Myanmar - Golden Buddhas and Forbidden Islands

When we first had the idea to go to Myanmar to look for new waves, the country was known as “Burma”.

When we first had the idea to go to Myanmar to look for new waves, the country was known as “Burma”, only becoming “Myanmar” as the Generals tightened their grip on political power.

Buddhism is everywhere in Myanmar and Buddhism, specifically Theravāda Buddhism, is the State religion of Myanmar since 1961, and practiced by nearly 90% of the population.

The story of modern Myanmar, since independence from the UK in 1948, is inseparable from politics as the country has been under harsh military rule for much of the period since independence.

Tor Johnson, walking on the beach at low tide on Cheduba Island.

Unlike neighboring Thailand, with which Myanmar shares a porous border, a history of Buddhism as the state religion and a roughly equal-size population, impoverished Myanmar has taken a very different political path than its prosperous neighbor.

The long, sandy Ngapali Beach on the Bay of Bengal is regarded as one of the world's best natural beaches.

On arrival in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the deterioration and lack of investment was obvious in the mildewed, crumbling buildings and low-rise profile of the city, so different from shiny and bustling Bangkok, both cities the capitals of equal-sized countries in southeast Asia but Bangkok clearly much wealthier.

Tor Johnson and Randy Rarick, exploring the coastline on Cheduba Island.

While making our plans to access the coast in Rakhine State, we made a mandatory excursion to the famed Schwedagon Pagoda in the capital, the towering golden stupa that dominates the Yangon skyline.

Rustic Ngapli Beach has just a tiny fraction of the development of holiday beaches in nearby Thailand.

This magnificent monument is a very spiritual place, a testament to the country's devotion to the teachings of the Buddha. With the lack of high-rise buildings in central Yangon, the golden stupa continues to be seen from every angle in the city, similar to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Shwedagon Temple in Yangon is a very spiritual place, even for non-Buddhists.

Once we found out the trip to the Rakhine coast was a 16 hour marathon in a bumpy and crowded bus, we looked at all the alternatives, everything from chartering a taxi to flying. We then bought one-way tickets to Thandwe, formerly known as Arakan, once we knew the AR-72 turboprop planes were big enough to take boards.

Tor Johnson, on the boat to the waves of the small island offshore from our beach house.

Thandwe is the gateway to Ngapali (pronounced “Napoli”) Beach, a 30 kilometer stretch of white sand on the Bay of Bengal backed by coconut palms that is widely regarded as one of the world's finest natural beaches.

Randy Rarick, surfing the beachbreak in the dry season offshore northeast wind on Cheduba Island.

Ngapali has been a holiday resort since British colonial days, but has just a fraction of the development of popular holiday beaches in Thailand like Phuket or Koh Samui.

Ngapali Beach has been a beach resort since British colonial days.

In fact, rustic wooden carts drawn by sturdy oxen ply the dusty roads as locals leisurely go about their business, wearing sarongs and riding bicycles. Some of the creaking hotels that once hosted British officers and their families are still in use today, such is the lack of investment in the infrastructure of the area.
We found a place to stay in Ngapali and checked the surf, but as expected for the end of the dry season, the swell was minimal to nonexistent in this sheltered area. We hired a boat for a reconnaissance of the coastline, to look for a location open to more swell that might have a rideable wave.

Taking a cargo boat to Cheduba Island, pre-departure on the river.

After a few days of looking around in the lovely but waveless Ngapali area, it was clear we were going to have to go further offshore to get exposure to swell at this time of year, the end of the dry season and before the onset of the southwest monsoon.
Coastal Myanmar has a profoundly monsoon climate, with a long dry season of northeast winds for six months or so when there is rarely a single drop of rain anywhere. The land becomes very dry and dusty, with a shimmering haze effect at sunrise and especially at sunset, the “golden haze” that so many writers have spoken of in the dry season in colonial Burma.

Randy Rarick, surfing one of the clean beachbreaks on Cheduba Island.

As the monsoon season approaches, it gets very hot in April and May, with the first heavy rain showers and southwest winds usually arriving by mid-June and turning formerly dusty roads and dry fields into mud pits and lush expanses of newly sprouted green rice plants.
The rain continues until November, leaving the land rich with vegetation and the air thrumming with insects, ready for another six months of bone-dry conditions before the next rainy season starts.

Tor Johnson, surfing in the dry season offshore wind on Cheduba Island.

We were in Myanmar at the tail end of the dry season, very hot and dusty, waiting for the first powerful groundswells of the Indian Ocean wave season, which usually starts in mid-March and becomes more consistent into April and May.
These long-period groundswells from the high latitudes of the Indian Ocean can affect the coastline of Myanmar, it was up to us to find out exactly where and that meant moving to a location with more swell exposure than a famous holiday resort beach like Ngapali.

Tor Johnson, walking back to the beach house on Cheduba Island.

We discussed with our host family at our hotel how to get to Cheduba Island, which we had researched before the trip as the most exposed area on this entire coastline, particularly the southwest corner of the island where there was a possible right point and a small offshore island.
They had some good suggestions and although no one had ever been to Cheduba, they knew cargo boats left a nearby river port for the overnight trip down the river and out to the island. They suggested we take a taxi to this town, make arrangements for the passage with one of the boats on the side of the river, load up on local currency, the Kyat (pronounced “Chaat”) as there was no bank and certainly no ATM on the island, have some dinner in town and be on board when the boats left around 10pm for the island.

Local family in Rakhine State, Cheduba Island.

Which is exactly what we did, our host went with us and spoke in Burmese to get us spots on a cargo boat with bags of cement, timber and cooking gas cylinders and we left our stuff on the boat to do our town business and have dinner before the boat left.
After a calm and uneventful passage to the island, sleeping on the open deck, we arrived at the main town about 10am and tied up to the dock to start unloading.

Tor Johnson, surfing in the Indian Ocean.

What no one had told us over the past few days was that it was actually illegal for foreigners to visit Cheduba Island. No special permit, no bribery permission, nothing - it was simply not allowed by law.
Standing on the dusty street next to the boat, we still did not know we were there illegally and while the locals stared and there were certainly no other non-local people in sight, those circumstances are normal for this kind of place in the middle of nowhere and we were used to it.

Randy Rarick, surfing in the Indian Ocean.

What they did tell us was, when we got to the island we had to do the normal thing for foreigners in Myanmar and check in with the police, which as foreign visitors, we had to do everywhere anyway. Torsten and Randy got directions for the police station and walked off to check in and it was my job to stay with our pile of baggage and watch the stuff.
The crowd of people who had formed when the boat arrived quickly dispersed and I found some shade under a tree as it was very hot in the pre-monsoon sun. No one said anything at all to me and locals simply went about their business. As there was no interest in our pile of baggage by anyone, I started to fall asleep in the soporific heat.

Tor Johnson, rinsing off at the well after surfing in the Indian Ocean.

Torsten and Randy reappeared, with a cold Coca-Cola in hand and a person with them who they introduced as “The Major”. After being informed that it was illegal for foreigners to come to the island by the police, a man who had been in the same room, listening to the conversation but saying nothing, stepped forward and introduced himself in English.
The Major said he had served in the Myanmar Army back in the day and received his language training in the UK and in the US. Upon retirement a few years ago, he had left Yangon and returned to Cheduba, where he was born and raised, to farm his family’s land and work part-time for the local police.

Tor Johnson, walking to the boat for a trip to the island.

He must have had influence, as Randy said he waved off the other policemans’ insistence it was illegal for any foreigners to come to the island and promptly declared that he would be our sponsor and de facto “minder”, coming to visit us every few days on his bicycle and reporting on our location and activities to the police, as there were few cars on the island and only one road.
Fine with us, as long as we could stay and not have to depart on the next boat to the mainland. The Major said his cousin had a house in the very area we were interested in, the southwest corner of the island and that he would go with us on another boat and introduce us, as there was no place for foreigners to stay in that area - or on the entire island, as they had no visitors by law.

Randy Rarick, surfing the right-hander on the outer island.

It was a peculiar situation to be sure, but we were happy we could stay on the island and loaded our boards and baggage onto another boat down the street, as The Major had made the arrangements and that boat was about to depart for the southwest corner of the island with a load of building materials and used clothing from Thailand for the local market.
On the short trip, we chatted with The Major and told him our general plan. He nodded and said they had not seen another  foreigner on the island since a German backpacker had arrived three years before and promptly been returned to the mainland on the next boat. The Major knew nothing of surfing and said he had never seen any surfers on the island.

Tor Johnson, surfing the right-hander on the outer island.

We were able to offload our stuff in the village and hire a cart to wheel it to The Major’s cousin's house, who had no idea he was about to have foreign houseguests. There was no mobile telephone signal on the island, so we were going to arrive unannounced.
The cousin was somewhat surprised but, fortunately, very pleased to see us, and he and his wife explained they actually have two houses - one they use for rice farming in the wet season and one about a kilometre away, next to the beach they use for fishing in the dry season. They would move out to their wet-season house for our stay, and we could have the beachside house.

Cheduba Island is a time-warp, with few motorised vehicles and most residents using bicycles to get around.

We said that would be fine and with The Major, pushed our baggage cart down the dusty track to the beach where there was a small bamboo house in a grove of coconut palms with a well in front, for water - looks great. The cousin said his wife would come every morning and evening and make breakfast and dinner, as there was nothing in the area and certainly no restaurants or places to buy food.
Things were falling into place very nicely, for having no reservations or any other set plan before we arrived on the island. We sorted out stuff inside the house, slid the board bags under the verandah and walked down the path to the beach to check the surf.

Tor Johnson, an experienced seaman, takes the wheel on the boat to Cheduba Island.

Two to three foot waves were coming in at the point, which was actually a kind of rivermouth but there was little water at the end of the long dry season. We went over to have a better look, getting double-takes from a few locals, who no doubt were wondering what foreigners were doing in their neighborhood.
The Major rode off on his bicycle, saying he would be back in a few days and wished us good luck with the waves. We got wet and surfed the right point that evening as the locals gawked on the beach as no doubt the waves in this area had never seen any surfers before and we had a comfortable night’s sleep in the beach house, with some blankets our host had bought for us at the local market.

Randy Rarick, a dockside game of checkers with the locals while waiting for departure.

We got to know our host better in the next few days, as he and his wife came down every morning at sunrise to cook breakfast for us. There was only wood for cooking, the food was usually rice, fish and vegetables with tea to drink and they cooked enough for lunch and dinner as well, as they knew there were no restaurants or shops in the area.
We helped gather firewood for a few afternoons, learning the right size and type of wood that was good for the kitchen. As this was the end of the long dry season, there was no problem with wet wood, it was all bone dry.

Unloading at the dock after arrival on Cheduba Island.

He explained it had been his dream to open a guesthouse for foreign visitors on the island, but because of the “no foreigners” law, that had always been impossible. He did not know why this rule  had been made for the island, but it had been in place for decades, so no one questioned it or tried to have it repealed.
We surfed the small right point out front and then began to range further to the north and the south to find more exposure to swell. There were good beachbreaks in both directions within walking distance of two hours or so, as there were no vehicles in the area traveling on foot was the only option so far.

Torsten and Randy, a collection of Buddhist caves behind the beach on Cheduba Island.

Locals rode their sturdy Indian and Chinese made steel-frame bicycles at a leisurely pace, in no rush to go anywhere in the 40 degree plus heat of the end of the dry season.
We had a small pair of binoculars with us and through the lenses we could see waves breaking on the side of the small, pyramid-shaped island offshore from our beach house, waves much bigger than what we were surfing at the beachbreaks.

Tor Johnson and Randy Rarick, exploring at low tide on Cheduba Island.

We would need a boat to get out there with boards and cameras, so one morning at breakfast we asked our host how we could get a boat, by drawing a picture of one and showing him an image of the offshore island.
He said slowly in his newly acquired English “I have a boat” - which was great news. After breakfast we went down to the beach and in the area where there were ten or so wooden fishing boats, all pretty much identical, he pointed to his boat and said if we can get some diesel for the engine and find his regular boatman in the nearby village, we were welcome to use it to access the island.

Tor Johnson, surfing at the small island offshore from Cheduba Island with much better bathymetry.

After a few hours of work, we had the boatman, a bag of bananas and bottled water for food and drink and a plastic jug of diesel fuel. We waded out to the boat with boards and cameras and fired up the ancient engine, setting off for the short trip to the island. The swell breaking next to the island was twice as big as on the mainland, the bathymetry made the difference as it was apparently much deeper water than offshore from the main island.
Randy and Torsten were straight into the righthander, we were able to get in a good two hours of surfing before heading back to the mainland before dark.

Randy Rarick, surfing in the Indian Ocean offshore from Cheduba Island.

When The Major rode his bicycle over to the beach house a few days later, to check up on us for the police, we told him what we had been doing - walking around the island, relaxing at the beach house and taking the boat to the island to find new waves and he smiled and said somewhat wistfully “So many things to do on our island - maybe someday, we can have foreign visitors”.

surfEXPLORE Myanmar, Rakhine state on the Indian Ocean.

Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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