Undisturbed beaches nestled against warm, turquoise Andaman Sea set a majestic scene. Combine this with genuinely friendly and kind-hearted locals smiling their way into a newfound democracy — as well as highly affordable beachfront drinks and accommodation — and you have the epitome of a dream sea, sand and surf vacation. I’m talking about the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, a pristine destination that’s somehow avoided many travelers’ radars, but should be added to your next trip itinerary.
Even the bravest travelers tend to overlook beautiful environments in the world if the geopolitical environment is the equivalent of a monsoon. For decades, this was the case for Myanmar. The country became known for workers’ rights violations and the 15-year imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi rather than its highly surfable swells and exotic Bagan temple ruins. Even the nation’s name became a controversy in 1989, when the military abandoned the title of “Burma” — a reference to the Burman ethnic spoken language — for “Myanmar,” which refers instead to the central region of the country. While it was deemed illegal to refer to the country as “Burma,” many citizens refused to abandon their heritage and fought the name change under the pretense that the government did not have the authority to perform an action of that nature.
Shwezigon pagoda near Bagan, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Stefan Munder.
Changes In Myanmar
Times are changing — albeit slowly — for the potential paradise nation. It took 11 years, but Free Burma activists were able to force western clothing manufacturers like Target, Wal-Mart and Levi to cease production in the nation – a lack of human rights regulations leading to these corporations creating factories with ghastly working conditions. After decades of military rule, the government caved to international threats of isolation and hosted elections. Former political prisoner and advocate for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi even announced her plan to run for president in the upcoming 2015 election.
As the nation’s controversial haze clears, it reveals a breath-taking landscape and potential for economic stimulation through tourism. In 2012, over 1 million international travelers flocked to the Myanmar’s beaches and forests, opening a previously locked away nation. While the country is beginning to reveal its natural beauty to curious vagabonds, some are returning the favor by introducing the concept of surfing to the nation’s waves.
Surfing. Photo courtesy of rappensuncle.
Even ten years ago, if you were to travel to Myanmar for surf tourism, you would be met with curious stares and a lack of comprehension. Surfing in Myanmar only recently began making waves across the country’s shores, and the first surf pioneers in the country were left having to explain how a board is able to propel itself across waves without a motor to crowds of confused Burmese villages. Despite an initial lack of understanding, locals eventually comprehended and became drawn into a culture on an endless expedition for the next big wave.
The nation gets consistent surf swells from both Antarctica and the Indian Ocean from mid May to late September; however, these reliable waves also bring a pretty steady supply of rain, since it happens during monsoon season. The best time to venture out is either the beginning or end of the season, where you can catch the waves without the rain.
Even with the downpours, swells are enough of a ride to draw the attention of international surf company, Quicksilver. After a rigorous site selection process, the brand recently opened a shop in May of 2013, in the capital city of Ragoon. Sales have been positive, with locals and foreigners alike flocking to embrace the surf culture, and Quicksilver already looking to expand to a second Myanmar location. In addition to building the surf culture, the shop also held a skating demo for its opening event, introducing the country to this previously unknown sport.
Surfing and surf tourism aren’t only a means of earning money. They provide a much-needed balance to the country. When you’re in the ocean riding a wave, you’re not going to be discriminated based on your past or political views. In the water where you’re from and where you’re going is irrelevant. All that matters is getting on your board and enjoying the wave. Language barriers quickly fade to grey, and are replaced with crystalline waters drawing people out to sea and back to shore in harmony.
In a nation that has so much potential to offer, surfing and tourism can be ways to showcase what the area has to offer. That’s not to say this isn’t without risks like leakage and corruption. Far too many stories exist like that of Hainan island, dubbed “The Hawaii of China,” and left as an abandoned, overdeveloped and wasted land a few short years later. Some fear the same might become the fate of Myanmar; however, if tourists are conscious of the hotels they stay at and the business they frequent, it’s possible to support the country in a sustainable way.
Contributed by guest writer Judi Zienchuk. Top surf photo credit: Surfing clears the mind. Photo courtesy of Steve Corey.