As you will see, we are pretty crazy about the south of Myanmar. To guide you through our words of praise, these are our highlights: (1) Dawei, with (a) to the north: Muangmagan beach & Nabule beach and (b) to the south on the Dawei peninsula: San Hlan fishing village, Pa Nyi beach and Tizit beach. (2) Myeik city, where we will also tell you something about King’s Island, Chinese New Year, the traditional neighbourhoods and the Paya Theindawgyi. (3) Moulmein, and (4) one of our favourite pastimes, taking the train in Myanmar (you can read more about that here).
Now that we have painted a general impression of Myanmar in our previous blog, we can now take you with us to the places we have visited. Keep in mind the friendly painted faces and the laughing mingalabars, little uniform scooters and elegant ladies, burgundy monks, and paan chewing men, beautiful houses and busy constructions sites. Hop on the back of our scooter or join us on our train ride. (click here for the general overview of Myanmar and here for our post on the trains of Myanmar).
(1) Coming from the border post of Phu Nam Ron we arrive in Dawei area in the south of Myanmar, which has only recently opened up for tourism. Due the changing tourism policy, we really have to go out and explore by ourselves and rent a scooter to check all the nooks and crannies of the surrounding area. And what did we find? A deep blue sea, magnificent empty beaches, and authentic fishing villages closed off for decades from the outside world. It is clear that that this is the moment to visit this part of Myanmar, as it looks like tourism development is going at a racing pace. The stretches of gloriously deserted beach are apparently being bought up by big developers and everywhere we hear rumours of planned resorts. So if you want beautifully untouched beaches and waves, now is the time! For those who prefer the comfort of cocktails and lounge chairs, you better keep a look out for the future developments here.
Dawei itself is a small town with churches, pagodas, mosques and hindu temples in various pastel-coloured hues, with small food stalls tucked in front and in between buildings next to the ubiquitous paan stalls, and a miniature wannabe shopping center. This cluttered local shopping mecca is just experiencing a run on the store for kitschy Valentine’s Day presents and is apparently the place for youngsters to surprise their lucky Valentine with a sort-of-milkshake in a very retro bar/fast food joint. Dawei is an interesting place to people watch and get to know Myanmarese everyday life, but it is especially useful as a base to visit the surrounding area.
(1a) The first two days we ride north of Dawei and visit the somewhat more famous beaches, being semi-developed Muangmagan Beach and rocky Nabule Beach (the latter is close to the megalomaniac Dawei deep sea port project’s empty grounds). “Famous” meaning that locals already visit these places and a handful of tourists show up once in a while. You won’t be totally alone here, but on the other hand you can get snacks & beverages and won’t have to spend a day looking for them. This is off course all very relative compared to e.g. the Thai beaches.
(1b) The next two days we head towards the south of Dawei, more specifically the Dawei peninsula, which still is completely off the tourist radar. On the western coast of the peninsula, google maps shows a plethora of beautiful stretches of golden sand lapped by azure waters, the only trick is to get there. Luckily we have found a guideline thanks to the directions in the blogpost ”No Need to Archipelago” (click here for this blog). Even if you don’t manage to find a beach you have seen on google maps, the search is often as good a the catch. During these searching expeditions you pass rice fields, little wooden villages, larger villages with tiny general stores and the occasional food stall, passed burgundy monks going on their alms round clanging a bell to attract the attention of the faithful, over hills that are almost invariably topped with a golden paya, and through little sandy uphill downhill roads that really test your scooter skills and offer magnificent views at every turn.
That way we manage to reach the fishing village of San Hlan, that once it will be discovered by the tourism industry will be must see postcard material or will be replaced by one flashy resort. The setting is just incredible and idyllic! The village is set on a narrow spit of land between the mainland and a rocky almost island topped by a new paya under construction. On both sides the sea is moving in on the village and the stilt houses are interspersed with narrow stretches of sand. Fishings boats are floating on the clear blue water and little silver fish are drying on the surrounding beaches. Fishermen are unloading the catch of the day, big blocks of ice are being added for transportation, and women and older children sort the smaller fish to spread them on big drying racks. Little children skip in between and seek refreshment in the water, watched over by their working family, and head over to us strange foreigners for some entertainment. Everybody is working hard, probably without knowing how stunning this scene looks from the top of the neighbouring hill.
Our favourite deserted beaches were Pa Nyi Beach and Tizit Beach. We rode up and down the beach with our little scooter as close to the incoming waves as possible to avoid getting stuck in the dry sand. The salty sea air in our hairs and crabs as only passersby. The surrounding beach communities still live very much from fishing instead of tourism and you can see the return of the modest fishing fleet before the low tide so they can still sail up into the lagoon, deliver their fresh fish straight to the village and keep their wooden boats moored in the safety of the mud flats. On Pa Nyi Beach we spread our blanket on a spit of land jutting out between the river lagoon on one side and the deep blue sea on the other. A magical spot to gaze at the incoming wooden boats and a perfect spot to snorkel and drift with the outgoing tide from the river lagoon towards the sea. Once it is low tide the beach is completely deserted by the fishermen and you are totally alone on your private golden stretch of sand.
(2) After all this beach combing, of which we could endlessly wax poetic, we head for the deep deep south of Myanmar, towards the ancient harbour town Myeik. As the road from Dawei to Myeik has only just opened up for foreigners we decide to try it out. It ends up taking 10 hours to cover the 200 km of mostly badly rutted dirt road. It is a good thing that road improvement seems to be a top priority here.
However, Myeik has never really had much use for roads, as life has been completely centred on the sea here for more than a thousand years. Wooden boats go to and fro with stuttering engines loaded with all sorts of commodities. Truckloads of onions and garlic, whole glass cupboards, pigs, scooters,… Bags, barrels, boxes and everything that can possibly be balanced on top of a wooden barge. These vessels then gently slide to the nearby islands of the Myeik Archipelago or to larger ships waiting in the open sea heading for more distant harbours.
Harbour towns are often pretty special, but Myeik is unique in its category. A little town whose harbour is still very much subject to the tides, surrounded by thousands of islands and backed by distant mountains, where tourist are still a rarity and everybody and we mean everybody yells a happy “Mingalabar” when we pass. We sometimes feel like true superstars, and start to understand their need to sometimes head incognito through the back doors and alleys.
Sadly almost all of those thousands of surrounding islands are not that easy to reach if you are a foreign tourist (except for the tiny paya studded island in Myeik’s harbour). Either you need a very expensive time-consuming permit (apparently starting at 500 $ for some of the less spectacular nearby islands) and a guide and a chartered boat, or you just are forbidden to go entirely – and the sluggish looking immigration officers do enforce this. However, since a few months two islands have opened up somewhat: Kala island and Kadan (King’s) Island. We decide to have a look at the larger King’s Island which turns out to be only a local ferry ride away. First, however, we had to register with the immigration officials in Myeik harbour. On the ferry somebody from immigration is sitting right behind us … probably a coincidence. As soon as we set foot on dry land again, after having passed a few Myanmarese Navy vessels anchored in the harbour, we have to register our passport again and let them take a copy. We are also strongly advised not to leave the main village’s borders and we have to leave the island with the afternoon ferry. Here they really aren’t used to tourists, frankly, we are not even wanted. This is clear from the behaviour of the local populace who are really careful and mostly ignore our existence. Even at the local food stalls they are not to keen on our custom and ask us to leave as soon as we are done with our noodles. Especially since during the 15 minutes we are there an immigration official pops up again for some more words of warning to us, followed closely by a policeman who wants another copy of our passports. Really? Again? We do not only get checked on, but feel positively shadowed. Everywhere there just happen to be some officials hanging around. Those who say that there is nothing to see here on King’s Island, haven’t been paying attention. This is the go to spot to experience the old closed-off Myanmar. Especially once they trow in a group of policeman taking away a few very decently dressed gentleman in chains -which we are clearly meant to ignore- the sepia-toned picture is complete.
This is the only part of Myanmar that still felt very tightly closed and controlled, but at least we get to have a peek through the key hole… (for some great descriptions read the author Emma Larkin in a.o. her book “Finding George Orwell in Burma”).
Through all those dictatorial state’s trimmings we saw a pretty island village with stilted houses, standing in various depths of water. Kids looking for a place to cool down and swim. Small hovels being used as noodle shops or grenadine-bars. A boy sitting in the shadow of an empty house, secretively reading something. A paya on a hill guarding the harbour, kids paying for their curiosity for foreigners by getting their little feet scorched by the sun heated paya floor. Islanders returning from a day in Myeik, ferryboats with the top deck filled with bags, commodities and sparkling new scooters. We (have to) take the ferry back in the other direction, again coincidentally escorted by an official. All in all we only had a few hours on the island, but at least that way we manage to get back to Myeik in time for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
At dusk a lot of ethnic Chinese head out on the streets to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Young guys graciously dance with colourful cloth dragons from house to house accompanied by loud music and enthusiastic cheers. Those who want a visit by one of the dragons to their house or store put a small offering in front of the door, after which the dragon dances into the house and blesses it for the coming year. To end it with a bang a string of firecrackers is set off at the door. We happily follow the moving spectacle through the streets. (We also get a lot of attention from the locals who seem to regard us as a contribution to the festivities. Two blonde tourists in town have to be taken care off, we get front row views and dragons pose for us everywhere.)
During the dragon tour through Myeik, we see it in a different light. You notice the different traditional neighbourhoods in which the city is subdivided: a Chinese neighbourhood, a muslim neighbourhood,… Each with their own type of building, foods and dress and still it all flows harmoniously into each other. While the Chinese bells and trumpets keep on sounding through the streets, we climb the great golden paya of Myeik: Paya Theindawgyi. The sun is just going down and the air is blue-purple with thick woolly evening clouds that dramatically frame the golden stupa. The bells at the top jingling in the wind, people offering flowers and burning candles, people praying, children playing… A very atmospheric experience with a beautiful view over de city and the water.
This view over the water we also enjoy from our hotelroom be it through the toiletwindow. But a sea view is a sea view they must’ve thought. It is clear that the orientation of the room could have been optimised. And we had another problem with it. We woke up every night with a throbbing headache and the smell of paint hanging in the room. Maarten thought it was a paint-like rotting fish-smell coming from the harbour…. But after a few days we found out that our room was above a “cottage industry” paint factory and that its exhaust pipe was led straight to a few inches under our air conditioner…. We gave up explaining this to the hotel staff, but did manage to get another room with a less intoxicating ventilation system. Gone were the headaches.
Once the effects of the paint fumigation have worn off, we head back north. First through a heavily overloaded sweaty ferry to Dawei, and from their on towards to Moulmein. But not before a local passenger coincidentally pops up with copies of our passports (!) to point us in the right direction…
(3) On the way to Moulmein we luckily have plenty of fresh oxygen to air out. As to get to Moulmein, we take our favourite mode of transportation: the train. Here, trains mean old rickety metal boxes with open windows and doors, probably still left behind by the British (they make sleeper class on Indian Railways look cutting edge), but they sure are memorable. We don’t often say something is a must-do but if you haven’t done this somewhere in Myanmar you really miss something. Being cradled around in these metal tubes on wheels at a very leisurely pace through the magnificent landscape is one of our top train experiences. And we have taken quiet a lot of trains all over the world. We thought it deserved a separate blog post: read more about this here.
(4) This memorable train ride brings us to Moulmein. Again a town on the water, with a gorgeous sunset from the boat jetty, colourful and busy markets, golden payas and swift scooters. For many tourists this is the most southernly point they visit in Myanmar, but according to us it only gets more interesting further down south.
Southern Myanmar where the seaboard is still central, where you still feel the remnants of the closed off past, and where the authenticity of the daily local things and culture fill you with wonder at every turn. We are sure you’ll hear more from this beautiful region in the future.
Have we convinced you of the appeal of this authentic piece of Myanmar? If you want some more convincing, do have a look at our photographs here.
For a general picture of Myanmar, click here. If you want to read more about taking the train in Myanmar, click here. Would you like to know more about the north of Myanmar, have a look here. We also wrote some tips on travelling Myanmar, to read more click here.