Our tendency on this trip has been to intricately plan border crossings, invest our energy into simply arriving legally, and then turn up in the destination town with a sigh of relief and little idea of what to do next.
Hence we found ourselves in Dawei: a town very far off Myanmar’s standard tourist route, and in an area only accessible to foreigners since 2013.
It’s not a whole lot longer since the rest of the country opened itself up to tourism, still less since the anti-government groups gave the ethical go-ahead for people to visit. It’s a complicated situation. Only last November, the first vaguely democratic elections took place, unequivocally voting in the opposition party. But tensions were still running high. A law had been passed by the outgoing military government, effectively denying Aung Sung Su Kyi the opportunity to hold office, and at the time of our visit nobody yet knew what was going to happen next.
As such, the very undemocratically elected government was still firmly in place. More pertinently, the hugely corrupt and influential army retained powerful behind-the-scenes control on all of the country’s significant enterprises, their self-serving fingers in literally every money-making pie; resulting in a poverty-stricken population with 50% living on less than a dollar a day.
For ethically-minded tourists, the trick, wherever possible, is to put money back into the pockets of the local people.
But it’s easier said than done, since the perfidious officials and their unscrupulous cronies own all the banks, thus all the ATMs; they own every large, fancy hotel; they own the jade mines, teak forests, train services, and domestic airlines. If it makes money, chances are they own it.
Still: in Dawei, it seemed, we might be relatively safe, simply because none of these existed.
The tourist trail in Myanmar has four major points: former (and still cultural) capital Yangon; day-trip base Mandalay; centre of antiquity Bagan; and natural beauty destination Inle Lake.
Dawei, down in the south, is rarely visited. This is probably because people don’t know it exists. But there’s also the practical issue that if you’ve arrived from the north and intend to remain in Myanmar, the only option once you’re done is to turn around and head up again; and nobody likes doubling back on themselves. Thankfully, since we’d arrived from Thailand, we didn’t have to. We’d come from the east, we’d be going north, and Dawei happened to be en-route.
And so we accidentally found ourselves in what turned out to be a gorgeous piece of old Burma: crumbling colonial buildings, golden stupas poking through dense palm trees, a tiny market, a few rickshaws, shy children; a straggling town spread haphazardly along a single road and off into the jungle.
On our first morning we set out to change our wodge of Thai baht into the local currency, kyat. Avoiding the banks (on moral grounds), and roadside chancers (on sensible ones), we were looking for the middle-ground: a money-changer found as a side business in a hotel or shop. They’re all over the country, appearing less official than they actually are, but offering extremely fair exchange rates, always on the look-out for crisp new dollars, and proffering enormous sheafs of their hugely devalued currency.
As two of only a handful of foreigners in town, we were followed with curiosity and bashful smiles as we attempted to locate the money changer. Directions from our hotel had involved my awkward attempt at pronouncing its name in Burmese, and instructions limited to “go the market and turn left”. We wandered around for ten minutes looking for the elusive market until realising that we in fact were already there; the place was so small, and almost entirely closed (why not? It was hot, who really needs to shop?) that what we had taken for a few shuttered stalls was in fact the town’s focal point.
The money changers, it transpired, led dual lives as travel agents, so we asked about a trip to the local beach.
This was quite literally the Lonely Planet’s only entry of note on the entire town; reference to Dawei’s existence necessitated by its (relative) proximity to the border, and very little else – not even the colonial buildings! – just a mention of a nice enough beach a 30 minute drive away. So we negotiated a price and pootled off through scenery similar to that of the previous day, but at a considerably less breakneck speed, until we turned into an incredibly nondescript section of trees and emerged, once again, at the Andaman Sea.
Here, as promised, was the beach: like something one might hope to encounter in a secret Thai cove, except with slightly grubbier sand and fewer piña coladas on tap. Apparently frequented by locals at the weekend, it was almost deserted when we arrived. Little palm-fringed, open-sided, family-run restaurants were set into the tree-lined edge, all serving the same dishes, sitting directly on the sand with chickens and puppies weaving their way in and out of the empty tables.
The Burmese are generally quite modest people which meant it wasn’t really appropriate to whip out a bikini and go diving into the sea, so we contented ourselves with rolled-up trousers and a brief paddle. Then, with little else to do and the sun blazing down, we sought refuge at one of the restaurants, traipsing up and down before selecting the one with the smiliest waitress.
Here we picked haphazardly from the menu with its limited English translations and pointed enthusiastically at the only other customers, a Burmese family drinking from coconuts, until our expansive hand gestures were understood.
Coconuts are served in just about every restaurant in south-east Asia, from street-side shack to silver-service, directly in their handy biodegradable packaging. But they’re not the little hairy brown kind found in the “exotic fruits” section of Sainsbury’s; these coconuts are smooth-skinned, pale green things the size of a large cantaloupe.
Although one major similarity is that neither one is edible without power tools or or a heavy-duty bladed implement.
Buy a coconut in Myanmar or Thailand and if it’s fresh enough, you may witness it plucked directly from the tree, or at least a heavily-populated, recently-acquired branch. The bottom and sides are hacked away with a machete so that the fruit can sit on the table, and the top expertly sliced off, sometimes leaving a coin-sized piece of thin membrane through which a straw is easily poked. After you’ve finished slurping up the coconut water, learn from our primitive mistakes and don’t throw it away! They’ll chop the whole thing in half and present you with a spoon, with which you can easily scoop out the soft, juicy flesh. It’s far more gelatinous than the hard innards of a brown coconut, smells of the tropics, and tastes of the sun.
I only wish I’d known the spoon trick at the beginning of our trip instead of learning it half-way through. When I think of all that uneaten coconut flesh we unknowingly chucked away, I weep for our discarded sunshine . . .
There has been talk for several years of developing a “Deep Sea Port” just up the coast from Maungmagan Beach, although it’s hard to imagine it’ll come to fruition any time soon. Still, just in case, if you’re considering visiting Myanmar then take a trip to Dawei while you still can, before the developers take over and it loses its charm, history, and solitude.
Back in town, our time was spent wandering the sleepy streets, drawing glances everywhere we went; Peter for his height, and me for my blonde hair. (In fact it took me ages to realise why so many girls were staring until one, a week or so into our visit, was brave enough to come up and tell me how much she liked my hair, whilst her friends nodded fervently in the background. Given that it was firmly in traveller status at the time – unwashed, greasy, split-ended and lank – I could only wonder how much they’d have appreciated it at its best. I don’t think I’m a very good example of a real-life blonde).
Our hotel, at all of six floors, was the tallest building around, and from the restaurant on the roof, it was possible to take in the entire town. From here, it seemed that the buildings had emerged from between the palm trees, keeping just below the foliage and as such concealing Dawei’s size. It wasn’t like Thai towns, those messes of concrete and unnecessarily wide roads. Instead, presumably since their access to building materials and indeed the world had been severed during the more stringent years of Myanmar’s military regime, it had become atmospherically overgrown and unkempt, which – however unintentionally – created the sensation of stepping back in time.
The British had settled in Dawei for a while, and built the classic colonial villas reminiscent of those found in northern India. But since 1948, these once-grand historical relics have been left to moulder in the jungle. No maintenance and an intensely humid climate have hastened the process, but happily the buildings haven’t been entirely abandoned. They’ve been taken over by local people, used as houses, schools, government buildings, and bases for organisations (to our amazement, down one particularly quiet road we actually stumbled across a branch of Marie Stopes International).
One afternoon we headed in the vague direction of the golden stupa we could see from the hotel, stumbling across it quicker than we expected. Here was the stupa – rather smaller than it had appeared from a distance – there the intricately carved buildings presumably housing the monks. We hovered tentatively at the entrance as two young boys, fanning the flames of a street food stall next to the gate, gestured at us to remove our shoes. We glanced at the filthy ground with some trepidation. Unlike in Laos, where footwear is also removed before entering any temple but floors regularly swept, cleanliness in Myanmar was apparently not of paramount importance.
As we dithered, walking boots half-unlaced, a small face appeared from around a pillar 30 metres into the compound. This was followed by another, and then several more. Soon we were being watched by a crowd of children, all deeply invested in the progress of our shoe removal. Eventually we gave up, whipped them off and crunched painfully over the bare ground, avoiding cigarette butts and particularly lethal rocks. Was this actually the temple we’d been attempting to reach? Did the children live there? Where were we?!
Shyness is endemic to the Burmese, manifested as anything from a curious glance to an apparently furious glare, but exquisitely easy to overcome with the utterance of one word: “Mingalabar!” This is actually an old, formal greeting, but one adopted by the British and still used all over the country to welcome foreigners. From Dawei to Yangon and everywhere else we visited, the process was identical. A careful peek from a local – a smiling “mingalabar!” from us – instantly resulting in an enormous, face-splitting grin from them, followed by “Mingalabar!” often bellowed back at us. Then, depending on the age and gender, a ripple of squeals and giggles.
Here, “mingalabar” received us a chorus of yelled greetings from the crowd of children, who quickly enveloped us on all sides, staring up at Peter with combined horror and awe. Before long, an ancient monk shuffled out from around a corner, wrapped in the traditional saffron-coloured robes, bald-headed, and almost entirely toothless. By this point the kids were leaping up and down, shouting in a mixture of Burmese and English, attempting questions which we tried to systematically answer. The monk’s English wasn’t a whole lot more advanced but we managed a conversation: where are you from? How long are you here? This is a school. Welcome, welcome.
A school??! Yes, we’d cheerfully wandered into the equivalent of a playground, idly observing the classrooms like rooms in a museum. Awkward.
Thankfully, they didn’t seem to mind at all. But a while we deemed the kids’ education well and truly interrupted and decided to let them get back to their lessons, backing slowly out of the courtyard whilst their screamed “GOODBYES!” echoed off the crumbling stone and broke up the peaceful afternoon.
If this wasn’t the temple – then where was it? We traipsed around the school’s wall until the monk reappeared and pointed us in the right direction, through the trees.
Before long we came out in front of a slightly disappointing old archway and rusty gate. Still, there was the stupa – the proper one – glinting right nearby. We’d made it. This was an oddly underwhelming entry, certainly, but perhaps they’d spent all of the money on gold foiling the temple?
Off came the shoes once more as we tiptoed through the silent courtyard. The stupa was enormous – far bigger than it had appeared from the hotel – and we could see glimpses of white marble and ornate statues – so why the uninspired entrance?
At that point we almost garotted ourselves on a line of maroon washing, flapping gently in the breeze, and realised that we’d entered through the back way, unintentionally trespassing straight through the monks’ living quarters.
I’m not sure women are even allowed to step over the threshold, so we bolted to the gate before we glimpsed a monk performing his ablutions and accidentally damned everyone for all eternity.
The temple itself was large, beautiful, and entirely empty. We wandered around for an hour or so, popping into the little museum which had some lovely pieces but virtually no English (but that’s ok because I thoroughly enjoy making up explanations and backstories for the more obscure artefacts. The only problem is later remembering what I actually read and what developed from the recesses of my twisted creativity).
And as we left, we did so through a really quite spectacular archway, flanked by two enormous roaring lions; rather more befitting of the temple’s gorgeous interior.
Note to future visitors: do try and enter the proper way. If you’re navigating a small unpaved road lined with angry dogs and confused locals, you’ve probably got it wrong.
So that was Dawei: hidden, forgotten, friendly, delightful. Yet none of this was mentioned in our guide book! As such, it’s a town so easily overlooked; but if one is willing to take a long-winded route from Thailand, an obvious stopping point, and reason enough to make the journey. It was easily my favourite place in Myanmar, one of the loveliest I’ve visited in south-east Asia, and the strongest argument thus far for the joys of travelling overland.