1. For family fun: Ngwe Saung
Wider than an eight-lane highway and about 15km long, this beach is a spacious option for families and groups. Take a leisurely stroll along the coastline, or explore it on a rented motorbike or ATV (all-terrain vehicle).
Alternatively, take to the waters; the expansive, flat shore is one of the few in Myanmar that sees a steady swell of waves, which, while not quite big enough for surfing, are perfect for bodyboarding. Other water activities such as jet-skiing and windsurfing are offered by resorts such as Ngwe Saung Yacht Club & Resort – a nautical-themed property with a good variety of family-friendly accommodation options, from villa suites to garden tents.
Though Ngwe Saung is one of the most-developed beaches in Myanmar, it is far from overcrowded. Hotels radiate from a well-equipped town centre, where local eateries such as West Point (Ngwe Saung Village) serve up the day’s catch.
Saltwater treasures: Expect to find real bargains at the village – think lustrous, albeit unevenly shaped, pearls. Myanmar’s pearls are famed for being particularly high-quality, with the golden ones fetching tens of thousands of dollars at auctions. At Ngwe Saung, you can find natural ones in hues of pink, gold and grey from the Andaman Sea. Compared to cultured pearls, these are not uniform in size or colour, and are more highly prized.
Getting there: Take a six-hour bus ride from Yangon, or hire a private car or van; the journey takes five to six hours.
2. For interacting with locals: Chaung Tha
Teeming with local families, this popular weekend getaway has a festive atmosphere – with the strumming of guitars often a musical backdrop. Expect people gathered around picnics and vendors roaming the beach, some selling fresh seafood – such as langoustines – that can be grilled on the spot, and others offering traditional massages right on the golden sand.
SEE ALSO: 9 secret beaches in South-east Asia you need to know about
Join the locals in a game of beach volleyball, or hire a boat to explore the nearby Pokala Island. The staff at hotels such as Diamond Hotel Chaungtha can also take you to fishing hotspots and cook your catch back at the hotel. A word of advice if you’re planning beach or water activities: leave your risqué swimwear at home, as locals tend to dress conservatively.
For sunset views, climb up the hill on the north, where a pagoda is perched. As night approaches, locals set off fireworks that are sold on the beach, adding to the celebratory mood.
A ball of a time: Myanmar’s national sport, chinlone (caneball; above), is played on Chaung Tha. Influenced by traditional Myanmar martial arts and dance, it sees a circle of players passing a rattan ball (or coconut) around using only their feet. The moves are often acrobatic, and the goal is not to let the ball – or fruit – touch the ground. It’s a fast-paced, graceful game; a spectacular performing art in itself.
Getting there: Take a five-to-six-hour bus ride from Yangon.
3. For a romantic getaway: Ngapali
In northern Myanmar, a curve of crystal-clear, aquamarine water kisses powdery white sand banked by tropical jungle. This other-worldly beauty of Ngapali, where there are no nightclubs and tourist touts, is especially enticing for those chasing an intimate getaway.
SEE ALSO: An insider’s guide to Yangon, Myanmar
Vacation lodgings (above), spread across the coconut tree-dotted beach, exude an air of exclusivity. The Hilton Ngapali Resort & Spa, for instance, is built around private gardens and lagoons; its crowning glory is the sprawling Ocean View King Villa, which comes with a private pool.
Pry yourself from the resorts – and their fresh coconut water-based cocktails and stunning sunset views – and venture to the street behind, where rustic restaurants dish up local delicacies such as Rakhine prawn curry.
Treading right: Ngapali stands out from other beaches in Myanmar for its emphasis on sustainable tourism. The hotels here have agreed to prohibit motorised water sports, while tourism activities – organised by guest houses in collaboration with local guides – are designed such that they have a low impact on the environment. These include snorkelling at reefs about a 30-minute boat ride from the coast and navigating rivers by bamboo rafts.
Getting there: Take a 50-minute flight from Yangon to Thandwe Airport, then drive for about 20 minutes to Ngapali. Most resorts offer airport transfers.
4. For eye-opening experiences: The Mergui Archipelago
Comprising more than 800 islands, the remote, pristine Mergui Archipelago has so far eluded the tourist throngs and chain hotels. Among the handful of companies authorised to charter cruises to the archipelago, Burma Boating offers all-inclusive voyages on luxury yachts that will take you to islands such as the 48km-long Lampi Island (below) – the largest within Lampi Marine National Park.
Fringed with seagrass meadows that sustain endangered species of sea turtles as well as dugong, the island is rich in biodiversity. Further inland, a tropical lowland wet evergreen forest chirrups with birdlife, including the threatened plain-pouched hornbill and Wallace’s hawk eagle. The marine park is also the seasonal home of the Moken ‘sea gypsies’, who live a hunter-gatherer existence; meeting them lends a window into an ancient way of life.
For snorkelling, the clear, shallow waters surrounding 115 Island are hard to beat. Here, spot a multitude of sea urchins, along with hard and soft coral and colourful tropical fish that dart around them. Over at the rear of the island, you can explore, by kayak, an oceanside cave in which swallows nest.
Ocean intuition: The Moken, a semi-nomadic tribe, are scattered around the Mergui Archipelago and the west coast of Thailand. Spending eight to nine months of the year on boats, they live off the sea, collecting sea cucumbers and spearfishing. The group has its own language and culture, which is entwined with the ocean. Famously, most of the Moken survived the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 by reading the signs of the sea and fleeing to higher ground.
Getting there: Charter a boat or yacht, which would take you on three- to seven-day liveaboard tours; this is the only way to reach the archipelago. Kaw Thaung, a two-hour flight from Yangon, is the hop-off point for the islands.
– TEXT BY PHILIP HEIJMANS
PHOTOS: PHILIP HEIJMANS (NGAPALI AT SUNSET, NGWE SAUNG BEACH, SEAFOOD AT NGAPALI), ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS; MONKS AT CHAUNG THA, BEACH RESORT AT NGAPALI), GETTY IMAGES (KAYAKING AT MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.