Wild Western Myanmar, Show Up and Figure it Out
If you’re going to Myanmar, chances are, you know a little bit about it’s history. Even if you’re not, it’s hard not to at least know that drastic changes are finally coming to its government, changes that had been promised for a very long time.
One of those changes is to make it easier to visit, which will lead to an increase in tourism and, no doubt, a decrease in authenticity and culture. Which is why the time is now. It’s also why it’s probably not going to be the cushiest travel experience, but it may be one of the most interesting.
On my journey, I started with Rakhine State, which runs along the northern west coast. I chose it because I was hoping to get some beaches along with my culture, but they weren’t always easy to find.
Working in Rakhine
Ok, let’s get this out of the way first, and let’s not fool ourselves, Myanmar is just starting out. Wifi is hard to find. There is good coverage almost everywhere, but we’re talking cellular. The only place I was able to get Wifi reliably was in the posh resorts at Thandwe. Most other places will not ever boast about it. Again, your best bet is a SIM card with a hefty data package, which shouldn’t run you more than $20. They’re also extremely easy to refill at almost any shop in any town. I never feared falling off the grid.
Everyone around is very welcoming and you’ll never be shooed for overstaying your welcome. I’ve spent hours in coffee shops or restaurants on my laptop after having only ordered one drink. Things move slowly around here so let the calm seep into your work!
The First Flight to Rakhine
I decided to start at the top. Mrauk U is theoretically the most northern and most interesting city, but it’s further inland and Sittwe harbours the closest airport. I made to fly out there the day after arriving in Yangon, no reason to waste anytime.
Having arrived on an international flight, I was blown away the day of my flight to Sittwe how different the domestic terminal was. It was like comparing JFK to a bus terminal in Jersey. Our checked bags were not scanned, just taken with a nod when we asked if they’re good and going to the right place. This was a little concerning considering there was a disclaimer on the ticket stating that they bare no responsibility if they lose our luggage.
Luckily, they were all there when we arrived in Sittwe, in a tiny airport that looked like the terminal was an afterthought to the runway. They checked our passports (this happens very frequently in Myanmar) and let us through after we picked up our bags off a cart (no sign of a carousel).
As soon as we exited the little building, we were already swarmed by tuk tuk drivers asking us where we were going and highballing the initial cost of ride. I’ve mostly only ever experienced this at bus stations but I knew how to handle it. Expect to pay half of the initial offering but no matter what you initially counter with, you’ll get haggled up, so start with half of a half and work your way up.
For tourists, Sittwe will seem pretty underwhelming. Although on the coast, the beach isn’t very formidable and is mostly taken up by industrial and seaport machinery. There is very little English even in the restaurants and lodging establishments, but always seemed to be enough to get by along with some creative hand gestures.
Although it is often used by tourists just as a stepping stone to Mrauk U, it does have some lively places such as the pier and the park surrounding it. At night, it was beautifully lit with various statues depicting different parts of Rakhine State culture such as wrestling and Buddhism. It was a very nice sight, further improved by the soothing waves sloshing around. If you’re not Asian, be prepared to have your picture taken a lot. Food stands are often set up around it serving more mysterious meals. It’s hard enough to say you want food, let along find out what you’re getting and what’s in it so we usually just ended up saying we want 2 and hoped for the best!
Most of the towns along the west coast are fishing villages and Sittwe is no exception. Most restaurants are really just little shacks but you can definitely find some better looking sit downs that are still reasonably priced if you’re not ready to dive into the shabbier looking local places. Don’t be shy to try a little bit of everything, it’s likely caught that day. There’s also tons of street vendors selling everything from deep fried goodness to deep fried goodness.
Guesthouses can range too and can easily be booked online. Ours was the simple Shwe Myint Mow guesthouse. It featured a room as big as the double bed it housed and a shared bathroom that was really just an outhouse close enough to the hallway that you didn’t really have to walk outside. It was nice.
Getting to Mrauk U
If you are just in Sittwe trying to get to Mrauk U, as was our case really, you can take the bus, but that’s boring. Go for the boat! It’s definitely more interesting and figuring out where to take it from and its schedule is half the fun! There are regular and speed boats that leave at different times on different days. You’ll have to be a little resourceful as you ask around to figure out what your options are and where to take it from. Also, you’ll get over charged as a foreigner probably ten fold. Be aware of it but it’s unlikely you’ll get out of it.
All we were able to get from our guesthouse host when we asked where to buy tickets from was that we should walk to the very end of the street. Google Maps showed that the street led to an inlet, so that kind of made sense. As we approached though, there was no ticket booth or harbour, but were was a group of kids juggling a bamboo ball that played like a hacky sack. So we joined in!
After fifteen minutes of games and laughs, they started trying to ask the usual where we’re from and where we’re going, and as always was the case here, being as helpful as they could. We figured through broken sign language that the boat left the next day at 8am and the cost was 25,000Kyat ($20). We even arranged and haggled with one of them to come get us on a bike the following day at 6am from our guesthouse so we’d have time to get there, eat and get tickets.
That being said, he gave us no ticket or anything to commit to him showing up, and weren’t even sure that we had properly gotten our point across about having to get to the harbour, so once again our plans hinged on someone simply keeping their word. But that’s part of the culture in Myanmar. They’re trustworthy and they expect you to believe them without a piece of paper to symbolize your commitment.
So as promised, the man with the bike was there to pick us up the following day, and when I say “bike”, I don’t mean motorbike. He legit had a cycle-rickshaw that consisted of a bicycle and a side cart that he loaded us and our bags into and peddled away on the rocky, uneven pavement. He was a champ!
The Sittwe harbour is bustling with all kinds of people transporting all kinds of goods to Mrauk U. There will be plenty of food and breakfast, at least, is easy to figure out, often consisting of fried rice and fried eggs with some extremely pickled and spiced bits of vegetable. Eat up and jump on the boat.
Pro tip: get in quick and get a spot on the boat’s dock because they’ll be aggresivley blasting the AC inside. The ride over along the river connecting the two cities and is beautiful!
Now we’re getting to somewhere really worth seeing. Mrauk U used to be a kingdom spanning much of north western Myanmar, with the current city serving as its capital, and therefore has some beautiful culture and architecture left over. The lands around it are littered with Pagodas and not far from it are the Chin villages, known for an aging contingency of women with tattooed faces.
When you get off the boat, it’s very easy to find a tuk tuk and for a few extra Kyat, to get him to show you a few guesthouses to choose from. Ours took us to Golden Star, but right beside it is the Happy Garden, which was fully booked when we were there, but looked much more tourist friendly. It also had one of the only restaurants in town with an English menu and the only one whose entire repertoire didn’t consist of fried (blank). Both worth checking out. We paid 20,000 Kyat at ours and apparently the Happy Garden was even a little cheaper.
If you’re going to see the pagodas, ask your guesthouse to rent some bikes and make your way around them. They’re mostly listed on Google Maps and easily visible as you approach. A little further away is the Koe Thaung Pagoda, featuring 90000 Buddha’s sculpted and engraved along the walls and rooms within it. It was built by a king who’s father had built one consisting of 80000 Buddha’s. I guess even in Myanmar, children have to one up their parents!
I also really recommend taking a trip to the Chin Villages. As mentioned, a now dead tradition had women tattooing their faces at a young age, but the government had banned the practice some 50 years ago and only about 9 of these women are still alive today. The practice began as a way to ward off a ruler that tried to use women as slaves, and eventually developed into a sign of beauty.
To get to the various Chin villages, you’ll need to organize a car to a dock and a boat to take you around. This you’ll have to shop around for. We heard as much as 90000K for the trip without an English speaking guide, and as little as 60000k with one, which we of course opted for. The scenery around the river leading to them is beautiful and you’ll experience some of the most interesting culture around. There are also a lot of kids running around and it’s nice if you can bring some cookies or treats as they are certainly eager for something sweet!
After some very off the grid villages and the most grueling 16 hour local-bus ride ever in Myanmar, it's time to plug back in. And wouldn't you know it, Myanmar's got a great place for that too. Loving Ngpali Beach! #backonthegrid #beachlife #remotework #travel #beach #coconut #worktravel #Myanmar #Burma #ngpali #beach
From Mrauk U on, the next notable destination is the now very touristy town of Thandwe and the nearby Ngapali (named to sound similar to Italy’s Napoli) beach. It’s a good place to relax and catch some WiFi before getting back off the grid further south, and the beach is definitely stunning, but other than the food there’s nothing interesting or cultural about it.
When getting here, try your very best to not get on a local bus to Thandwe from Mrauk U. The ride is over 15 hours long and local buses are cramped, uncomfortable, and extremely rickety. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we still ended up on one, stuck at the very back, and not since cramming for exams in college has one of my nights been so long.
Recent tourist development have made it very expensive and most things on the beach are charged in USD. You’ll be hardpressed to find something right in Ngapali Beach for under $45 and it probably gets higher as the tourist season develops. Accomodation in Thandwe, a little further down, is much cheaper but you’ll have to find a ride to the beach every day (which is definitely doable).
Lots of info about the local restaurants is available online and some really are fantastic. Once again, seafood is what the food centers around and it’s always fresh! Again I stress – get the avocado juice!
Bottom line, it’s beautiful, but it’s been spoiled. If you want to see Myanmar’s wild side while it still exists, don’t get caught here. It’s halfway up the coast, so it’s a good place to set your bearings straight whether you were coming from the north or the south. Catch some cushy rest and move on.
Luckily the next worthwhile city from Thandwe is a mere 40km south. It still takes close to 3 hours with the windy, bumpy roads, but nothing compared to the previous journey. Here, you’re once again very much off the beaten path so things are not always easy but this by no means makes it unworthy of a visit. Quite the opposite.
Got to Kyeintali and literally had to just ask around the village with broken sign language before to find someone with a boat to take us around the mangrove canals but that's how it is sometimes. Show up and figure it out! Totally worth it. Yet another place I've never heard of that had so much to offer. He even dropped us on a risky deserted, inaccessible beach to just chiiilllll!
It is on the coast but the beaches aren’t too close to town. Instead, you’ll need to take a boat across the nearby inlet to get to some absolutely gorgeous slices of paradise that you’ll have all to yourself. The inlet digs quite deep into the land is also quite a rare sight. Some very unique mangrove forests line it’s edges and the entire scenery around it is incredibly lush.
The boat, however, is the tricky part. Like I said, this is off the beaten path and there is no official service to do this. We spoke to our guest house host who called a guy who knew a guy who agreed to take us. He asked for 50000 for the trip, which was about 4 hours, but we got him down to 35000. Worth every Kyat and I’m sure he was happy for the extra income!
Other than that, there are some fantastic pagodas around that are visible on Google Maps that are shine beautifully in the early afternoon sun and are very nicely lit up at night.
The Myo Ma Monastery is also very nice and has some beautiful art inside. If you’re into meditation, take an hour and sit down. The monks were very passive and had no problem at all letting us sit as long as we wanted. They even offered us a gift on the way out which was a can of Shark energy drink which we threw out as soon as we were out of sight but, you know. It’s the thought that counts! Good karma all around!
There are but a handful of guest house options in town but one that does the trick, Nang Myint Sang, is right in front of the bus station. Scratch that. It’s right in front of where the bus drops you off. There is nothing there to actually indicate a station. Similarily, there are a couple of restaurants lying around but the only one with a menu is Shwe Moe, a little off the main road and has a great seafood fried rice! All the rest are interesting and worth trying but be prepared to learn Burmese overnight or just ask for one and hope for the best!
Catch an early bus to the last town on the coast of Rakhine so you can get to the beautiful beaches before the crowds – is what they’ll be saying 5 years from now. Right now though, there are no crowds. Only beautiful, deserted beaches, empty sand as far as the eye can see. This little town was supposed to be a resort but the government abandoned those plans long ago, and they’ve slowly been carried on by local entrepreneurs. Now that the country is opening up more and more though, it’s only a matter of time before private foreign investors sink their greedy tractors into those sands and erect some fancy hotels.
The Royal Rose is a guesthouse that was still half under construction when we arrived, but you only had to poke your head through some bushes to get to the beach. You won’t find much in the way of dining options around (yet), but there’s enough to keep you satiated between beach sessions, and always little fruit carts around.
Pro tip: Restaurant doesn’t have an ingredient you want? Feel free to buy it from a cart and ask them to include it. We did that with avocados all the time!
Don’t let the beautiful beaches around Gwa fool you, there’s plenty more to see. There is a peanut oil factory in the vicinity, which unfortunately was closed when we were there, plenty of pagodas (if you haven’t filled your fix yet) and a large harbour town at the end.
At the other side, the harbour at the end of the road will take you to the little town of Ma Kyay Ngu, which is very interesting and worth exploring to get a glimpse at local life. It also has a very nice little each that seems to end where a rocky forest takes root, but poke your head inside and you’ll see some trails taking you to the top of a little cliff with fantastic views of the areas and a nice little pagoda. There are surprises at every corner for the adventurous traveler!