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Published: December 5th 2017
Southern Myanmar is a long tail of land that, for more than 1,200 km, abuts Thailand, the Tenasserim Hills and their subranges forming the border. Time was now against me, which meant I couldn’t fly to Myeik, the most southerly airport open for tourists, because of the painfully long time it would take me to wend my way north again by bus (there are no flights between airports in the south; everything goes through Yangon). Instead, I opted to fly to Dawei, about halfway down (as it were), and head out to Maungmagan on the coast, and make my way back overland from there.
Once released by the airport – although it was a domestic flight, passport and visa checks were carried out, as they have been almost every time I’ve crossed a state border here – I was approached by only one hopeful taxi driver (poor pickings when there is only one flight a day). We agreed a fare for the half-hour trip, and, after loading me and my bag into the car, he paused in front of a teahouse to talk to the occupants… three of whom proceeded to join me. With “My brother!”, “Grandmother!” and a little
boy (I’m not sure whether he was my driver’s nephew or son) piled in beside me, I felt as if I was invading a family outing. There was certainly a relaxed festive spirit amongst the adults, Junior looking in need of the nap his grandmother kept coaxing him towards, but much too interested in his surroundings to take much notice of her. When The Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” came on the radio – oddly for Myanmar, the original, not a cover – as I sipped a can of tamarind juice, I giggled. It couldn't get much more surreal. We bucketed towards the coast as if enacting the old Cliff Richard number.
I fell in love with Coconut Guest House, its bungalows scattered amongst the palm trees. “We speak french and english” (sic) proclaims the noticeboard by the main road, and once again the Brits were in a minority. At dinner that night, I was humbled to eavesdrop on my neighbours. Between them they were, I think, German, Swiss and Belgian, and their common language was faultless English. In the meantime, an unexpected downpour marooned me on my veranda – any exploring would have to wait until the next day –
though, as my Yangon friend, confirmed, such weather is pretty unusual at this time of year. “Raining here too,” he reported when I messaged him, “which is illegal after 1 November. Is it the End of Days?” “I blame Trump,” I replied flippantly, and went back to enjoying the thunder of the rain on my bathroom’s corrugated iron roof. Tropical rain is wonderful when you’re safely under shelter, though my telepathy was clearly rusty: the sundowner beer failed to materialise.
The next day I wandered the 700m from my bungalow door to the beach. With a backdrop of what looked like tamarisk, rather than palm trees, seven or more miles of pale sand greeted me. As I have the luxury of spending so much time in Australia – which, I have to admit, almost owns the concept of the perfect beach (with a chillier one or two in the West Highlands) – beaches had not been high on my agenda for this trip, but the idea of sea air and a chance to dip into the half-way-to-south of the country were tempting, and this one was definitely worth the trip. Ngapali in Rakhine State gets the press for being
the “best beach” in Myanmar and I haven’t, I admit, been, but Maungmagan was gorgeous – and probably the better, in my eyes, for not having the spotlight shone upon it.
Despite my firangi-filled accommodation, I was the only foreigner on the beach that morning. I passed a dozen boys playing football – a national obsession since a Scottish colonial administrator introduced the sport here in the middle of last century – at the water’s edge. They had goals marked out with bamboo sticks, but I’m not sure how they gauged the boundaries or a corner. In any event, they were giving it their all, though, by the time I came back in that direction, they’d repaired to the water to cool off.
A gaggle of fishing boats was wedged into the sand at the water’s edge while the fishermen offloaded their catch for the morning market. Our hostess went along each day to see what she could find, and the options were listed on a whiteboard in the dining area each evening. After unloading, a couple of guys waded out with each boat until it was sufficiently re-floated for one of them to scramble aboard and take
up the oars. These were higher-prowed and wider boats than the Inle Lake longtails, though their engines worked on a similar basis, here with two long-shaft propellers, one each side of the stern. A bunch of flags was attached to a couple of poles in the bow, not prayer flags, as such, and, other than pure decoration, or possibly identification, I couldn’t quite see their purpose. A kind of “boom” stretched from the poles back towards the stern, but its primary purpose seemed to be to provide a frame across which a tarpaulin could be stretched to give shade amidships. And, on a couple of boats, to hang laundry.
That evening, I went back down to the beach to enjoy what promised to be my best Myanmar sunset so far (up against some stiff competition in Bagan and Inle Lake, I should add), and it was then that I really saw the locals out to enjoy themselves. With the exception of one lone fisherman wading along, parallel to the beach, with his bamboo-framed nets (was he one of those I’d seen that morning?), everyone was out to relax in the last of the light. Another football game was in
progress. Kids mucked around in the shallows. A couple of beautifully-dressed young women giggled at the water’s edge, holding up the edge of their htameins in one hand, their sandals in the other. And to my huge delight, I saw that downtime applied to the clergy as well. Ahead of me, a couple of monks were taking photographs, one of them deliciously wielding a selfie stick. A third monk joined them briefly, then walked back up the beach… and returned carrying an inflated inner tube under one arm. He then left his uttarasanga (cloak) with his colleagues and, still garbed in his full-length antaravasaka (sarong), waded out into the water to lounge around in a rubber ring. As the sun slowly sank towards the horizon, I smiled. What a nutshell of life to have witnessed, all to the backdrop of a sunset that really was the best yet, no fringe of pollution or haze to hide its final dip below the horizon, no clouds or hills in the way.
I’d have to tear myself away the next day, but it had been a lovely 36 hours.
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