We've just returned to Yangon from five nights at Ngapali beach (the 'g' is silent) on the west coast of Myanmar. It's a lovely spot that reminds me of Sri Lanka's southern beaches in the late 1980s. By that I mean, quiet and laid back, with smiling locals and endless palm trees. A few large beach front hotels and several smaller ones, split the beach into semi private bathing areas, though tourists and a few sellers - women carrying baskets of fruit or beach trinkets on their heads - wander between the non-existent lines.
Heavy, slatted, wooden beach beds are grouped in two's under coconut palm trees and bamboo umbrellas. Small, almost translucent crabs scuttle along the sand and a few wooden fishing boats are anchored awaiting tourist boat rides. A reef just brushes the surface of the turquoise blue water, and its waves slosh gently onto the shore.
At night cicadas hum their ever-present song and small greenish brown frogs croak, and jump along the wooden pathways that circle the hotel grounds. Late night wanderings also reveal hermit crabs with long black legs tucked into unicorn shells, and on the beach, the crabs enjoy alright revelling.
The biggest difference between my childhood Sri Lankan beaches and Myanmar today, is, of course, the food. I'm surprised though at the Indian influence; rice-based curries feature regularly on menus, and similarly, the emphasis is on spice over heat, though the Burmese are not adverse to palate-challenging chilli. At the beach, however, the emphasis is naturally on locally caught seafood.
We leave the hotel one evening and head out onto the road where motorbikes weave, and open, mini buses packed with passengers tear round corners, beeping madly. Numerous local restaurants quietly await hungry mouths with their catch of the day specials on blackboards - prawns, crab, lobster, clams, calamari, and fish, including grouper, snapper and barramundi, all fresh, local and about a quarter of the hotel's price. It's great to enjoy a litre bottle of ice cold Mandalay beer alongside fried rice, Burmese fish curry, grilled tiger prawns, and fried noodles all for about $8 a head, at the cheerfully-named Best Friend restaurant.
Another night, we explore the beach, where every evening, the smaller guest houses sprawl out onto the sand with tables and chairs. The good ones fill up fast. Normally, fresh lobster sells along here for about $30/kg but the influx of tourists over the Christmas-new year period has pushed the price up to $80. We settle instead for bbq crab, calamari and king prawns, veggie noodles, and more cold beer from a friendly young Burmese man at the Green Umbrella. I dig my toes into the sand and look out at the almost black ocean, white froths of spray and dark shadows of rocks it's only distinguishing features.
One of the best things for me about being at the beach is not the relaxing, the seafood, or even the swimming, its building sandcastles. It's something so absorbing, so fun and so rooted in childhood, it brings back dozens of memories of my own Christmas beach holidays. (For the northern hemisphere readers, bear with me, I know a 'summer Christmas' is an incongruous concept).
So we built some awesome structures with turrets and moats, swimming pools and channels. We even unearthed a large red crab. Then, having made our mark upon the sandy beach, we farewelled the balmy green waters and endlessly cheerful and smiling people, and left on a jet plane.
Next stop, Inle Lake in the food-loving Shan state.