Blissed out on silver sands: Myanmar’s Ngwe Saung beach

Published in the November edition of My Magical Myanmar

Ngwe Saung's ponies appear at sunset
Ngwe Saung’s ponies appear at sunset

For those of us who find it hard to do nothing in this “always online” world, Ngwe Saung Beach is a really good place to practise the art of just being. Its unspoiled 14 kilometre stretch of ngwe saung (silver sands) hugs the Bay of Bengal’s turquoise waters, which practically cry out for a wading. While being less of a budget destination than nearby Chaungtha Beach, it attracts fewer visitors and has more of a laid back vibe: some say it’s the most tranquil spot in Myanmar.

Ngwe Saung Beach is located 260 kilometres west of Yangon and the five hour journey into Ayeyarwady Division concludes with 88 continuous curves: getting there feels a bit like slipping down a long bit of spaghetti. Hiring a car without a driver is inadvisable, as the two-lane road is best left navigated by someone familiar with its twists and turns as well as local driving customs, the latter of which I surmised as complex, cooperative and honky. The bus is of course another option and once there, motorcycles can be hired for a full day or on a jump-on, jump-off basis. However it’s likely that the only land commutes during your stay at Ngwe Saung will involve travelling from an upscale hotel in the northern side to the south, the latter of which is simply referred to by locals as “The Village.” The string of seafood restaurants along Myoma Road serve up crab, squid, lobster and octopus and are so cheap you’ll think you’ve ordered chips. It’s also a great place to buy local handicrafts, hire snorkel gear or book a guided boat trip for sea fishing, snorkelling and island hopping. “The Village” also offers cheaper accommodation options.

Paradise found
Paradise found

Lovers’ Island is located at the far northern end of Ngwe Saung and it’s well worth making the minimal effort required to visit it – particularly as the sweeping panoramic view from the top is picture postcard perfect. At low tide the waters are ankle deep and crossing from the shore takes just a couple of minutes, whilst at high tide it’s never more than chest deep.

Atop one of the rocky outcrops sits a mermaid, while most others are covered with greenish-brown crabs scrabbling to find a nook. The surrounding waters contain enough underwater life to lose at least an hour or two snorkelling, but sadly there’s also the occasional bit of litter floating about. Should the sea fishermen at the northern point of the island arouse your curiosity as to their catch, take care while meandering over because the rocks are deceptively slippery: I wasn’t the only one to go home that day with a barnacle-inflicted injury.

Grab a rubber ring and bring out your inner child
Grab a rubber ring to bring out your inner child

Though the origins of the island’s name are uncertain, it’s certainly apt: local couples arrive in droves at sunset and many linger there past dusk. Enterprising vendors on both the island and the shore sell coconut juice and chilled bottles of Myanmar beer. Further down the beach, ponies decorated with neon tassels also appear once the sun’s rays have softened.

Ngwe Saung is by no means a place to party on into the night: there’s an acoustic band that plays every evening at the chic but cheap Royal Flower Restaurant on Myoma Road, but virtually nothing else exists by way of entertainment. However as most hotels, including those over $100 a night, lack 24 hour electricity supplies, it’s wiser to tuck in early to avoid feeling hot and groggy when the AC cuts out at around 6am. Internet connections at hotels and restaurants vary from the spotty to the non-existent: whilst this can be inconvenient, it’s also part of what makes Ngwe Saung a place of virtually uninterrupted peace.

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Northern Thai Style in Yangon

Published in The Irrawaddy on 15 September 2014

Nacha's Northern Thai set menu is its most popular
Nacha’s Northern Thai set menu is its most popular

“As the youngest of six children, the kitchen was my playground,” said the owner of Rangoon’s Nacha Thai Restaurant, Panida Ponlabute, who goes by the nickname “Air” (which incidentally means “littlest one” in Thai).

For 30 years, Air’s mother ran an ever expanding restaurant in Chiang Mai: “She’s the best cook in the province,” Air said proudly.

Air asserts that Nacha’s dishes are as authentic as any to be found in the northern provinces of Thailand because her mother trained the restaurant’s three Thai chefs (who also hail from Chiang Mai and are culinary school graduates) as well as passing on her recipes to them. Nacha has also trained up two Burmese chefs.

Many of the spices used to create the curry pastes are sourced from local markets in Chiang Mai, despite the fact that most are available in Rangoon.

“The spices I’ve bought in Yangon taste different from home. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s the soil or the climate,” Air said.

Nacha Restaurant
Nacha Restaurant

Nacha opened almost exactly three years ago and initially served up European fare in addition to Thai and Burmese classics.

However eight months later, Air decided that Nacha should change course and it began specialising in Thai food (as well as retaining some Burmese dishes) because the cost of ingredients for Western food was high and often difficult to source. Furthermore, Air said that the number of high quality European restaurants in Rangoon made competition intense – whereas Nacha remains only one of two restaurants offering northern Thai cuisine (with Sabai Sabai being the other) in the former capital. This may in part be the reason why Nacha’s northern Thai set menu is more popular than the central Thai set menu (both are priced at K29,000 and easily feed two people). For those who prefer to sample all three cuisines, it’s possible to order individual dishes from Nacha’s extensive menu, which also contains a wide variety of options for vegetarians.

For historical and geographical reasons, Burma has had a distinctive influence on northern Thai cuisine. The most notable example is the hang-le curry, which itself resembles an Indian-style curry.

Air explained that prior to British colonisation, Burma’s last royal families often fled to Chiang Mai from Mandalay Palace during political crises. Unsurprisingly, King Mindon and King Thibaw were accompanied by a sizeable entourage of servants and cooks. The creations made by the latter eventually became longstanding favourites in Chiang Mai, albeit with local variations made on the originals, such as using less oil and sweetening curries with palm sugar.

Nacha's elegant interior
Nacha’s elegant interior

Air asserts that northern Thai cuisine is healthier than central or southern Thai food because coconut milk is never used and fresh vegetables are a more plentiful component in every meal. Moreover, as many as 12 spices are included in a single curry to create a naturally full flavour. Northern Thai cuisine is spicier than that of the central provinces (where the likes of well known dishes such as pad thai originate) and milder than the south.

Whilst Air says that cooking is “in her blood,” she is also a trained beauty therapist and has 20 years’ experience in the industry. Thus she opened Nacha Spa within three months of the restaurant’s opening in 2011. The spa is just a few steps away from Nacha’s outdoor eating area and both are immaculately maintained.

“My idea was to create a perfect weekend experience,” she said.

“Sleep in late, come to Nacha for enjoy a delicious lunch and then get pampered at our spa,” she explained with a grin.

Treatments are very reasonably priced: a 60-minute foot spa costs K15,000 while a 90-minute hand and foot spa is K20,000. For those who opt to experience both Nacha’s food and Thai-styled spa treatments, it’s likely you’ll come out feeling so relaxed that Rangoon’s manic traffic during your journey home will simply blur into the background.

Nacha Thai Restaurant is located on 86/A Shin Saw Pu Street, Sanchuang Township, Rangoon and is open for lunch from 11am to 2pm, and dinner starts from 6pm until 11pm.

For bookings, including private parties in the upstairs VIP rooms, call 09450013761.

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