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Published: January 20th 2006
Cute Ngapali kids
Waiting for the next bodysurfing wave
It is said that one can only know one extreme once she has known its opposite; such as sorrow carving out a space in your heart so that you may also know love more deeply. And so it goes with life on the road as well, for the plucking of a travel pearl increases in value with every tight-lipped sea creature you have to battle in pursuit of it.
Since the buses only run at night, getting from Bagan to Ngapali Beach overland is a two and a half day journey via Pyay. In theory, each journey takes about 10 hours, although Burmese transportation systems seem to be designed to test the Burmese virtue of ah har de
(not losing one's temper or causing a commotion over your discontent) by understating the journey's length by a couple of hours.
With 4 buses leaving nightly from Bagan to Pyay, we found our hotel's claim that all seats were sold out days in advance quite hard to believe. Upon challenging it at the bus station, we were rewarded for our skepticism with two "middle seats." The bus was quite nice - air conditioned, TV, plush seats…but we soon discovered that
Sunset on Ngapali Beach
View from the fishing village
“middle seats” meant that you were stuck in fold down chairs in the aisle. 'Ah, well, it could always be worse,' I thought. Apparently I should have knocked on wood, for moments later, the private sector’s version of torture started…Burmese DVD karaoke, with the volume hovering right on the pain threshhold. Relief from the sing-a-thon came in one of those "be careful what you wish for...." kind of ways: the bus shut off the video, as well as everything else when we got stuck. In a river. The wide riverbed was nearly dry, but we had gotten lodged in the sand. Local tractors came to help pull the bus out, and traffic on both sides of the river came to a standstill as there was really only one good path to cross and we were stuck in it. After an entire hour, in which lightning flashed on the horizon and we couldn’t help but imagine our fate should a flash flood arise, we were finally up and running again. Though we naturally arrived much later than scheduled, the rest of the trip passed pretty much without incident.
Pyay is an important pilgrimage town for Burmese Buddhists, but with few
Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay
foreign tourists taking the inconvenient overland journeys that alight in Pyay, it almost felt like we had penetrated the military-imposed barriers to off-limits Myanmar. Particularly after the tourist enclave of Bagan, Pyay provided a brief glimpse of everyday Burmese socializing in tea shops and domestic tourists ascending the massive flight of stairs to pray at Shwesandaw Pagoda. Climbing past the artisans and vendors on the steps, we were rewarded with 360 degree views, over the winding Irrawaddy River. a giant Buddha, and a rainbow landing in a pot of golden stupas on the tree-lined horizon. Devout women knelt at the base of the main shrine, lips moving, eyes closed, prayer beads steadily inching through dark slender fingers, undistracted by the energetic shrieks of children playing and posing for the foreigners' cameras. Pint-sized kindermonks in cherry red robes held their mothers' hands as they headed out of the sanctuary past stalls of paper-maiche owls and fruit stands into the non-motorized street traffic. I had to smile at the beauty of simplicity as a whole family rode by on one bicycle -- mother, father, and two kids, all balanced precariously but seemingly effortlessly on the various bars and bumpers.
interlude was brought to a close shortly after dusk, when the bicycle trishaw drivers came to fetch us to take us to the "new bridge" to catch the bus to Thandwe. Near the river we got out and I cast a furtive glance at Jason as our drivers schlepped our packs on their backs and started up a steep invisible path over the hill. Though a little difficult in flip flops, we eventually made it to the lights of the checkpoint/crossing below and pulled up a chair for yet another undefinable waiting period.
"When does the bus come?"
"Oh, in about 10 minutes." Our disbelieving eyes seemed to extract a confession from him. "Uh....sometimes it's late."
......Two and a half hours later...... the road finally seemed to have indeed been built for something; the (up 'til now) 100% traffic-free road welcomed a caravan of four buses that looked like something out of a 1970s Romanian film I once saw. This experience was somewhat reminiscent of the chicken buses in Guatemala, and it came as a shock after the semi-deluxe bus from Bagan. Merchandise, luggage, and various passengers’ limbs hovered in the walkways, and the last 4 or
5 rows were hemmed in by stacks of backpacks and suitcases piled up in the aisleway, meaning that the three of us had to climb on the armrails like monkeys to get to our seats, which were all in the very last row of the bus. If there is one thing they tell you about buses in Burma, it is NOT to ride in the back. Had I known how bad the ride would be, I would have been much more keen to spend the extra 30 bucks for the flight.
The first thing that struck you in your new little prison cell was the overwhelming smell. It was primarily 'Essence of Sweaty Feet,' but at times also mixed with hints of dust and exhaust fumes to create another memorable aroma, broken only from time to time by the men two rows ahead who would light up a cigarette or cigar with the windows closed. Charming. I had somehow thought that it went without saying that smoking on closed transportation vessels was universally outlawed, but this was obviously only wishful thinking!
Luckily the German guy didn’t seem to be a big fan of the smoke either, and his
Kids collecting water bottles
They rushed our bus from Kanthaya to Yangon to collect empty water bottles -- or completely sealed unopened bottles which they dumped out instead of drinking...
wide open window provided some relief from all the odors, which set you free to concentrate your discomfort on other arenas…like the constant bouncing off your seat. Burmese roads are, hands down, the worst major roads in any country I have visited thus far. When I finally did succeed at drowning out the ever-present karaoke to catch a few sleeping pill-induced Zzzzs, I awoke with bruised elbows from the constant wackling back and forth against the unmovable metal armrests. My neighbor to the right seemed to know of its perils and chose to fall asleep with her elbow jutting sharply into my ribs instead. What sleep I mustered up didn’t last long, however, as we faced no fewer than 3 immigration checkpoints on this disastrously long journey, where we had to get out and register with the military. (Incidentally, this destination of this 10 hour journey was only about 75 miles away as the crow flies). The potty break was timed just perfectly; trudging back from the rest stop bathrooms (a.k.a. squatting next to total strangers on the side of the dirt road), a new day welcomed us with a neon purple and coral sunrise over the rice fields.
Rainbows and Gold
View from Shwesandaw Pagoda -- Pyay
Though it was only a few kilometers further by taxi to get to Ngapali Beach, fatigue was getting the best of me by the time we finally rolled out of Thandwe for the last leg of the journey. The fortress wall of palm trees and shrubbery kept my first great love -- the sea -- just out of reach, but the windblown gaps in that leafy barrier teased me with a tiny peak at what lay beyond, and it was enough to realize that my fingers were wrapping around the oyster I had been searching for. As I surfaced at the Royal Beach Motel with my prize in hand, I set out to examine its contents. My first breath of fresh air in this wonderland was a gasp of astonishment. Not even in my most optimistic visions had I imagined a pearl of such perfection. A cloudless day allowed the cerulean sky and the teal water to reflect their brilliant colors onto each other's surfaces and compete for your attention. A coconut palm fringe, a golden-white powder border, and flaming red crab accents balanced out the portrait of paradise. The tepid water didn't even need to engage its waves
Start of the workday
Fishermen on their sunset departure, Ngapali
in flirtation to seduce us into diving in for a swim. For nearly a week, this was my window on the world....and it was so devastatingly beautiful that it almost made your eyes ache.
But to let the pearl's smooth surface caress your skin and feel its weight on the palm of your hand is what makes it alive and really priceless to its owner, just as Ngapali's appeal was so much more than just a postcard snapshot of prime waterfront property. The Rakhine cuisine would make any food critic invent new words of praise. While each seafood banquet was prepared, steady warm breezes tickled faces bent over thick books and bottomless pots of green tea. Meals were then presented in coconuts or on giant platters decoratively arranged with tropical flowers, while clipping a mere $2 to $3 from your wallet. Dining became an hours-long event. After gorging on fresh fish, shrimp, crab, and lobster on the open air veranda, honey fried bananas or little nuggets of raw cane sugar were offered by ever-attentive servers eager to satisfy our sweet tooth.
When the fury of the midday sun subsided and a page was dogeared to mark a resuming
point for the next mealtime, an afternoon siesta in the sun allowed you to share the low-tide shoreline with scores of fist-sized crabs, who seemed to scatter upon sensing even the slightest raising of an eyelid. Shouts from kids playing soccer in the adjacent fishing village were the perfect wakeup call to rise for a final dip in the temptingly clear Andaman Sea. But this was no time for inner tube swim marathons to offshore islands or for meandering strolls into unknown territory. Adventures like that were strictly reserved for the morning hours; the late afternoon brought a sense of urgency to everyone 's activities. For the fishermen preparing for the nighttime catch, there were nets and boats to be mended, and the villagers hurried to collect all the fish drying on enormous blue tarps and to perhaps catch a crab or two before daylight gave way to a night of star-speckled charcoal. The rest of us, both tourists and locals, young and old, would suddenly emerge near the water 's edge at 5:30, like mosquitoes creeping out from their hiding places to celebrate the coming of dusk. Like a spectacular light show, the sky featured a different exhibit every
night as the chariot of fire departed Burma on its way to bid good night to India across the sea.
Whether displaying shades of rainbow sherbet or chili pepper reds, the ball of flames drowning in that quicksand horizon was always a showstopper. The last majestic sliver making its curtain call glowed just like a giant golden crown. This spectacle left one feeling too overwhelmed by its awesome beauty to even form coherent thoughts, and yet simultaneously, one felt washed with insatiety as the 24 hour countdown to the next marvel began. Smiling and stunned faces could not resist throwing a few more westward peeks over their shoulders as they scattered from the beach.
From the hotel and restaurant workers to the neighboring fishermen, the women drying fish on the sand, and the children playing in the waves, the people were so gracious, so brotherly, so full of joy and life, so curious, and so kind that it was impossible to refrain from grinning. I would highly recommend the Royal Beach Motel to anyone visiting Ngapali Beach; the staff is amazing, and it is the best location on the whole beach (the last one on the strip, so
Waiting on sundown
The Burmese generally squat while waiting for anything; they say it prevents varicose veins
it is right next to the fishing village and it is free of rocks, unlike the other locales farther north).
Though one wishes to stay forever in places such as these, the 30 day visas don't allow you to linger too long without missing out on other destinations. We set off next to the newly opened "domestic resort town" of Kanthaya Beach....this, of course, begged the question, "What exactly qualifies as a resort in Myanmar?" The answer that reality presented was, to say the least, quite unexpected.
Arriving 3 hours later than expected down a “road” that was generally no more than a 3 meter wide dirt path … made all the more uncomfortable by the rains, which allowed the weaknesses in that track to form into numerous potholes .... I felt like I had just entered an episode of the Twilight Zone. It was dark, damp and the town seemed to consist of only a 100 meter strip of simple bamboo homes on both sides of the “main” thoroughfare. But we had been assured that there was a hotel here so we trudged through mud puddles until we came to the end of that strip. There was
a small shop on the left, infinite blackness ahead, and a sturdy concrete sign announcing Kan Tha Yar Beach Hotel and Resort off to the right … with an equally pitch black vista. Hmmm.
Luckily, as we surveyed the seemingly bleak outlook, the lady at that shop approached us, saying, "Wait, my friend will go with you." Without his torch we surely would not have averted disaster on the now slick wooden bridge, which one has to carefully navigate so as not to fall through the many perilous broken planks. The “superintendent” (i.e. villager making some extra cash) busted one of the rooms open for us. It was huge with 3 beds, a desk, dressers, etc., but seemed to have been vacant for years, as if we'd landed in a ghost town. The lack of electricity or running water seemed to confirm this. Bats occasionally fluttered among the high ceilings up into a loft, but, with absolutely no other choice, we had to learn to love it. Adding to the eeriness was the distant glow of candles in a number of shrines along the walkway. Instead of the traditional Buddhist shrines which had now become quite common to see,
Fun village kids
We watched the sunset together in Ngapali
the first shrine had three statues of men with porcelain faces and horns on their heads, looking menacingly like some strange voodoo dolls in the flickering candlelight and damp air.
I woke to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, which was just 20 m or so from the cabin. A walk along the sand and through the “resort,” however, revealed that this was indeed akin to a ghost town. A nice monument stands in the midst of well-cared for trees, bushes, and flowers - celebrating the ‘opening’ of the beach in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Armed Forces Day. A look at the crumbling buildings stretching on for about 200 meters - some of them looking as though they had either collapsed on themselves or had begun to be dismantled by the villagers - made it hard to believe this place had been here only 10 years. It looked more like a beach resort built in the 1950s that had suffered a major hurricane in 1995 and had simply been abandoned. The rotting buildings of the restaurant/bar and the souvenir shop made one wonder what this place had looked like before and how it
had disintegrated as quickly as it did. For the beach itself and the surrounding bay were beautiful. Instead of crossing human footprints, a solitary walk on the beach tread only over claw marks from where crabs had recently scratched their way to freedom from their sandy havens.
In the late afternoon the heavens opened to blankets of fat raindrops and the winds made a game of trying to shake the coconuts off the treetops, making an introduction to Kanthayar's version of a nature extravaganza. The thunderstorm rattled the walls with its deafening roars, and the decrepit roof was really no match for the abusive rain, leaving pillows soaked and a pool of water in the middle of the floor. But, despite the fact that the porch was insufficient to shelter us from getting wet, there was really no question that we would continue to stand there and watch.
With no one else in sight, nature seemed to have whipped up this storm just to impress us, as if to challenge Ngapali's sunsets with its own unique lightshow. The storm started shortly before the night sky appeared, though with lightning flashing every 15 seconds, the sky was never dark
for too long. The distant heat lightning would illuminate the sky just enough to silhouette the palm trees black against a lambent purplish background, but nature was determined to make a lasting impression with numerous chunky bolts. A handful of them found victims, and that single electrifying connection between the heavens and the earth was so bright it seemed to have turned the clock back a few hours, a momentary flick of the master light switch. One such unlucky target as out at sea -- perhaps a fishing boat or a buoy, though from our viewpoint the bolt struck straight into the ocean, allowing the thick jagged fingers of pure radiant whiteness to sear your eyeballs and make your heart start pounding.
I always marvel at how, no matter where one is in the world or how much money is dished out at a four star resort, we still reserve the greatest awe for those natural delights which money cannot buy.
Of course, the price of paradise gets paid on both ends of the journey, and the bus ride to Yangon was agony. Okay, the placement near the front of the bus and the road conditions after a
couple of hours were a huge improvement over prior bus rides, but the STINK was nearly unbearable…it seemed that someone had shattered a whole bottle of fish sauce in the bus. Anyone familiar with this substance knows that it does not
actually smell like fish -- having my head stuck in a whole barrel of the catch of the day would really be preferable. Unable to drift asleep under the stench, I had a lot of time to consider what fish sauce actually smells like. I couldn't decide which of these came closest, so here are my three best approximations:
A) Like 20 pounds of raw chicken left out in the midday sun of the Sahara Desert,
B) Like the toxic emissions of mass pig farms in Iowa, or
C) Like sitting in a sauna for 6 hours with 10 people who had all peed their pants and were still wearing their urine-soaked clothes.
Any way you look at it, the gag effect came more than once. The cigarette smoking on board was actually a welcome
gesture to momentarily mask the fish sauce fiasco.
As I hurried to break off from the pack for our last checkpoint
break on the road to Rangoon, I realized how ingenious longgyi are. Long skirts, worn by both men and women, are perfect for the Burmese bus experience, since they enable one to pee discreetly even in these communal pit stops. I, on the other hand, was in a half trot to make up for my extra hundred meters' distance, skirting around puddles and suspicious wet tracks in the road and nearly getting nailed with a hunk of red betel nut spit from one of the window seat chewers.
The long breath of fresh air had done me some good, however, and I plopped back into the stinky seats seeing things a bit more clearly.... In these parts, sometimes clam shells come in the form of ghost towns, torturous bus rides, and smelly fish sauce, but the crown jewel of Burma lives all the more gloriously in my memory for enduring them.
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