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Fishy things

Paradise Empty

Fresh coconut juice on a quiet beach

We’re chucked from the bus (in a nice way) with young men hoisting our bags up and over to the sidewalk. We’re left on a beachfront street, empty of motorized vehicles. Empty of most everything except Mr. G, who leads us to his hotel. For about $15 a night, we get a spacious room with a front porch facing the beach, 100 meters away.

There is no one on this beach, Chaung Tha, which stretches for a mile or more until sand and trees and horizon all blend. No one, aside from a few local men who lounge beneath shade shelters made from palms, made to look like palms. Presumably, the men await work. But there is none at the moment. Innertubes and rafts sit empty in the scorching sun.

Fish grilled with turmeric, served with spicy citrus sauce

In the distance, a couple of shadowy figures walk along the water line. This is the height of the Asian beach season, and this is it. We’re told Chaung Tha is the “local beach,” that foreigners rarely come here. But locals tell us that few Burmese are coming these days, either. This country suffers a triple whammy of global economic crisis, political troubles in Thailand and, well, you know. This is Myanmar.

It’s a much more interesting beach than I anticipate. But what makes an interesting beach in my mind? Something more than villas and bungalows (though those abound). Fishermen and fishing boats. Local food and villages with sand paths, meandering for miles among modest homes.

This is a beach with a straight-shot view of the setting sun; with a town so small that rickshaws and pedestrians outnumber motorbikes by the hundreds. All the requisite trinket shops are here; T-shirts, beer and wind chimes made from shells. Everything is open, but nothing has customers.

Grilled shrimp on a stick, sold for 10 cents each

If you walk the length of Chaung Tha beach and round the peninsular thumb, you enter a village sustained by the sea. Men and women sort through the day’s catch, little silver fish that will dry into the myriad forms that create the region’s staple diet. Dried fish and seafood here are as abundant as fresh, which makes sense considering the history of this area on a longstanding trade route linking Myanmar, India and points farther west. Fresh fish wouldn’t last long so, I suspect, so much of the catch went straight to sun and salt for preservation. Even today, this wedge of country remains isolated by srubland and forest, nearly impassable roads and hours of jolting travel time.

People greet us with delight and surprise. They give us little gifts, free samples of coconut and jaggery, rice and palm sweets. We walk one night through “town,” lingering at a shop selling dried goods, mostly fish but fruits and sweets as well. A woman fills my cupped hand with a mound of crispy dried red banana. “Blessing,” she says.

I am stuffed with the blessings and presents of Myanmar people.

Lunch in the sand

5 replies on “Paradise Empty”

Wonderful post. For a moment I looked at the first picture & thought you were here, in South India. This has been my first personal view of Myanmar.

Beautiful. I can imagine the scene – both the empty beach and the blessings and gifts of local people.

The comment about no customers leaves me really feeling for those small business people. It was a similar situation when we visited Bagan last year – full restaurants open, but with maybe 1 table full. Then the cyclone hit, causing tourism to decline even further. I can only hope it will eventually increase again, but I don’t know when or how.

And our best restaurants are losing trade because the banks won’t lend any more money for buy-to-let property and the traders aren’t earning as much bonus as a few years ago, so diners are now just ordinarily wealthy rather than stinking rich.It’s a tough life here in Europe.

Thanks, Deeba. I look forward to seeing the beaches of South India….

Audrey, the entire month left us very sad, hearing time and again the money troubles people have. There is, of course, the grand argument over the appropriateness of travel to Myanmar, and many people seem to have strong views for or against. I can say that in 28 days, all but the tiniest, tiniest fraction of our money went straight into locals’ hands.

Trig, may we all be ordinarily wealthy one day.

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