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These days, practically every traveller has heard of the red-brick pagodas of Bagan, the stilt villages of Inle Lake, and the colonial heritage of Mandalay. But if there’s one part of Myanmar that’s still massively underrated, it’s the brilliant, golden, two-thousand-kilometre-long coast.
Southeast Asia is famous for its beaches: from the white sands of Koh Samui to the full moon parties of Koh Phangan; from Australian bolthole Bali to Russian stalwart Nha Trang; from the upmarket Maldives to laid-back Sri Lanka. But amongst this roll call of famous beach destinations, Myanmar is conspicuously absent.
Surely, with over a thousand miles of coast, there must be a few nice-ish beaches at least? Going by the dearth of information in the guidebooks, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Burma didn’t have a coast at all.
When I arrived in Myanmar in May this year, I’d just spent two months schlepping across snowy Siberia, windswept Mongolia, and the fringes of Tibet: in other words, about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get. By the time I reached Yangon, I was desperate for a few days of sand, sea and sun.
The only beach with anything approaching a profile in Burma is Ngapali (pronounced a bit like ‘Napoli’), in Rakhine State, but it’s a plane ride away from the nearest tourist hotspot, and by May most of its resorts are already closed for the rainy season (May-Oct). In our search for a beach break, therefore, Kate and I needed to look a little closer to home.
From Yangon, there are two beach break options within relatively easy striking distance: the west coast, or the south. The benefit of the latter is that it’s the perfect staging point for further exploration of Myanmar’s southern reaches – including the beaches of Dawei and Myeik, the impressive pagoda at Hpa An, and the Golden Rock.
As Kate and I were short on time, however, we chose instead to head west to Ngwe Saung – a popular choice with Yangoonies looking for a weekend out of the city, but hardly known amongst foreign travellers.
Burma’s Hawaii – Ngwe Saung
After a five-hour bus journey from Yangon, we arrived at Ngwe Saung in the afternoon. For more flexibility and a quicker journey, you could hire a taxi or rent a car in Yangon.
The town of Ngwe Saung is a tiny little place spread out along several kilometres of beach, all dirt roads lined with palm trees, oasis-like hotels hidden amid tropical gardens, and the sea sparkling enticingly in the distance. Our budget guesthouse was basic but lovely, with a breezy verandah, aloe vera plants growing out of coconut husks, tiki-themed decor and supremely laid-back hosts. It felt as though we’d stumbled upon a sort of Burmese Hawaii.
The beach, oh the beach!
The very first thing we did was wander down to the beach – which proved a little more tricky than expected as the only thoroughfare was a tiny, near-invisible alley down the side of a hotel. Once we found it, however, we were blown away. Miles upon miles of empty white sand, turquoise waves as warm as bathwater, and thick jungle foliage as far as the eye could see. No high-rise hotels or noisy beach bars mar the incredible views, and besides the occasional scooter or quadbike zipping along the sand, we were the only other souls in sight.
We soon discovered that the quietest, most cliché-inducingly lovely part of the beach lay just to the south of town, where high-end hotels lie at wide intervals along a stretch of empty, golden sand. Closer into town, we found, there was a little more litter and a rather unsightly collection of tents – unavoidable at any Southeast Asian destination – but for the most part, all was pristine loveliness.
When to go to Ngwe Saung
Though we were technically travelling out of season, during the hottest month in the Burmese year, the temperature was perfect. It was gloriously warm and sunny every day, but a constant breeze off the sea ensured that we were never uncomfortably hot.
What’s more, as I mentioned in my blog post about off-peak travel to Myanmar, the lack of visitors meant that the luxury hotels (ordinarily far out of our price range) were only too happy to let us use their sun loungers, pools, spas and bar services – all for just the price of a drink, and sometimes even for free.
Food & drink
For the whole three days we were in Ngwe Saung we seemed to be the only tourists about, so it was somewhat surprising to us that the town itself was so well set-up for tourism.
The main street is packed with shops selling beach gear, every restaurant has an English menu, and the standard of the hotels along the strip was clearly excellent. But even at peak times of year, from November to March, it’s difficult to imagine this place being overrun.
We’d assumed that somewhere this low-profile would have a paucity of good restaurants, but after a day of sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling, we were pleased to discover that Ngwe Saung is in fact full of excellent dinner options.
Most restaurants are found along the main street of the town, and serve deliciously fresh seafood, plenty of vegetable dishes, and nice cold beers. Finally, to round off the perfect day, the beachfront Lux Hotel does an excellent daily happy hour, offering two (already cheap) cocktails for the price of one.
There’s not much going on in Ngwe Saung – which is, of course, its charm. But if you do find yourself wishing for something to do – you might like to catch the fire-dancing show every evening at 7.30pm at Ume Café, hire a boat to take you out to some of the nearby islands, or rent your own motorbike or car to explore the jungles and villages on the way to Pathein (3 hours). Chaung Tha, another enticing beach destination, also lies just 2 hours to the north of Nyaung Shwe.
But for my money – there’s no better way to pass a few days at Nyaung Shwe than lying on the beach, with a nice, cold beer in your hand.
If you can see yourself following in Violet’s (sun-drenched) footsteps, get in touch with our team today.