I’M NOT MUCH INTO beach holidays. The long hours stretching out before me filled with skin-cancer sunshine, burning sand, maybe weird stuff floating around in the sea. Yet on my fourth and final day on this somewhat remote strand where there isn’t much to do, I could easily stay longer. There’s a captivating charm, a unique beach bliss to this calm cove dotted with villages where lifestyles remain unchanged beneath a backdrop of wild jungly foliage and forested hills.
Reportedly named by homesick Italian sailors who found it reminded them of Naples, Ngapali is a coconut-palm-lined stretch of powdery white sand along Burma’s jade-blue Bay of Bengal in Rakhine State. While other parts of the country bustle and boom,here it remains quiet, unspoiled and unoverwhelmed by tourists, making for an unforgettably relaxing, unwinding retreat – especially when experienced in stylish comfort.
About six miles from Thandwe Airport, itself only an hour’s flight from Yangon, beachfront Ngapali Bay Villas & Spa has just 28 expansive thatched-roofed villas and four suites, some with private plunge pools, and all designed to encompass the natural surroundings.
I wake up with a large sea-facing window that casts light into a contemporary, uncluttered interior with a high, sloping wood-beamed ceiling, summer-white walls, handwoven curtains, teak floors and panels. There are earthy coloured fabrics for the curtains, sofa and chairs. The cushy, four-poster king-sized bed with oversized pillows, pristine white cotton sheets, bright reading lamps and a gauzy mosquito net (though those buzzing pests were never a problem during my stay) ensured me a good night’s sleep.
The oversized bathroom features a deep porcelain bathtub and roomy rain shower. There are also modern conveniences like a flat-screen TV and free Wi-Fi that, despite the remote situation, worked pretty consistently – which has its downside if you want to use the location as an excuse to be unplugged and unreachable. There’s also 24-hour room service. Throughout the resort, impressive works of art are displayed, including bronzes from Mandalay, hundreds of piecesof pottery that were fired in Yangon and more than 100 oil paintings exclusively commissioned by the late Khin Maung Yin, one of the first-generation leaders of Burma’s modern-art movement.
If you’re not in a seagoing mood, laze around the foliage-shaded swimming pool – and be sure to try one of the Frangipani Spa’s packages of facials, massages,scrubs and wraps in the lovely, tranquil rooms. I choose the Myanmar Traditional Massage, just over an hour of body-relaxing rhythmic stretches that targets areas of tension. Also consider one of the Heaven and Earth packages that provide head-to-toe pampering over two to five days.
Slow cinematic sunsets over the west-facing resort provide a natural show as evening falls, often succeeded when the sky darkens by a long row of lights out at sea. These are fishing boats from a nearby village. The boats work in pairs with nets between them. During the long night, the boats gradually move closer togetherto capture the fish, returning to dry land before dawn.
It’s about a 45-minute stroll along the beach to reach the large fishing village. The smell of drying fish hits you before you reach it. On huge blue plastic mats, one after the other, local women crouch and sort thousands of silvery anchovies and sardines as the boats return laden with shrimp, lobster and squid. You can wander into the village of stilted thatched-roof houses; the people are friendly, the wandering dogs don’t bite and, if it’s morning, you might see children in spotless green and white uniforms walking to school, the boys with backpacks and girls with, perhaps, flowers in their hair.
Some of the fish catch makes its way into the resort’s meals. There’s one restaurant cooking up amazing local Rakhine and European dishes – sometimes with a fusion of both – enjoyed on a large outdoor veranda just a few feet from the ocean’s unfurling waves. For lunch, try the chicken lollipops, round pieces of grilled meat on a stick coated in sesame and peanut sauces, and then one of the fantastic salads, such as butter-poached lobster tail with apples, toasted walnuts, celery cress and roasted garlic.
Dinners are enjoyed among basketed lamps hanging from coconut trees, teak tables glowing in candlelight, the sounds of a solo guitarist, and a sky scattered with stars. Highlights include a richly flavourful Rakhine seafood soup with the catch of the day; 24-hour cooked pork belly in sweet soy and ginger; barbecued or steamed rock lobster; and Australian steak with caramelised ginger, garlic and chilli.
During the day, women walk along the beach with baskets of fresh fruit gracefully balanced on their heads, their faces covered in circles of a yellowish-white paste called thanakha, a traditional makeup using an extract from the panaka tree that is ground in water to make a paste used to protect the skin from strong sunshine. Explore the area on foot or by bicycle, taking in small handicraft shops, ox-drawn carts ambling by and colourful Rakhine villages. Ethnic Rakhine, whose historical roots are linked to northern India, comprise the majority of the population here. Also enjoy a meal at one of a cluster of local restaurants on the beach about a 15-minute walk from the resort. Feast on daily catches of grilled barracuda, red snapper and tuna enjoyed with an ice-cold local beer.
And don’t miss the 45-minute boat trip to a secluded beach with a private cook and butler – the resort can arrange this. After snorkelling in clear, fish-filled water, enjoy a barbecue lunch and then visit Maung Shwe Lay, a fishing village with a lagoon bay beach, where there are bungalows for showers, a massage, even an afternoon snooze. The resort can also arrange jungle elephant trekking, a visit to Thandwe market, fishing trips, scuba diving and boat tours around the curving coast.
The resort is closed from mid-May to October 1, the monsoon season when heavy rainstorms make it dangerous to fly. Ngapali’s future remains to be seen. Wellintentioned plans are being put in place to ensure no buildings higher than two storeys are constructed; while a second road is projected further from the cove to reduce the noise from transport trucks and other commercial vehicles. Speedboats and jet skis are banned. But greed is a hard habit to kick, and what’s idyllic to some is a potential cash-in opportunity for others. For now, however, Ngapali is a piece of paradise in a country slowly emerging from isolation and poverty.
One hopes it will be realised that preservation of the area’s crafts, customs and natural beauty yields a far more valuable resource than anything that can be built.Filling my days with reading, relaxing, exploring and splashing about in a sea that provides seafood so fresh it’s still flapping in the chef’s hand, I know that this idyllic cove is just what some holidays should be about.