets of pineapple and bananas balanced on their head. They would wave and attempt to make eye contact encouraging you to buy some pineapple. A fresh one would cost you 3000 kyat ($4) which was pretty expensive given local food prices but delicious none the less. Local tour guides would also walk along the beach gently asking if you were interested in taking a boat out for a half day for 15000 kyat. We met the charmer of them all Zhu and agreed that the next day we’d go out with him around 9:30 am.
The following morning I woke at 5 and got my bag and camera together and picked up a bike at the front desk. I set off down the road with a headlamp on attempting to find the Buddha on the hill again. The directions in Lonely Planet said roughly to head down the rode and then hang left along the ocean until you found a path up to the Buddha. I biked to the end of the road and then some to where the road ended and I found some local folks in the dark by buildings waiting for the fishing boats to come in. I could see the Buddha lit up across the bay and asked which direction I needed to go. No one felt like helping or understood me. It was too dark to see whether there was land ahead or water so I kept going until I rode through some derelict buildings and reached the end of the trail. Unable to see I decided to sit out and wait until the sky lightened enough to see the way. I sat down on the hillside and read my Kindle app until things got a bit brighter. Finally I could see that I had missed making a left and I was on the far side of the bay; I needed to retrace my footsteps and head round the beach. I made my way back through the buildings and down the road, which was extremely rocky and full of potholes. As soon as I saw a chance I made my way out to the ocean where the firm flat sand was a nice smooth alternative to the road. I came to the end of the beach where a headland and cliff rose up above me. I wasn’t really sure where the road/path was that led up, but there was a yellow clay cliff that led directly up to the buddha, so I stashed my bike behind a rock and I started up. Not really steep enough to be in any danger of falling, but loose enough that you had to use all fours to scramble and gain purchase, I made my way to the top in 10 minutes or so. The sun was just coloring the sky and the big buddha that stood atop a huge pink lotus flower stood against the sky. I admired the view from the point and walked around the grounds a bit before heading back down the path, which was easy to spot in daylight and would easily have been rideable in a bike. On my way back down the road I ran into Zhu and he encouraged me to go see the local fish market before things closed up at 8 am. I wandered deep into the market where there was a wide variety of fresh seafood for sale : small 3 lb tuna, nice big 4-5 lb red snapper, fresh squid, octopus, lobster and crab. Anything that swam in the ocean you could want to eat.
Later that morning around 9:30 Sofi and I joined the Sheppards for our boat ride, this time Finn had been struck by the stomach flu the night before, but he came along. We set out with Zhu’s brother (seemed everyone was a relative of his), we motored out in the surf just off shore next to a small island that is just off Ngapali Beach. They pulled out the fishing poles which were plastic soda pop bottles with fishing line wound round them and hook upon which they put some fresh squid. We dropped the lines over the side until they hit bottom and then dangled them just above the sea floor. Before long we’d all had bites and most everyone caught a fish or two, though they were super teeny tiny fish. Lesley started feeling sea sick and we pulled anchor and motored around the end of the island to a small sand spit on the the side that had a small beach shack with a restaurant. Lesley stayed with Eli and Finn (who promptly fell fast asleep) while Austin, Sofi and myself went back on the boat to snorkel a bit in the bay over which the buddha watched. The visibility wasn’t spectacular, the coral was mediocre and there weren’t many fish, but Sofi and I enjoyed kicking around among the waves and rocks. Heading back after a while, Sofi and I agreed to watch Finn while Austin and Lesley took Eli out snorkeling. Finn slept soundly on the sand and Sofi and I ordered up some lunch : I had a fresh grilled snapper and Sofi two fresh grilled crabs. The food was absolutely delicious, probably the freshest best tasting seafood meal I’ve ever had, simple but so tasty. The setting on the sand with the wind and ocean didn’t hurt either. The Sheppards returned and Lesley climbed out of the boat and lay on the sand hugging the beach, her sea sickness had returned while snorkeling. After they had lunch as well we got back in the boat and dropped Lesley and Finn off at the beach just across from the shack and they walked back, happy to have dry solid land instead of the rollicking waves. We motored back down the beach in front of our hotel where they dropped us off. Not a bad way to spend 5 hours or so for around $18 USD.
We hung out on the beach again until sunset and then met at local seafood restaurant across the street from the hotel for a celebratory birthday dinner with the Sheppard’s for Austin’s 35th. He had lobster and we enjoyed some delicious avocado salad and grilled cashews along with snapper, tuna and crab. The next day we relaxed in the morning before riding the bus down the very bumpy road to the airport where we took the short flight back up to Yangon as the sun set. We were picked up by a driver and dropped off at the Kandawgyi Palace for the night.
The next day we had until the afternoon to see a few more sights. Lesley and I went out early to see Chaukhtatgyi Paya which housed the massive Chaukhtatgyi reclining Buddha. I was a little disappointed that buddha was housed in building with a covered awning and the light just wasn’t all that nice due to the roof over head. We wandered around the adjacent monasteries, enjoying the morning scenes of the monks waking up and starting their day. Back in the car we headed to the central down town Pagoda at Sule Paya before heading to the Bogyoke Market where Lesley wanted to buy trinkets. I wandered around an old train station, walked through a bit of the market, but having left my wallet at the hotel didn’t see much point and went and hung out back at the van with the driver reading my book until Lesley showed up. We returned the hotel where we grabbed a quick breakfast and loaded up the luggage and the families to go see Shwedagon one more time before we left. We arrived around noon and the sun was beating hot for a February day. The gleaming gold of the pagoda and all the adjacent gleaming stupa were blinding in the noonday sun, we stayed in the shadows as we circumnavigated the structure. Families sat in adjacent covered wings enjoying their noon day meal. Back in the car we decided to head to the airport.
As we arrived around two pm we saw that our flight had been delayed from 2:15 to 3:15 pm. Mistakenly I had read 14:15 pm in military time as 4:15 pm departure instead of 2:15 departure. We were late! Not too worried due to the delay we went to counter only to find all the China Air personal were gone and the counter closed. We walked back and forth between other counters and airline offices until we found someone at Myanmar Air who made some phone calls and said we needed to get to the China Air office on the otherside of the terminal in arrival. We walked / quickly shuffled over to find we couldn’t enter because the office was through immigration and we didn’t have a boarding pass. Back to the departure side of the terminal we asked the girls at the help desk for help. They walked us back to the arrival side to security, we weren’t’ able to enter because we didn’t have a security pass so we waited while they took our passports and disappeared into the back. Still not super worried as we had 50 minutes left until departure Austin and I felt if we could just reach someone we’d be able to get on the flight. Sadly the girls returned to tell us that the our seats had been given to others and that we could complain to the Air China office, but we’d need a security pass which could be obtained at the security office back on the arrival side. At this point there seemed little point in trying more here at the airport so we went to use the phone, called our travel agent who suggested we stay at the Seasons Yangon which was a five minute walk from the airport. Given the heat and how much our wives weren’t in trouble we opted to take a taxi the three minutes.
The Seasons of Yangon is where stranded travelers at the Yangon Airport go to die. Maybe 30 years ago the hotel had probably been in its heyday, probably then the only nice international airport next to the airport. Now it was rundown, with tired looking help at the front desk and worn carpets up the stairs to our small rooms. But for $40 USD a night for doubles and only $15 for an extra bed we couldn’t complain. Luckily Austin had a stash of cash left and he paid for both rooms, which thankfully were air-conditioned. Austin and I used the computer in the business center which had an internet connection to find tickets for the next day on Thai Air to Bangkok where we’d wait for an 8 hour layover and then on to Beijing on Sri Lankan Air where we’d land at 2 am in the morning. Relieved to actually have a way out of Mayanmar we ate at a small adjacent cafe and retired to our rooms for the night.
The next morning we ate at our complimentary free breakfast, I had the rice congee with peanuts and pickled veggies while the kids and Stac had toast. We got the airport and through security (finally) and took the short one hour flight to Bangkok. Lesley, Eli and Finn stayed in Bangkok for the week (since they had school off) and the rest of us waited out the hours for connecting flight. The Bangkok airport is big! It has four levels with lots of shops and feels way more of a cosmopolitan airport than Beijing (even though Beijing is the largest airport in the world). I was impressed by the reverent Buddhism of everyone in the airport, after a purchase they would bow and say a phrase in Thai for a blessing. I was so excited to be able to walk up to an ATM and stick in my plastic card and get money out! We ate, bought magazines and waited until our 8:30 pm departure to Beijing. The flight was uneventful except for the delicious spicy airplane food and the striking stewards and stewardesses in their traditional blue uniforms. We landed at 2 am and were home in bed by 3:45 am. A long day but we’d made it out of Myanmar.
Reflecting several weeks later I treasured the time we’d been able to spend in such a beautiful country full of warm and friendly people who welcomed us everywhere we went. We’d seen some of the most amazing scenery, from temples a 1000 years old, to lakes cold and clear, golden pagodas pointing skyward and beautiful beaches. Stac and I both commented on what a magical time we’d had and how we couldn’t wait to return some day.