The road from Bagan to Napali was rough. And foreign. The last time I’ve felt like such a vulnerable outsider on a holiday was in Liverpool, when we were lost (and looking very lost), and a group of skinheads made eye contact with us and began approaching. To our relief, they just wanted to help us find our way. But I was scared as hell as I thought they were going to beat us up.
So. Flights from Bagan to Ngapali (Thandwe airport) don’t run on a daily schedule, and we had to transit in Yangon. Lyn (our Mt Popa guide) gave us some rough directions, and we were confident that we’d find a direct bus from Yangon to Ngapali beach easily.
Boy, were we so very wrong.
In Yangon, we once again found ourselves unloaded off the bus during chilly pre-dawn hours, right into a swarm of hungry taxi drivers. The only direct bus to Ngapali from the nearby bus station departs at 2pm, and we wanted to avoid potentially wasting the entire day. Furthermore, we booked a pricey room at the beach for that day, and was pressured to arrive as early as possible in order to make the most of it.
We were passed on from one confused non-English speaking cab driver to the next before we finally got into a cab that will take us to the Hlaingthaya bus station that Lyn suggested. The sun hasn’t risen, and most of the roads were in complete darkness. A thick fog has also started to settle. (Seriously, this country has threw us more unexpected weather conditions than we can ever hoped for.) We spent the long drive digging our fingernails into the back seat as the driver speed through the darkness and made sharp turns that were only visible to us 1 second before he made the turn.
He tried to tell us a couple of times that the bus station we’re heading to didn’t have a bus to Ngapali. But we were sceptical about being scammed, and insisted that he take us there. When we arrived, he pulled into a crowded square, and random people who were walking beside the cab started sticking their heads into the car to speak to the driver in brisk Burmese while throwing us cold stares. We, on the other hand, were nervously whispering to each other: “Why so dodgy one!!!” After sitting through such a nerve-wrecking ride, we were completely despondent to find out that there really is no bus to Ngapali. Then the taxi broke down. What more could go wrong?!
There were only a handful of backpackers spotted at this bus terminal, and most of it was very rough. It’s miles away from the touristy areas, so it was quite fascinating to sit in the broken down cab while the driver tried to get us another car, and observe the hustle and bustle in a part of Yangon that most people don’t see.
During that agonising wait, we decided to take a risk and head to the airport instead. Finally, Yangon Airways comes to our expensive rescue with a USD104, 3-hour flight to Thandwe (Ngapali’s airport), and our holiday is back on track!
We were greeted with a lovely surprise at the airport. We found a staff from Diamond Ngapali Hotel already waiting to pick us up, even when we hadn’t told them about our arrival details. Hooray for luxury hospitality.
The short drive towards the hotel was very revealing of the effects of tourism on this sleepy town. As the development is still in its infancy (they’re still in the process of building tarmacked roads), it’s jarring to see huge resorts standing just across the street from village slums.
As our hotel was last in the long line of beach front resorts, it stood right next to a kampung-like area made up of raised huts and farm animals. Yup, there was a large pig lying under a tree about five steps away from the entrance of our USD106/night resort. It really sets you thinking about how many locals they’ve forcefully evicted so that they could create an experience that people like us would pay for.
There was just 1 thing that was amiss in this paradise. The entire area reeked of fish! It was a thick, stifling blanket of a stench. The local fishermen were drying their catch on the beach next to our hotel, and the smell was the result of millions of small fish strewn across large nets. I won’t sugar coat it and say that it was nice to be able to experience this aspect of the local culture. It smelled terrible.
But it was worth it because right on the same beach is this magnificent view…
You don’t find the bluest waters or the whitest sands on Ngapali beach, but its biggest draw has got to be how untouched it is. There are only a handful of tourists here (mostly retired Caucasian couples), and you can get miles and miles of empty beaches to yourself.
This place is on the cusp of being developed into a tourist spot, and I’m glad I got to witness its serene beauty before the deluge of tourists. (Such a travel snob, I know.)
Took a stroll down the beach, and marvelled at the unpolluted village life. Saw the local fishermen fussing with their smelly fish, kids running around collecting shells, a young couple watching the sunset on their motorbike, dogs frolicking on the sand, and sprinkles of tourists walking unobtrusively through all this. Wonder how much will change in 5 years.
After a tranquil stroll on the beach, Ade and I (Priya was down with a terrible case of food poisoning) cycled to Best One for dinner.
The food was impressive. Fresh, tasty, and all round satisfying. We had lobster, squid, and fried rice for only 28,000k (USD29)! And the cycle back felt great too. There’s something extremely therapeutic about cycling through enveloping darkness and silence.
Snorkelling was up first. We booked a boat which will carry us and the local guide for 4 hours to a few snorkelling sites. All for a wonderful price of 25,000k (USD 26) in all. The waters were mediocre, and so were the marine life. But it was still nice to be out in the open waters with the sun on our backs.
We enjoyed ourselves a little too much. The holiday mood was in full swing as we had the breeze in our hair, our toes in the sand, and the ocean in front of us as we lunched, causing us to gobble down more than what our stomachs were made for. The hearty meal, along with 2 cocktails, cost 25,000k (USD26).
We also indulged in free time, reading on beach chairs to while away the afternoon and evening, and admiring yet another gorgeous sunset at dusk.
As we were still stuffed to our throats with lunch, dinner was a casual affair at the Pleasant View Islet restaurant. What’s cute is that it’s perched on a small island nearby that’s only accessible on foot during low tide. It seems like the entire beach descended on this romantic location, and it was funny how out of place we looked. Every one else was 1) white 2) middle aged 3) with a romantic partner.
And that’s all for Ngapali beach! After my experience here, I’ve learnt to really appreciate the peace and quiet of non-touristy spots. I’m encouraged to believe that hard to get to places are worth the extra trouble, and I’m more encouraged than ever to avoid popular travel destinations.
Although I did feel a bit of a pinch when we had to fork out almost USD200 for the flight to and fro from Yangon to Ngapali…