I’m just back from a really great holiday-within-a-holiday trip westwards from Yangon with a Myanmar friend who is from Pathein. This is quick run-through if what we did, and a whole bunch of photos that I hope give some idea of how beautiful the Myanmar shores of the Bay of Bengal can be.
The Irrawaddy delta is pretty damned attractive, especially from the rivers. So much to see as you go not-that-slowly by. There were a lot of goods on board the boat so we stopped for two hours in two delta towns, Wakema and Myaungmya, which gave time for a good look around.
This was my second time taking the Yangon to Pathein boat. When Evanna and I did this trip in 2010 we were the only tourists in board. This year there were a dozen. Partly due to there now only being two boats a week rather than one everyday but also a reflection of increased tourist numbers for sure. There used to be two sailings a day, now it’s two a week. The improved-road trip takes only 4 and a half hours by bus (that’s progress) whereas the boat is a 24-hour sleep-on-the-deck affair. It was much more fun not being sick and having diarrhoea like last time. Though having Evanna on board again would have been a bonus.
About four hours before reaching Pathein I got into a bit of difficulty with a drunk monk. He was playing pop music very loudly, and to the annoyance of many around him, but none of them would tackle him because he’s a monk and even a wayfarer-wearing drunk monk gets to be treated like mini-royalty here. I don’t stand on such ceremony and had a word. He went off on one, threatening to fight me; ‘not your country, I’m a Myanmar monk, I do what I like .. etc’. It all worked out in the end; we were moved from the open deck to the upstairs saloon – reserved for softies with cabins – and while boat security had not felt able to tackle him for behaving like a Bestwood teenager on the bus annoying local people, they were happy to get the chance to deal with him on the basis that he had behaved badly towards a foreign guest (who at times are also treated like mini-royalty). And I got more content for my upcoming post called ‘Bollocks to Buddhism’ or some such.
In Pathein we met my friend’s mum and dad at the religious bookshop they run on the steps to the main pagoda in Pathein. My friend is herself a very-buddhist-pray-for-ninety-minutes-a-day-recite-some-or-other-mantra-10,000-times-a-month girl and won’t like the Bollocks to Buddhism piece if her English ever gets good enough. She went home for the night, I checked into a guesthouse I’ve stayed in before, Taan Taan Ta. It’s tired, dirty, not so friendly and overpriced. Avoid it if you can. Luckily I chanced upon a clean, new and cheaper place, Nay Chi Linn 3 (Tel. 042 22844) on Mahabandoola Lan, for the next time I’m in town.
In the morning we hired a motorbike to head out to Ngwe Saung and the beach on the Bay of Bengal. We stayed at the hotel where where my friend used to work – but has not been back to since she left for Yangon – and where Evanna and I met her. It’s a basic but good, if overpriced – again – bungalow on the beach place and very peaceful.
White people out in the sun hoping to get brown, brown people in the shade and covered up for fear of getting browner.
My friend was allowed to stay in the very basic staff accommodation where she used to live, a sort of Myanmar village out back of the bungalows where guests are not expected to stray but where you need to go if you want to watch the football sitting in the sand. The guys I watched with last year were looking forward to a couple of big Champions League middle-of-the-nighters next week.
The hotel was full as were many of the other ‘cheaper’ ones – though maybe not the expensive ones – but the beach remains almost empty. At any time there are no more than 20 people on and in 200 metres of beach and clear and pretty warm sea (in February, getting much warmer still by April). I met 12 year old Reuben from London Fields. He was mostly playing FIFA 2013.
Next day we went off to the elephant camp where they train elephants to work in the logging business. They only take three months to train but do not go to work until they are 16. It’s a tourist thing to see them at morning parade (though nothing like Thailand where they get them to play football and paint) but my friend wanted to go; she worked in the hotel on next to no money serving tourists who get to do things she and her friends were never allowed the time (one day off a month) – or could afford (more than two days wages to see the elephants) – to do themselves.
All staff need permission to use the hotel restaurant, even when off-duty (not that they can afford it, but sometimes they are invited by guests). The women are virtual prisoners; not allowed into the ‘village’, not allowed off-site after 7pm, not allowed to ride motorcycles. My friend reflected happily on her change of circumstances but has a couple of her good friends still ‘stuck’ there.
We went down the beach by bike – you ride on the sand at low tide – to the fishing village of Simna. Very sleepy, friendly and pretty but no big deal in itself; just another village. But with boats. And fish.
Getting there is really something though. Mile after mile of empty, white-sand, palm-fringed, clear-sea beach. Not a hotel in sight.
It’s what people go to Thailand looking for but cannot find these days.
Two clear-water river crossings are made on small boats and on each headland there are rocks, rock pools and great geology. Just beyond the main fishing village, across a river we paddled through, is a vast field of rock, strata turned through 90 degrees, millions of years of sedimentary history.
It was a brilliant, sun-burning day out and this should be what is promoted to tourists back at the hotels but they sell trips just to the fishing village, taking the rest for granted. Just like Warwick Castle.
And it was followed by another great day doing a second coast run up to Chaungtha beach.
This is something of a Myanmar Skegness – comedy hats (grass), bicycles and inflatables on the beach – but without Fantasy Island, oceans of drunks, greasy fish and chips (great seafood instead) and cheap holiday sex.
Worth seeing to have seen it. But not for long.
We headed back over the mini-mountains to sleep in sleepy Pathein. Not at Taan Taan Ta.
[Addendum : a fellow traveller teels me that if you head north out of Chaungtha you quickly come to some nice and pretty empty beaches, though the sea on these beaches is less clear than at Ngwe Saung and they’re are all a bit Western Supermare, in that you have to get a long way out before the water gets at all deep.]