Warm air blows your hair from left to right. The violent sounds of a crashing surf synchronize perfectly with your visuals straight ahead. Behind you, a sprawling development of villas and a beach-side bar with but a speckling of customers. A diminutive, older security guard chats with a coconut seller whose ramshackle stand is within the confines.
What makes this Chaung Tha, and not Miami, Cancun or Bora Bora, is what makes any certain place special, the unique idiosyncrasies. Is a beach community or experience only to be determined by sand quality or water clarity? If so, Chaung Tha fails. But you are here to understand a place which has been quite popular with the citizens of Myanmar, and that colour is much more interesting than the sand colour.
Or, said differently, Chaung Tha is not Miami, Cancun or Bora Bora. With the time remaining in Myanmar, it was deemed to be a folly to attempt to get to Ngapali Beach, a wide, white sand beach that follows more closely with what most look for in a beach. Of the more convenient choices, you had to decide between Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung.
You read that Chaung Tha was a muddy, dirty, busy beach for locals. Ngwe Saung was clean, more natural, more exclusive, better cared for, and much more accustomed to foreigners. Both easily accessible by the five (or so) hour bus ride from Yangon, with the former having more infrastructure (given its history as the local’s beach town) and the latter having more serenity.
If you wanted to hang out in a place with nice pizza and hamburgers, you wouldn’t be looking in Myanmar. But to understand Myanmar better, you’d gladly accept a chance to stay in the beach town that the locals flock to, especially on the weekends. And since Chaung Tha beach is billed as muddy or dirty or whatever else, it ensures that most travelers are either going to skip it altogether, favouring the more fawned upon Ngwe Saung, or that they will spend no more than a single night here.
The sand facing the Bay of Bengal is not muddy, per se. Due to the gentle slope, and the tides, it seems that the sand never completely dries out, leading to the rash observations sprinkled around the internet describing it to be muddy. Chaung Tha’s dark sand is typically moist, heavy and firm. If you are looking for pillowy, white sand that will sandblast you in a gentle breeze, this is the wrong place. What sand is better? It depends on the need.
From where you are positioned, the beach runs far to the northeast and ends with some rocks, a bridge and a half-completed hotel development project which looks to have run out of funds some while ago. Looking to the southwest, you see a pagoda perched amongst some large rocks with a steady crowd nearby. The beach continues on well past that.
Beach peddlers walk along the beach, with baskets balanced atop their heads or across their shoulders—two pails dangling on either side from a single board. Many are selling seafood, grilled elsewhere and carried throughout the day in the warm sun, seemingly a recipe for an angry stomach unless purchased early in the morning (or luck out with a fresh batch).
The surf tends to crash across a relatively wide range, some waves smashing down a distance out, and others choosing to crash closer to shore. The water is warm and turbid, assuredly from the sand and sediment from the nearby river. It makes for a completely nice swim, even if it is not your stereotypical resort beach.
Walking along the beach, you come across numerous soccer matches with varying degrees of skill. A horse, painted up as a zebra, gallops behind you. Children wander with buckets of crabs. Two lovers peddle a tandem bike along the flat sand.
Every so often, you are asked to be part of a photograph with the locals: sometimes it is a gaggle of high school girls, giggling with glee; sometimes a middle-aged man who looks intently at the camera with a very serious expression; sometimes a mixed group who find your presence there so amusing. If you could see social media there, it would be quite interesting. The best part of this is that you can easily infer that you are in a very local place. In fact, it is rare to see outsiders here.
Continuing along towards the southwestern point, you notice a few more regal looking resorts. In addition, tourist infrastructure spills closer along the beach, with seafood restaurants, convenience stores and tourist shops comprising the majority of this—nearly all of these geared towards the Myanmar visitor and not the western tourist.
Night is falling, and the flickers from fires in the distance are ever more pronounced. A 15-minute walk brings you close, where you spot a handful of locals grilling fish and other seafood, selling snacks and operating makeshift bars with plastic chairs and wooden tables set up on the sand.
“How much?” you ask, pointing at one of the rainbow-coloured fish. The skin appears crispy, indented with marks from the knife and grill.
“3,000,” she says with a large grin (~$3USD). You continue onwards, looking at a couple of her competitors’ fish.
“How much?” you ask the younger girl. She stares up at you from where she is seated and smiles. She converses with her friend.
“1,000,” she states (~$1USD).
You gesture with your hand, suggesting you would like to order one of them. You point at the one you’d like and they lift it and place it on a grate over hot coals, flipping it after some pre-ordained amount of time elapses. It is served with a small plastic bag of a green sauce.
Your first bite finds this fish to be a bit dry and lukewarm. It is evident it has been sitting for a moment or three, cooked in advance and only warmed at order. First impressions are that it is not the best of food choices, and in the back of your mind you wonder how wise it is to be eating it. However, after a couple more bites, and importantly, the addition of the green sauce, your affinity for the snack grows exponentially. The vendors watch your every bite with fascination.
The most rewarding thing about the fish on a stick is that each bite contains hunks of meat. You expected a lot of bones mixed in but the bones, even despite your lack of experience eating it, stay affixed to the main skeleton which keeps to the stick. Upon finishing it, it is a delightful snack, and an extra nice value for $1USD. You decide you will surely return in the coming nights.
From there, you head off on a walk back to your hotel, until spying a busy open-air restaurant with a special look to it. You walk up the stairs to find a no-nonsense woman who has the place totally under her control. She seats you soon after you walk your way to observe the kitchen, brings you a menu, answers questions and races off, to care for a need elsewhere. Her approach is very businesslike and efficient. Despite her lack of charm, you order a fermented tea salad, some fried shrimp and a chicken dish with sauce.
The fermented tea salad is quite nice until a bit of sand finds its way into your mouth. The crispy shrimp is cooked to absolute perfection. Myanmar’s cuisine uses a great deal of cooking oil and thus, every so often you run into masterful frying technique (not to mention that the frying is done on a charcoal-fueled open flame).
Before leaving, you head back towards the kitchen. The main woman comes racing around puzzled as to your interest therein. You let her know that it fascinates you and, despite her remaining puzzled, she lets you continue watching the workings in this lovely room. After a fair bit of equal parts observation and admiration, you slip out into the night air and head for the hotel.
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