Life among the pagodas
In our Pacific Northwest home, nature was as close as one’s backyard, or as far as a 20-minute drive to a well-wooded park. It didn’t take too much effort to get away from the sight of buildings or even other people, and was not difficult to find places where nature dwarfs humanity. In Yangon, there is no such luxurious way to get a change of pace. In the past year, I can only think of one 30-minute period of time where I could neither see nor hear other human beings. This is just the nature of life in a crowded city, and it has become pretty normal for us, and we truly enjoy city life here. But we were a bit hungry for the sight of something other than buildings and traffic, and we thought a weekend respite by the ocean might be just the ticket.
We opted for Chaung Thar beach, a beach that is popular with Myanmar locals. There is another beach close to Chaung Thar (known as Ngwe Saun) that has more western appeal and is less peopled, but we really wanted to get a Myanmar person’s angle on what is meant by a vacation at the beach.
In the vein of doing things in local style, we decided to take the bus. (Now, we aren’t generally die-hard about doing things the local way, but we often say to each other as we wrangle our active ninth month old, “this is probably the easiest time to give this a try!” I know, don’t people usually say that before they have kids? Well, we are milking that turn of phrase for all it is worth.) Tickets to the beach cost 9,000 kyats (roughly $7.50 USD) each, and the only available buses departed at 6 am.
(Scenes from the bus terminal. There are lots of “salesmen” who will run beside your taxi in order to direct you to their bus company.)
We departed out of one of the city’s main long-distance bus terminals, a station on the outskirts of the city, overrun with all sorts of Myanmar sojourners, the occasional odd western tourist mixed in. As is typical with most long distance buses, every seat on our bus was stocked with small plastic bags for carsickness (an essential for bus travel in this country). Our bus lumbered out of the terminal at six, and headed for the beach. The rule of the road here is right lane driving, while most all the vehicles are built for left lane driving. Because of this the driver’s assistant (known here as a “spare”) stood in the door well of the bus as we traveled and served as eyes on the road ahead, telling him when it was safe to pass other vehicles. We stopped regularly to pick up extra passengers, and just as I remarked that surely we were out of space—as there were no more empty jump seats that could be folded down—new passengers took their seats on the steps of the bus, and the spare handed out tiny stools and set them wherever there was space.
(Our bus to Chaung Tha)
The highway to the coast is the equivalent of a 1.5 lane road in the U.S., and is a thoroughfare for lots of buses, motorcycles, vehicles loaded with rice, and the occasional private car. Buses are without question the most aggressive form of conveyance in all of Myanmar, and their size puts them at the top of the pecking order for right of way. City buses and long distance buses alike, it is not uncommon to see them being driven as though they are some sort of racecar. The traffic rules of Myanmar can be summed up in one word: bus. (We like to joke that someone ought to write a developing world traffic-themed parody to Rob Bell’s book and entitle it, “Bus Wins.”) If riding at 40-50 mph speeds down bumpy roads and passing other vehicles in oncoming traffic sounds stressful to you, just be sure to pick a seat farther back when you ascend a Myanmar bus—ignorance is relaxation when it comes to traveling here. For our part, we enjoyed sitting up front behind the driver (who happened to be a fantastic driver, as Myanmar drivers go) and taking in the view.
And the view was a treat. We passed what felt like hundreds of villages and congregations of bamboo homes interspersed between large swaths of farmland, rice paddies, fish farms, banana orchards and trellises loaded with giant gourds. We saw water buffalo, herds of goats, flocks of ducks, and at one point, a beautiful five foot tall Saurus crane stood within arm’s reach of the bus as we passed by. Along most of the route, solar panels were basking in the midday sun, stocking up on what was likely the only power supply available to most homes in the area. The bus waited in line several times in other to pass through toll booths, and this gave us the opportunity to window shop from walking vendors who would sell us snacks through the bus window: boiled quail eggs, green mango, bottled water, etc. At one toll booth the driver passed several bottles of unopened liquor to the toll booth operator and said, “here, this is for the alcoholics.”
The six-hour drive from Yangon to the beach winds through the Irawaddy division of Myanmar, which was the region hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The final two hours of the route (or one hour, depending on your driver) meandered over hilly regions filled with rubber plantations, mango orchards, and a lot of post-cyclone jungle regrowth. Children were dancing about in front of their roadside homes yelling “hello!” and waving frantically as passerby; if anyone threw money out the window, they would tussle in the middle of the road for it, seemingly oblivious to the possibility of oncoming traffic. Every so often we spotted a lonely majestic tree, a sort of monument to the former beauty of the Irawaddy. Many trees were brought down by Cyclone Nargis, but some of the bare hillsides can also be attributed to overzealous lumber harvesting—a common and alarming problem throughout all of the country.
We reached the beach around midday, and it was a huge relief to get off the bus, as the weather was over 100F and the bus had no air conditioning. Our hotel room was right on the beach, with a cement half wall between the hotel grounds and the public beach space; this gave us opportunities for lots of interesting conversations with passerby and walking food vendors. Lots of people remarked that we were on our honeymoon (not a joke, either!).
(Outside our hotel room.)
Within hours of our arrival, people were coming up to our front door and asking about the baby, and a fair number would stand at the wall for quite some time, simply watching us. One fun aspect of life here is all the unabashed people watching, and the fact that it also gives us the freedom to people-watch without feeling offensive; no one in this country seems at all embarrassed to be caught staring, and the stares are almost always of a friendly, inquisitive nature. I might say it is actually my favorite thing about living here: people are paying a lot of attention to one another—not only to us foreigners. In America, people might call that a lack of privacy. Here, it is just part of being a community.
(Our second morning on the beach. These food vendors were looking for Lena.)
But what shall I tell you about the actual beach? I don’t even know where to start, as it was an entirely new and fascinating beach experience for me. The reclining beach chairs that are so ubiquitous in western beach scenes were nowhere to be seen at Chaung Tha beach. There were only upright chairs placed directly under giant umbrellas (these could be rented for 1000 kyats or so). Not a soul could be seen even sitting on a towel, much less stretched out on one, in fact, I didn’t see any towels or swimsuits during the whole weekend. Men, women and children alike got up early in the morning to play in the waves, most wearing long sleeved shirts and shorts, and retreating to the shade by 11 am—not because they are afraid of skin cancer, but because they don’t want their skin “blackened” by the sun. The beach would be totally deserted at midday, people returning to play in the water around 3 pm or so. Most folks splashed about on the water’s edge, or rented inner tubes and rode the waves closest to shore.
(Lena loved the ocean. In between waves, she would look around and try to get the attention of other swimmers with her trademark greeting.)
If swimming is not one’s activity of choice, there are plenty of other things to do at Chaungtha Beach. You can pay for a pony rides along the shore, which is fun and sometimes alarming to watch, especially when someone who obviously can’t ride a horse is racing along the crowded beach. At least a third of the ponies have been painted with zebra stripes, an honor primarily bestowed upon the animals lucky enough to have been born with white hair. Hundreds of bikes are clustered along the shore, available to rent for 1000 kyats. Some of them are tandem bikes, or even triple seaters, and there were a few charming four-wheeled, two seater rides with striped canopies.
At the midpoint of the beach is a giant gold-painted rock topped with a small pagoda, at which one can make Buddhist offerings. All along the beach, vendors are selling live crabs, clams, or urchins, which one can buy and then release in order to gain merit. Walking vendors hawk seashell jewelry, hats made of fresh palm leaves, and a variety of delicious and interesting snacks. Jim was persuaded to try some fresh sea urchin blood, and reported that it tasted like blood, with some salt and sand mixed in. Fresh coconut water is available all over the beach for 1,000 kyats (roughly 80 cents) per coconut—we polished off at least 8 coconuts in those two days.
(The coconut water stand)
At Chaung Tha, there is city power from 6 pm until 6 am. Depending on whether or not your hotel has a generator, you might have air conditioning in your hotel during the hot hours of the afternoon. In the evenings, people shoot off fireworks and small rockets for a few hours, and karaoke can be heard up and down the beach.
On our return trip, we made sure to secure seats on a bus that had air conditioning. It was a toss up as to whether the air-conditioned bus was an improvement, because the driving of this bus seemed reminiscent of what it must have been like to ride the chariots of Jehu. Half the folks around us were losing their breakfast, and I lost count of how many times I hit my head on the window when we rounded curves in the road. Thankfully, we were in the back of the bus, so we couldn’t see how often our zealous driver made a perilous pass on the narrow roads (though I am sure it was often).
All in all, our first Myanmar beach trip was a wonderful success, and we are already thinking about when we can go again (though we may forgo the bus ride and rent a private car next time). I will let the photos tell you the rest.
(This guy took a break from selling crabs to hang out with us and play in the water.)
(A delicious, slightly sweet fried snack that was loaded with coconut meat and white poppy seeds)
(Oxcart rides were also available at the beach)
(An uprooted coconut palm)
(We rented bikes and rode past the tourist section to a little fishing village at the end of the beach)
(The woman in the photo is wearing a stack of hats made from woven palm leaves. They are a popular beach accessory, and are kind of like an equivalent to a Hawaiian lei.)
(Jim was pained by the rustiness of the beach bikes.)