Cycling from Gwa to Ngapali

October 19, 2018

Several hours before dawn, the bus dropped Ben and I at the T-junction which serves as the centre of Gwa, a small seaside town in southern Rakhine State. With a mixture of moonlight and head torch, we found and checked into the Royal Rose Guesthouse.

We woke late in the morning, the first of our 3-day cycle from Gwa to Ngapali, to clear skies and a warm sea breeze, weather typical to the Bay of Bengal during the winter months. Heading to the water for a swim, jogging softly across the wide and empty beach. Energized by salt and sun, we started running south, towards what looked like a small pagoda at the end of a distant jetty.

A kilometre or so in, we were brought to a halt by an150ish-metre wide waterway. After a debate about whether getting to the other side was worth drowning, we went for it. Once on the other side, we raced to the pagoda. Breathless on the windswept jetty, we gazed out across miles and miles of beautiful and unspoiled coastline, palm trees over white sand and flawless, clear water.

We retrieved the bikes (Trek mountain bikes with a single pannier bag each) and checked out. At a small restaurant on the northern end of Gwa, we ate lahpet thoke salads, omelets, and rice. The road north was similar to most roads in rural Myanmar: two bumpy lanes, some degree of construction occurring somewhere, bicycles/trishaws, and a few honking cars/buses.

Cycling is an insightful and intimate way to see Myanmar. As motorways often cut right through towns and villages, from the asphalt it's easy to peer into everyday life: men chatting in tea shops, women drying food or hanging laundry, children playing games of imagination and giggling. Unlike motorcycles, push bikes allow riders to be seen before being heard, to pass slowly, exchanging smiles and waves without disturbing the setting’s peace.

20 kilometres from Gwa we turned off the main road in Zikhone village. We spent the afternoon at Arakan Nature Lodge, a wonderful eco-friendly guesthouse, tossing a Frisbee and sinking cold ones as the sun dipped into the Bay of Bengal. We stayed 8 kilometres up the road at a cheap, off-the-beach hotel in Kanthaya.

Day 2 began sometime before 7am. Heading downstairs for coffee, I noticed the hilly terrain behind the guesthouse. Over a warm 3-in-1 coffee mix, Google Maps’ satellite images confirmed the existence of a few small trails cutting through otherwise untouched greenery to the east of the guesthouse. We had a stretch, laced up our shoes, and ran in. Just east of the main road in Kanthaya, zipping through fruit plantations and dense vegetation, are numerous narrow, unmarked, and lightly trodden foot trails exceptional for a morning run through the jungle.

The first 15 kilometres were flat, curvy, easy-going cycling. We turned left here and headed for the sea. Beyond fields of palm trees was an expansive white sand beach and mesmerizing turquoise water. In what can only be described as paradisiacal, the sand was well-packed enough to ride on, with only a few scrambling crabs and squawking gulls to share the shore with.

After getting back on the main road, we turned left here to investigate yet another satellite image curiosity. 30 minutes of cycling later and we arrived at a village beside a 70ish-metre channel, which we would need find a way across. Before we could even begin troubleshooting, a kind fisherman offered us a ride.

On the other side of the channel is 3-4 kilometres of the finest riding I have ever done. A small footpath on a narrow peninsula flanked by ocean and inlet, sunlight trickles through a virgin palm tree forest and sparkles off crashing waves. A sublime discovery, we agreed.

The day’s ride ended at Kyeintali, a small and relatively quiet town. 100 metres before the town is a very decent beer station with an ample food menu. On the righthand side, after right turn at the main junction was a basic, yet very suitable, hotel to spend the night.

The third day contained significantly more cycling than the two previous days route and was mostly inland. To spice it up, we decided to turn here and take a ferry across the bay to Ngapali. The ride to the turn off was gorgeous, small villages and rice paddies sitting before green hills and golden pagodas on the horizon. We made good time to the turn off, where we stopped at a busy tea shop for lunch.

Two kilometres after the turn off, the asphalt disintegrated, our breezy morning gave way to a still and hot afternoon, and the easy cruise through paddies became an uphill climb through bushland. Time began slipping away with laborious ascents and frequent water breaks. Nonetheless, we persisted, intent on catching sunset in Ngapali or at the very least, getting off the road before dark.

At around 5pm, coated in a dark red mixture of dust and sweat, we arrived at the jetty. Among fishermen, farmers, commuters, and idlers shuffling to and fro, we managed to hire a boat for 25,000 MMK to take us across the bay. With a few not-so-cold cans of beer for the journey, we embarked for Ngapali.

The day’s light softened as the sun slid to a less intense angle in the sky, the sounds of a droning motor and waves lapping against the old wooden boat a pleasant soundtrack to our glorious finish. Our captain, a cheroot smoking skipper with exemplary contentedness, pointed beyond the bow. In the middle of the bay, men beckoned at us from a ship's railing. Ben and I shrugged as the captain made for the stationary vessel. After a few minutes of chit chat, it became clear that two seamen needed a lift to shore. While they gathered their things, we did somersaults off the deck.

As the sky turned pink we arrived in Gyeik Taw, a fishing village just south of Ngapali Beach. Though legs felt like jelly, clothes dirty, skin burnt and salty-crusted from sweat and sea, we cycled to the hotel in engulfing darkness feeling happy and strong. After a long shower, a freshly caught grilled fish and a few bottles of the coldest beer we could find, we slept, resting as peacefully and deeply as only sun-drenched and exhausted cyclists can.

Alexander Wishneff, October 2018

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