After our two-week sightseeing tour of this fascinating land (see previous posts: Burma Background and Myanmar’s Astonishing Sights), we sought seaside relaxation.
Our beach hotel, one of many luxury resorts here, offered a spacious sea-front room, pool, outdoor dining on a terrace above the beach – all in a perfectly manicured verdant setting.
This is Myanmar for tourists. Just outside the hotel grounds is reality: rutted, dusty roads, primitive shacks, broken down temples, wild tropical vegetation. Plus, lots of motorcycles, women walking with burdens balanced on their heads, noisy kids, homeless dogs, monks draped in burgundy, nuns in pink…
While the hotel world was paradise perfect, we left the sanctuary several times to explore the real world. First, a trip by “bus,” a rickety tuck-tuck type vehicle with two parallel hard wooden benches for seats, passengers crammed together. The “bus” sped over the ruts, passengers holding on to anything for support while bouncing up and down, jolting to and fro. There were many stops, and not just for passengers to get on and off.
We stopped to pick up a few huge sacks of ice at an ice factory where a vintage machine crushed big ice blocks. The sacks were piled in the middle of the two rows of bus passengers. Then a gas station for a wee bit of petrol. And, stops for giving donations. In Myanmar, a country of devout Buddhists, it’s common to see folks along the roads with large silver colored bowls. These are for offerings for monks. Passers-by often stop and throw in some money. The bus stopped to oblige those wanting to contribute.
A woman with a bucket of live squid sat next to me. Another had a few eels on top of a pail of ice. Most had large parcels. Young men jumped on and off at random, hanging out the back of the vehicle. I was intrigued by the scene, but, BB (husband Bicycle Bob) seemed in agony and was all too happy to finally reach our destination, the inland town of Thandwe, after a 45-minute painful ride. I wanted to visit the town’s market in search of souvenir bargains. Alas, this was just a huge, chaotic, smelly market of produce, clothing, hardware. We did buy some fruit, a bathing suit for BB, some instant coffee, cookies, soft drinks and a couple of bottles of beer – all for less than $10.
There are no taxis in these parts. BB was not up for a return bus ride. We walked all over town, looking for someone we could persuade to give us a ride for cash. Finally the driver of an old and dirty station wagon agreed after his friend, who understood our request, translated.
Unfortunately the bus ride did a number on his BB’s butt. He is skinny – no padding, and ended up with rear end welts. The salty sea water only enhanced the pain. Since he is not a swimmer, he did not seem to miss forays into the water.
I did myself in with a bargain priced all-body Myanmar massage. Huts whose proprietors offer all kinds of massages for less than $10 are profuse at one end of the beach. My masseur, a slight fellow with the power of an Olympic weight lifter, pounded, stretched and jerked my body for an hour. Not pleasant, especially since I had sore ribs. On the last day of the sightseeing trip I fell, my ribs landing on my hard camera. The massage finished off the rib injury. Moving my arms was agony. I could no longer swim – my second favorite sport after skiing.
So, we walked along the beach, went to a “cooking school,” and rented bikes. BB, a bicycle aficionado, was not happy with the bikes, simple, ancient models, but there was no choice. The ride – even more ruts than on the bus ride. We pedaled to a nearby town, a wreck of a fishing village. We saw where much of the factory ice ended up. Trucks loaded down with the heavy bags pulled up to a wharf of sorts. Men loaded as many as five of the bags on their shoulders and headed down a jetty to the boats.
Along our bike route we passed areas blanketed with plastic sheets upon which fish baked in the sun. Dried fish are a staple in much of Myanmar cuisine. While we love fish — the fresh variety which was plentiful and delicious here — the stench of the dried fish was a bit much.
BB’s butt was still sore, so he passed on a snorkeling trip. I gave it a try since more leg than arm movement is involved in snorkeling. I was the only passenger in a simple motor boat driven by a man and his young son. The snorkeling was a disappointment – few fish. But, the ride was interesting, with a stop at a
miniscule island with a mini restaurant selling food and drinks at inflated prices.
The women who ply the beach selling fruit from the baskets on their heads have also learned to inflate prices. Why not? If the tourists are dumb enough to pay… But, when one wanted to charge me more than $2 for three small bananas and $3 for a mango, I refused. Bananas are like peanuts in Myanmar – profuse, and I can buy a tropical mango in France for $3 or less.
Except for the soothing sounds of the sea slapping the shore, the only beach sound is these fruits sellers advertising their wares. They saunter up and down, past all the hotel lounge chairs, calling out in sing-song tone, “Ming guh la ba (hello), pineapple, banana, coconut.” It was like a ritual chant.
On one of our walks we had seen a sign in front of a rundown restaurant advertising cooking lessons. We liked the food in Myanmar. Since I love to cook, why not sign up? The kitchen was a health inspector’s nightmare, but our two instructors, neither of whom spoke English, washed their hands frequently. They chopped, sliced and diced with professional skill. The resulting meal was excellent, especially the avocado salad (see recipe in column at right).
In addition to the beach massage “parlors,” food shacks are lined up along one part of the beach with tables in the sand. We became regulars at one run by a couple and their niece, a friendly young girl who spoke a bit of English and helped me master a few words of Myanmar. I had befriended one of the numerous homeless dogs and wanted to buy some food for it. I tried several beach eateries. All refused to sell me chicken pieces for a dog, except this one, hence we gave them our regular business.
The man was the chef. I asked to watch him prepare fish over an open fire in his tiny, rustic kitchen and picked up a few tips. For a beach finale dinner, we splurged on lobster. Perfect, and my friendly dog even appeared to bid good-bye.
Myanmar is on the move, emerging from decades of isolation and repression. Tourism is booming. Roads, including the one to the Ngapali beach resorts from the nearest airport, are being improved. Soon there will be quality bikes to rent and Cordon-Bleu type cooking schools at the beach. Throughout the country, new hotels are under construction. People are learning new skills, including English, to qualify for jobs in the tourist industry. According to an official estimate, the hotel and catering industry could create over a half million jobs in Myanmar by 2020. Lives will improve. But, hopefully the rapid rise of tourism will not destroy the allure of Myanmar, a place Rudyard Kipling found “quite unlike any place you know about.”
See below for more photos. And, for a different take on ratatouille, try Lecso, a Hungarian version mentioned in my recent blog post, Swiss Slopes Welcome Journalists. Click on photo at right for the recipe. Comments and new subscribers welcome. Add your email address at top right to receive future posts.