By Stephen Brookes in Chaung Tha, Myanmar
for Asia Times
After eight long, dusty hours on the road from Yangon to the west coast of Myanmar, the beach town of Chaung Tha is a delight to reach. Palm trees sweep gracefully along the beach, the air is sweet and fragrant, and the only sound to be heard is the cursing of enraged Belgians.
Fortunately, the angry Belgians were confined to the lobby of the Chaung Tha Beach Resort when we arrived, and they soon departed in a huff -- the bungalow they'd reserved (which was the best one in the resort, and probably the best in all of Chaung Tha), was apparently not up to their standards.
So as the Belgians stormed off in search of a non-existent Hilton, the friendly and somewhat amused receptionist turned to us, smiled and said, "A bungalow has just come available. Would you like it?"
And like it we did. The Chaung Tha Beach Resort is not, by any stretch of the imagination, up to world class resort standards. In our US$72-a-night bungalow, hot water was represented by a non-working tap, and the cold water valve in the shower came off in our hands. The walls were painted dark blue, the furniture was Modern Myanmar Kitsch, the windows had last been washed in about 1967, and the floors were covered in what seemed to be glued-on sheets of thin plastic.
But it had a spacious, very private and cheerfully painted deck -- loaded with comfortable wicker chairs -- where you could sit happily and watch the ocean through the coconut trees -- well worth the price of the room.
And the long, curving beach itself is a great place to spend a few days, for those searching for a quiet if rather remote getaway. Chaung Tha is not as well known as the more developed resort town of Ngapali to the north, but the setting is beautiful, made distinctive by an enormous boulder on the beach with a small pagoda on its top. The small town is fun to explore, there are enjoyable side trips, and the resort has a very pleasant outdoor restaurant, bar and tea shop scattered along the beach.
Unlike most resorts, there's very little in the way of organized activities; there are no jet-skis or para-sailers, no beachside karaoke bars or people hawking windsurfing lessons. The most high-tech equipment at Chaung Tha is still inflated inner tubes and decrepit Chinese bicycles.
But there are calmer, more elegant adventures. The sea is calm and good for swimming, and the long, flat beach is a wonderful place to walk or jog. The less energetic can hire a beautifully carved ceremonial bullock cart, complete with two oxen, for a half-hour ride up and down the beach -- especially pleasant at sunset -- for 200 kyats (about US$1.60).
Strolling south down the beach takes you past a military compound, set up as a recreational spot for official personnel. The area is surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, but you're welcome to wander in -- in fact, they've started renting out very basic, barracks-style three-bed rooms with private baths -- and the whole area is nicely kept up, with flowering gardens, watered lawns and coconut palms lined up with impressive military precision.
Continue past the compound and you'll come to a point of land where, across a hundred yards of water, is a small island. Wave and hop around a bit, and someone will come over in a small boat and take you across to the small fishing village there. It's well worth the trip; there's a beautiful pagoda on a hill at the tip of the island, with stunning views of the area and a banana grove stretching down to the sea.
For those willing to venture further afield, captain U Kan Htwe will take you out in his leaky but reliable wooden boat to a tiny, uninhabited island called Pokala Kyun, about a mile offshore. The island is a nature lover's paradise, surrounded by tidal pools brimming with crabs, fish and the occasional octopus, and is the best place in the area for shell collecting. The only structure on the island is an unpretentious and very charming pagoda, surrounded by a few shade trees. A perfect picnic spot, and the 700 kyat fare (about US$5.70) is well worth the price. Highly recommended.
Back on the mainland, there are plenty of small, family-owned restaurants, all within a block or two of each other in the small town, and all specializing in seafood. Perhaps the most elegant is the newly-opened Royal Beach Restaurant, where you eat by candlelight in individual thatched huts in a secluded garden. While it was a little difficult to order dinner there (the new waiter was a bit deaf, and they were out of prawns, crab and duck the night we visited), the staff was friendly, the chicken was delicious and the hot-and-sour octopus was tremendously good. Prices are moderate, with complete dinner for two running US$8 to US$15.
Slightly less expensive and also highly recommended is the Nilar Win Restaurant. Decorated with huge green laminated lobsters in bamboo frames (you can take one home for about US$20, if that's your thing), Nilar Win offers a wide variety of crab, jelly fish, lobster, prawns and chicken, in generous portions. For an unusual treat, ask for the shark skin salad -- a delicious combination of onions, coriander, sesame seeds, cabbage and, of course, wonderfully chewy pieces of marinated shark skin. A dish of octopus was equally satisfying, but the stuffed crabs -- while beautifully prepared and served -- were a disappointment, with too much cornflour filling and too little crab meat. On the whole, though, Nilar Win may be the most friendly and lively restaurant in town and is well worth a visit. Inexpensive to moderate.
After dinner, take a few minutes to explore the town. There are at least a dozen small shops along the sandy, unpaved streets selling shell jewelry, palm-leaf hats, coconut-shell combs, carved bone knick-knacks and other souvenirs, and supplies of film, toiletries and other beach essentials are easily found. There's also a small but very beautiful pagoda of unusual design at the end of town, across the street from Hope of God Church and Photo, which holds Catholic services on Sundays and takes photos of tourists the rest of the week.
While Chaung Tha is still a charmingly sleepy vacation spot, it may not stay that way for long. There are plans for a modern new resort with a sea-sports center to be built next year, offering waterskiing, sailing and wind surfing. The Chaung Tha Beach Resort is also modernizing, with plans to open a swimming pool and increase its electricity supply from 12 hours to 24 hours.
"This whole area is changing a lot," says U Kyin Hlaing, manager of the Chaung Tha Beach Resort. "In a couple of years, everything will be quite different."
WHERE TO STAY:
Aside from the 61-room Chaung Tha Beach Resort and the two dozen rooms rented out by the military, there are no other places for foreigners to stay. Although there are some guesthouses in the town, these are off-limits to foreigners, and usually only offer mats on the floor. Some new guesthouses are being built, however, which may offer rooms to foreign visitors.
Double rates for foreigners at the Chaung Tha Beach Resort vary from US$72 per night for a small bungalow, to $48 for a superior room, to $36 for a dormitory-style room, which is not recommended for most visitors. Those seeking inexpensive accommodations will find better value next door in the military compound, where a primitive but clean dormitory-style room runs US$10.
Reservations are recommended at the Chaung Tha Beach Resort during holidays and the hot season, especially March. Call (951) 89589 in Yangon, or (9542) 22587 in Chaung Tha.
HOW TO GET THERE:
There are no flights between Yangon and Chaung Tha, so the only way there is by road. While actual driving time is only about four hours, two ferries must be taken, bringing the trip to about eight hours, including a stop for lunch. Plan on leaving Yangon by 6:30 am to make the first ferry, which will allow you to arrive in Chaung Tha by mid-afternoon. On the way back, stop in the bustling town of Pathein for lunch and a quick tour, but leave plenty of leeway time to make sure you make the ferries on time. Plans are underway to improve the quality of the roads between Yangon and the coast, much of which is still unpaved.
The trip can be arranged through almost any tour company in Yangon, although the most cost-effective way is to hire a private car and driver for several days. (Qualified drivers can be found at most large hotels.) The cost for a three-day trip will run between US$120 and US$150, depending on your negotiating skills and the size of your party.