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Tuesday, November 25, 2014         

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Myanmar: The last frontier of surfing

By Craig Gima

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NGAPALI BEACH, Myanmar » Taung Nyo, 27, has lived by the beach all his life but only saw surfing for the first time in his life in September, during a late season swell. The hotel clerk had arranged a van for an American surfer living in Thailand and went along to Gauk village, a short drive from Ngapali Beach on Myanmar's southwestern coast.

The surfer went out early, about 5:30 a.m., Nyo recalls. The surf was overhead, and the man and his friends surfed for about an hour before returning.

"He was good," Nyo said, making a swimming motion as he demonstrated how the surfer paddled out. He then assumed a surfing stance with one arm pulled back and the other stretched forward to show what the surfer looked like.

Would he ever try surfing?

"No," Nyo said, smiling and shaking his head.

Welcome to Myanmar, a country with miles of uncrowded white sand beaches and surf breaks with no names because few have ridden them.

The country opened up to the West only recently after decades of military rule and economic sanctions that frowned on tourist dollars supporting the repressive government.

The 1,200 miles of coast runs along the Bay of Bengal and the Adaman Sea on the Indian Ocean.

The same swells, generated by storms near Antarctica, that bring waves to Indonesia bring surf to Myanmar.

But the breaks here are mostly unknown.

"It could be the last frontier of surfing," said Ricky Santillan, 47, a surfer from the Philippines who now works in Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar.

At the main beach tourist area of Ngapali Beach on the Bay of Bengal, waves of 1 to 2 feet, with 3-foot sets, broke in chest-deep water on a shore with a hard, sandy bottom, the waves similar to Bellows or other Windward Oahu beaches on a good day.

The waves are easy to body-surf without fins and are surfable with a board, although as a shorebreak the rides are pretty short.

At the Bayview Resort, where Nyo works, there are no surfboards, only a couple of rarely used stand-up paddleboards, a windsurfing board that's stored away in a closet because there's little demand for it, and a couple of broken styrofoam bodyboards.

"This is it," said Patrick Peukert, resident manager of the hotel. "This is the extent of surfing in Ngapali. All of the other hotels don't have any watersports equipment."

Once a pariah state when it imprisoned Nobel laurate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has tentatively moved toward democracy with a new constitution and the release of most, but not all, political prisoners.

Tourism is booming, but the boom is tempered by a lack of hotel rooms and trained workers.

The beaches here are not crowded, even at the peak of the tourist season.

Many of the tourists at Ngapali Beach are from cold-weather countries in Europe where there is little to no surfing. Big waves are rare in the peak tourist season from October to April, and the best waves come during the summer rainy season when few people visit.

Most of the tourists here are older and not interested in watersports, Peukert said.

"Most of the people here just want to relax," he said, and the local residents are too busy fishing, farming and struggling to survive to think about surfing.

Still, Peukert said, "we're always thinking about how to promote the rainy season."

Randy Rarick, 64, a resident of Oahu's North Shore and a surf contest promoter, is one of the few people to surf Myanmar. His 2000 visit was documented in an article in Surfer's Journal written by fellow Hawaii surf adventurer Tor Johnson, with photographer John Callahan.

At the time of their trip, access to the parts of the country where there is surf was tightly controlled by the former military government.

They had to pass through military checkpoints and curry favor with local officials.

"It was a huge ordeal to get where we were going," he said. They'd picked an island miles north of Ngapali Beach, exposed to ocean swells, in hopes of finding a reef surf break. They traveled for hours by road and fishing boat to get there.

Rarick said other people had surfed in Myanmar before them, but no one had surfed the breaks they found.

"They (the villagers) had seen windsurfers, but they hadn't actually seen surfers," Rarick said.

They stayed a week in a fishing village, hiring boats to check out different breaks along the coast.

"It was a really good experience, and we actually had some pretty good waves," Rarick said. "But it's not what I would consider a surf destination."

Despite the lack of surfing in Myanmar, surfing apparel company Quiksilver, in partnership with a local company, opened two stores in Yangon last fall.

Posters of Kelly Slater and other top surfers line the walls, but the store clerks don't know who they are.

"We don't have any surfing areas. It's not very famous in my country. But who knows, maybe one day it might be," said Wai Yang, the 24-year-old marketing and sales manager for the Quiksilver stores in Myanmar, which also carry the Roxy and DC brands.

"The clothes are more comfortable," he said, wearing a Quiksilver T-shirt and jeans for our interview. He hopes the brand takes off and that T-shirts and shorts will replace the traditional "longyi" for Myanmar people.

"We're trying to change the culture a little bit," he said.

Inside the store, Quiksilver shirts sell for $51, boardshorts for $61, and Roxy cutoff jeans shorts cost $69, a fortune in a country where the per capita income is $1,700 a year.

Still, the store is doing about $10,000 a month, a little more than six months after opening. The customers are a mix of wealthy Myanmar residents and foreigners, Yang said.

"Quiksilver is really famous in Australia. Everyone is wearing Quiksilver shirts and shorts," he said. "I want it to be that way in Myanmar."

Australia has a surfing culture, and Yang knows it will be a challenge to promote a surfing lifestyle brand in a country without surfing.

The DC line sells well because of the action sports, he said. Skateboarding is popular among some of the urban youths, and Yang is a former in-line skating instructor, which is what led him to dressing in T-shirts and shorts rather than in a longyi.

They promote the products in fashion magazines and offer discount sale prices. Eventually, Yang hopes to put together a Quiksilver/DC/Roxy action sports team with local skateboarders and other sports enthusiasts.

"Our country needs some change. I want this to happen," he said.

At a bar popular with expats in Yangon, Santillan said he is bringing his board back to Myanmar on his next trip home.

Santillan said he's planning to scout the coast and offshore islands for surf breaks and watch the Antarctic storms for swells.

"Surfing here is the great unknown," Santillan said in an email interview after the chance meeting at the bar. "And that is awesome."

Santillan said he'd love to teach the locals how to surf "to be able to share the stoke and help in allowing people to get a better appreciation of the sea."

Myanmar's coast faces Sri Lanka, which has surf, so the swells must come here, too, he said.

"Hey, what surfer does not want to surf a clear lineup? You have all that ocean and hardly any surfers in-country. I would call that paradise."

Surfing Myanmar, he said, "is surfing at the end of the world, man."

GETTING THERE

A recent search of airfares shows flights connecting to Yangon from Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. Flights start at about $1,000. U.S. airlines do not yet fly to Myanmar, but their partner airlines do. Discount airline Air Asia flies to Yangon from Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport.

A good travel agent, familiar with travel to Southeast Asia, should be able to arrange your trip.

I set up my trip online through Kayak.com, varayama.com and airasia.com, and booked my hotels through Agoda.com, but hotels and airfare are also available through other online travel sites.

A visa is required for U.S. citizens traveling to Myanmar and should be arranged through the Myanmar Embassy in Washington, D.C., before you travel. It's also possible to get a visa in Bangkok and other Southeast Asian cities.

Most domestic airline tickets in Myanmar are purchased through local travel agents rather than online. Travel agencies can purchase tickets for you via email, but in my experience, many of them are so busy, they don't always respond immediately.

Once in Yangon, you can buy a domestic airline ticket at the Yangon airport to Thanwe, the airport that serves Ngapali Beach, during business hours. Travel agencies in Yangon also sell domestic tickets and are located throughout the city.

It's also best to bring new U.S. $100 bills to Myanmar. Money exchanges don't accept worn, crinkled or marked bills. There are ATMs in Yangon, but there are no ATMs in Ngapali Beach or other rural areas. A recent exchange rate was about 97 cents for 1,000 kyat.

 






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