The plane to Ngapali Beach pretty much lands on the beach itself, so maybe think twice about going if you’re a nervous flyer. From the cabin window it looked as though we were about to land on water, then a short, dusty runway appeared from nowhere just before we hit it. Baggage claim took place in the carpark outside the tiny airport’s main entrance.
Greeting tourists as they arrive at the outdoors baggage reclaim is a giant red billboard with the following written in Burmese and English: “Drug trafficking is a serious crime and punishable by the death penalty.” So maybe think twice about going if you’re a drug trafficker.
Ngapali is booming – sort of. The road that runs parallel to the beach is being widened from a dusty track into a two lane highway as Myanmar opens up to the world and more and more tourists make the short flight from Yangon.
But, the place still feels like a lazy island paradise; there is a smattering of beachside hotels and plenty of room for everyone on the vast white strand, where Rakhine women selling pineapples and mangoes from baskets balanced on their heads stroll leisurely by.
The hotel I stayed in, the Lin Thar Oo, is a cluster of huts and outhouses built from dark, solid wood and close enough to the sea for the sound of waves breaking against rocks to permeate everything. The large restaurant deck out front gives a stunning view of a fat, orange sun extinguishing itself in the ocean at dusk.
I ordered a cocktail for about US$3 and watched a father and son on the beach tending their horses, which I assume you can pay to ride but I didn’t ask – terrifying creatures. I can report, however, that the heavenly soft white sand of Ngapali is, by some miracle, free of horse manure.
After sunset, I chain smoked some cheap Burmese cigarettes on my spacious private balcony and went to bed, for tomorrow there would be snorkelling. At 7am, I was dressed in my red swim shorts and so eager to enjoy the breakfast buffet that I didn’t apply sun block; the worst mistake I, a pasty white man, have made in a while. I had mohingya soup with a generous helping of not too appalling coffee and a fried egg placed lovingly on top of some noodles. Even though the sea was right there, I hadtotakearideonthebackofamopedtoget to the boat that would take me snorkelling. My driver shouted back intriguing titbits about the village we were passing through; he had a deep, gravelly voice acquired, I assume, by constantly breathing in the dust that billowed generously up from the road. I was the only tourist on the boat, but if I’d have had friends it would have accommodated five of them. The driver steered the propeller with his foot while his son sat in wistful silence as we floated out to sea.
We dropped anchor near a cluster of rocks just off a small island. The snorkelling wasn’t great; the water was murky and it was difficult to make out the small, brightly coloured fish circling below.
The scenery made up for it, though. We came around a large land mass and into a bay throbbing with local fishing boats. On the peak of a hill that jutted out into the sea was a giant statue of the Buddha draped in gold. I got the driver to drop me on the beach so I could trek up for a closer look. From the baking concrete platform at the base of the statue is the best view you can get in Ngapali Beach: to the right, the beach bends around the sea in a slender white crescent, half encircling the large cluster of boats in the bay; to the left, the glistening blue Bay of Bengal stretches off over the horizon and onwards to India. On the way down we passed a monk coming the other way, dressed in pristine orange robes and a pair of aviator sunglasses.
Ngapali is around 50 minutes by plane from Yangon, so it’s ideal for a quick getaway if the choking traffic and crumbling pavements of the former capital get to be too much. Bear in mind that flights to and from Thandwe Airport tend to go once a day in the early afternoon, so you need to stay at least two nights if you want to enjoy a whole day there.
Make sure to visit one of the beach shacks run by locals, where your waiter will hack the top off a coconut with a machete and serve it to you with a straw.