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Waves crashing against the shore, white-sands that stretch along a pristine coast, palm trees swaying in the background. The stunning beach stereotype is one essential to Southeast Asia, places of sheer paradisiacal beauty where untouched shores blend with abundant seafood and cheap booze for what many consider paradise on earth.
That dream is, of course, far from reality. In countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, cheap flights and eased visa restrictions are seeing travellers flock to its shores, and places once serene and unspoiled are now becoming thronging and over-populated. So where does one find that slice of the pure Southeast Asian coast? Of all places, Myanmar.
For a country that is forever at odds with itself, Myanmar is a place of surprisingly serene charm. Riddled with coups, corruption, democratic crackdowns, and ethnic conflict, the irony of it all is that the country hasn’t yet seen development on the scale of its neighbours.
You’ll find over 2,000 kilometres of pristine coastline—largely independent, rarely touched, and with seafood and smooth rum cocktails at every turn. Starting up near the border of India and working our way down to the tip, just miles from Phuket, we’re taking the coastal roads all along Myanmar, in search of its finest beaches.
Our journey begins high up, with an hour-and-a-half flight north from the beating-heart city of Yangon to the port town of Sittwe—just 70 kilometres to the Bangladeshi border. This is the centre of the Rakhine State, the infamous area where the Rohingya conflict still rages on, and police and military presence are everywhere you look. Despite the situation, Sittwe is mostly a quiet port city, the latter essential in our exploration of Myanmar’s many beaches.
The coast here mirrors the many boats that come and go, with black sand set along its shores and muddy waters. It might seem to be a gloomy start, but the hospitable charms of the seaside town make up for it—and just a few hours south, the coast alters dramatically.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. The story goes that an Italian sailor, pining for his home city of Naples, dubbed the pristine beach by its current moniker (pronounced “Napoli”). It’s a far cry from the chaotic, jumbled mess of southern Italy, and is quickly becoming the most popular tourist beach in Myanmar, and with good reason.
Here, turquoise waters and stunning white-sands stretch for seven curved kilometres all along its waters. And on the shore lies a tasteful balance of the homegrown and more developed, with independent boutique resorts vying for attention alongside shacks serving fresh lobster and Mandalay Rum cocktails. Ngapali is where you come to snorkel, to scuba dive, to take boats out to hidden island beaches—or just to laze away your days in that warm afternoon glow.
About 100 kilometres south, a two-hour drive brings you to Kanthaya Beach. It’s a dramatic switch from the touristy Ngapali, and a testament to the disparity within Myanmar. Driving down the coastal road, the view starts to change—houses sit more forlornly, farmlands start to surround, and the beaches turn from pale and smooth to golden and grainy.
At one point, Kanthaya was a resort town, but its sole luxury hotel was abandoned in the late 1990s. For those inclined to explore, a number of ghostly structures still stand. Accommodation here is the kind transacted in-person, food and drinks are a fraction of what you’d find elsewhere, and the days are carefree, with nothing to do but soak in that shallow, five-kilometre beachline as you catch the sun.
It takes six hours by bus from Kanthaya to what Burmese consider their ‘local beaches,’ via a circular tour the long way around the mountains. But for Yangon’s city-dwellers, it’s a five-hour straight-shot drive, which explains the sedans with urban license plates crowding the many resorts.
Chuang Thar is the busier of the two, with just two kilometres of gritty sand to hold it all in. Steps away from said resorts, beach volleyballs fly about, beers sweat on the sand, and acoustic jam-bands play along on its shore. 15 kilometres down the coast, Ngwe Saung’s eight kilometres seem almost stark and serene in comparison, with beachside massage beds and a couple of fruit stalls the only distractions from a relaxing escape away from the city’s bustle.
It’s not easy heading down to the Dawei Peninsula, as Myanmar’s roads frequently close and are often congested. Taking a bus going south from Yangon can take a full day and night (a flight by comparison, is just an hour)—but once you reach Dawei, those first few glimpses of Maungmagan Beach can almost be holy.
Once the colonial British beach of choice, it’s now the country’s second-most popular sand strip after Ngapali. Crystal-clear waters and white-sands dominate the stunning 12-kilometre stretch, but Maungmagan can also be an ideal base to explore the many surrounding alcoves, bays, and beaches. And explore you must, Dawei the closest to hidden bliss you’ll find this side of Southeast Asia.
Your best bet is to hire a motorbike for a few days and just ride—but if you’re not experienced on two-wheels, taxis and tuk-tuks are easily flagged down on most main roads. From Nabule and its serenity hidden through an age-old pagoda to Tizit’s spectacularly unspoiled curves—all the way down to Po Po Kyauk an hour south, lovingly dubbed ‘Grandfather Beach,’ where two whole kilometres of pure desert-like sands are set against navy-blue shores, with a lagoon thrown in for good measure.
Here, it’s paradise found.