Judging by the number of building projects underway in Chaung Tha, one gets the impression that the village has bold ambitions. This spot on Myanmar’s western coast has in recent years become an alternative beachside haven for Yangonites put off by the cost and inconvenience of reaching its better known rival to north, Ngapali.
But where Ngapali leads the way in excess, Chaung Tha responds in kind with its simplicity. The sweeping beach is devoid of the hundreds of parasols that blight competitors and instead offers a sea of space for youngsters to play chinlone or rent bicycles and ride the low tidemark at sunset.
The village has changed much over the past five years. The main strip was once quiet, and the small cluster of vendors selling dried fish at the southern end offers up a taste of what has taken place here for generations.
But as the scent of opportunity drifts over Myanmar in the wake of its recent political thaw, expansion appears the order of the day. Skeletal structures, like the soon-to-be new Hotel Ace which sits atop rocks at the northern tip of the beach, and on which work began three years ago, greet the visitor with increasing frequency.
They testify to this newfound expectation of demand—accompanying the throngs of local holidaymakers are a trickle of foreigners here to escape the hot cities and plains of central Myanmar, and aware that the seven-hour bus ride from Yangon is small fry in a country notorious for its pot-holed, arterial roadways.
While Chaung Tha may not be the exquisitely manicured beach that many Southeast Asian coastlines are famed for, there’s a freshness in the atmosphere, born of its recent emergence from a solitary past, that others do not have.
At the southern end, few habitations exist and the vegetation pushes further out onto the beach, meaning anyone comfortable with the lengthy trek out of civilization can find some tranquil isolation. It still retains its identity as the small fishing village it once was—women and children walk the beach carrying buckets of crabs and sticks of barbequed prawns, and residents are still brazenly curious about outsiders, smiling or staring inquisitively as they meander past.
Development is happening, however, and resorts now line the northern end of the beach. How long it will keep its quaint appeal is hard to tell—only 20 years ago, the immaculate coastlines of southern Thailand were home to little more than a smattering of bars run off generators, yet now there is a multi-million dollar industry where a generation of Thais have grown weary of the hedonistic, playground mentality exhibited by swarms of arriving tourists. Chaung Tha still has a long way to go, but the hunger for business is evidently there.
There are dangers to this here. The main village hub is at a distance from the resorts and guesthouses, meaning locals do not generally blend with the tourists. For the outsider it therefore lacks that epicenter of life, and instead visitors largely confine themselves to one of the many resorts that line the beach.
These structures, often generic, risk becoming the focus of Chaung Tha—at the northern end of the beach they sit side-by-side uninterrupted for hundreds of meters, meaning public thoroughfares linking the road to the sand are few and far between.
For those who like to spend their time moving back and forth along beaches and sampling what each establishment has to offer, Chaung Tha could frustrate, particularly given there is only one beachside bar, Shwe Hin Tha, which is surely a requisite for any coastal hangout.
“I did expect there to be more bars on the beach,” says Ebst, a middle-aged German here for a week of rest and recuperation before heading home. “It’s not what I had hoped for—there are too many resorts, and not enough places to relax except for on the beach. But it still has positives, like the food.”
As we speak he is tucking into a giant grilled snapper, served for around US $6 at the Shwe Ya Min restaurant. Attached to a guesthouse that offers basic but satisfactory rooms for as low as $8—perhaps one of the cheapest places anywhere on Myanmar’s resurgent tourist trail—Shwe Ya Min already has the coveted thumbs up from the Lonely Planet. It sits back from the beach, and offers up whopping portions of fresh seafood at bargain prices. In keeping with the rest of Chaung Tha, its staff are charming and speak broken English.
Elsewhere individual rooms can go for as much as $100. High-end resorts, like Golden Beach Hotel and the existing government-owned Hotel Ace, offer customers bungalows and swimming pools that sit just above beach level, looking out onto the sea.
They cater more for Myanmar families who descend here on public holidays—Golden Beach has multi-room suites for 150,000 kyat ($170), and largely attracts the Yangon middle classes keen to escape the city for a few days.
Chaung Tha may never become a beachside paradise that will draw flocks of international tourists. Ebst says he thinks it is designed with locals in mind, “and is unlikely to attract many Westerners” if its development model continues along the same lines.
But it does offer up a taste of Myanmar, which is what people cross the world to see—on national holidays families arrive by the coach load and revel in a lifestyle rarely seen elsewhere in a country still brittle after decades under military rule.
And for similar reasons, Chaung Tha also boasts something appealing for open-minded foreigners who leave their usual expectations behind.
This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.