6th - 10th Feb 2012
Heho is the domestic airport about 45 mins drive north of Nyuangshwe. Despite my reservations about most airports, this little place is absolutely fine. No mucking around; one's bags are portered for you and, provided they didn't look too outrageously large or heavy, are simply checked in without even being weighed ( they are scanned ). Absolutely no hassle and quick. They even sell the quite drinkable ( German made ) Burmese wine in the departure loungette. It seems the Burmese are so far, at domestic airports anyway, blissfully unaffected by the security paranoia which afflicts most of the rest of the 'civilised' world. It will change, of course, when tourism here blossoms further. Coincidently the Captain of the ATR 72 aircraft was a friend of a Burmese ex-colleague of mine who is still flying for Vietnam Airlines, so I was invited up to the flight deck for a chat on the way to Thandwe airport which serves Ngapali. It is only a 40 minute flight south-west but we were still served sandwiches, soft drinks and coffee. Very pretty cabin attendants too. For once I arrived by air feeling relaxed and happy!
The hotel bus, as with all the other hotels here, picked us up ( having collected our luggage for us from the arrivals hall ) and took us, in my case, to the Silver Beach Hotel about 15 minutes away. I was due to spend 3 full days here with nothing to do except practice being idle. Left: Our chalet style rooms. It is a remarkably pleasant hotel, and not even expensive. Ngapali, in the province of Rakhaing ( known previously as Arakan ) on the Bay of Bengal just south of Bangladesh, is spread over two miles of beautifully clean golden sands with several low bungalow hotels, backed by palm trees.
The sea is clear blue and warm and there were enough tourists around to give the place a bit of life without being at all crowded. I think, as things are, it caters for those who enjoy a peaceful and relaxed time.
As well as the excellent hotel bars and restaurants ( although I had to explain to our barman how to make a proper gin & tonic ), there are many simple but good seafood restaurants along the road behind the beach ( right ).
Left: Pleasant and quiet restaurants also overlook the beach. Tourists come from all countries but mostly Europeans it appeared. Germany, Holland and France seem to account for the majority. I didn't see any Japanese. Maybe they don't know that the war in these parts is over. The bloodthirsty little buggers certainly didn't do themselves any favours here between 1942-45. Actually there is a story concerning them and, indirectly, myself. My father served before and during the war with an Indian cavalry ( tank ) regiment called the 19th King George V1 Own Lancers. In January 1945 a squadron of this regiment, mounted in Sherman tanks and commanded by my father, took part in the British landings on the Arakan Peninsular, just up the road. There then followed a big battle, the Battle of Kangaw, between 22nd and 26th January and involved the infamous and bloody fight for Hill 170 south of Myebon near the little hamlet of Kangaw. The Japs were eventually defeated leaving 400 dead on the hill. The 19th Lancers provided armoured support here for 1 Commando Brigade. During the course of the fighting my father was shot by a Jap sniper ( shot 'up the Irrawaddy', as my disrespectful family refer to it ). He was seriously wounded but they got him to a Field Dressing Station and he survived the night. He was then transferred to a hospital ship and taken to South Africa for treatment. During his period of recovery in the South African hospital he met a Red Cross nurse from Northumberland who, five years later became my mother. So maybe I have cause to be grateful to the Imperial Japanese Army for my existence. Others may not be so forgiving.
I thought, while I was here, I might see if I could locate Kangaw and pay the place a visit. The peninsular in question, around Myebon, is not far north of Ngapali. Stupidly, I had left all the documentation, including military maps of the battle, which I had previously collected, at home. There are some details on the internet, but no maps. I tried my best to find any very old local who might be able to assist, but failed to elicit any useful information. I expect Kangaw either no longer exists or has changed it's name. I could have spent a day or two on a boat looking for the place but thought the exercise would prove futile and anyway I doubt if any local around today would know enough detail to help. Another time maybe.
In any event I was having a gloriously idle time doing not very much apart from lounging around and paddling in the sea. There are opportunities for snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing and golf. This place is a hidden paradise but I suspect it will be ruined in the coming years, as so many lovely places are, when the mass tourist market catches on and invades. So, my advice is get here quick before the place is over-run ( by the Japs again? ) and the locals get greedy and it becomes noisy and brash.
I met a few interesting travellers who were also revelling in the laid-back atmosphere of the place. Even the Germans failed to nick all the deckchairs before breakfast.
Another Burmese observation; all the roofs of buildings are made either from red corrugated iron ( as per the newly reconstructed Royal Palace buildings in Mandalay ), or from palm leaves as in small village houses (below ). Someone is making a killing selling red corrugated iron!
Internet, if not Wi-Fi, in these parts exists in most hotels but is incredibly slow. It is probably quicker to write a letter. Just up the road from the hotel is a marvellous little internet cafe ( right ) called May-18. The internet was not any quicker, but it served snacks, beer and coffee and half of it is a wine shop. A very social place for a chat with other tourists while they wait for their e-mails eventually to download.
Left: The owner/manager is a lady called May. She speaks good English and albeit unsuccessfully, with assistance from her friends, tried to help me locate Kangaw. Another problem with internet here ( at the moment ) is that some servers, in some locations, appear to be denied access. My AOL server was one. She introduced me to a useful free 'proxy' server called Ultrasurf.us. This worked; it bypassed AOL and as she said, it is a useful tool in any place which might restrict other servers. I mention this because I think it is a useful tip.
Public transport up and down the beach road is provided by these things ( right ) called To-Tos. Basically the front half of a motorbike attached to a trailer with seats in it. Not very comfortable and you often end up hanging off the back but they are a cheap and frequent 'hop on hop off' service.
So not a lot of excitement to report from Ngapali, thankfully, and any shoe removal was purely voluntary. There was a refreshing absence of temples, stupas and Buddhas.....and I certainly wasn't looking for them.
Off back for a further night in Rangoon before flying ( per force ) to Bangkok. I must say Burma is a fascinating place for a holiday and I had a memorable time as you no doubt gather. Travelling here is getting much easier and will probably continue to do so, especially ( maybe ) after their elections in April. The people here are utterly unspoilt and absolutely charming and they genuinely enjoy looking after tourists. Long may it last, but my advice is to get here before the rush! The idiot sanctions imposed by the US ( and followed dog-like by the EU ) are not helping the Burmese people, nor greatly inconveniencing the Burmese hierarchy. Perhaps when these are lifted and normal economic service is resumed ( i.e. ATMs and free transfer of goods and money ) the Burmese will get the rewards they so richly deserve.
Onwards eastwards before turning north. My travels through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will not be so expansive because I have done to death all these places before. I aim to call on old acquaintances and , with maybe a few exceptions, avoid the tourist trail. Mingulabar.