DAWEI, Tanintharyi Region — For years, Dawei has been the promised land of Thai developers who have long dreamed of turning this southern Myanmar port city into a gateway to the Andaman Sea.
Located just 230 miles (370 km) west of Bangkok, it is ideally situated to become a new hub for Thailand’s industrial heartland. Ambitious plans to build a special economic zone in the area have faltered, however, as rival projects at Thilawa, near Yangon, and Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine State, have generated more interest among deep-pocketed Japanese and Chinese investors.
But none of this has deterred smaller operators from betting big on Dawei’s future.
According to Steve Bushby, a New Zealander who has lived in Dawei for more than a year, the number of hotels in the city has tripled in the past year, from just four in April 2013 to 12 now (with another three under construction).
It seems that even as the big money stays away, another avenue of opportunity has opened up—tourists, whose arrival has been facilitated by the construction of roads originally built to serve the proposed SEZ.
Long an almost-forgotten backwater because of its inaccessibility, Dawei is now a short
flight or a long bus ride away from Yangon. And it’s just a minibus ride away from the Thai border at Phu Nam Ron, in Kanchanaburi Province. Others coming from Thailand can, if they are adventurous, take a speedboat ferry that can get them there in eight hours from Kawthoung, opposite the southern Thai town of Ranong.
Those who make the trip like what they find: long, pristine beaches that rival much of what you’ll find along Thailand’s famed coastline and the better-known strands of Ayeyarwady Region.
It was not so long ago (until last August, in fact), that Dawei’s seaside charms were almost entirely unknown to foreigners. The only way foreigners could reach the city was by air, and when you got there, you had to stay within a six-mile (10-km) limit. Now, however, you can travel overland all the way from Mawlamyine to Kawthoung—something that was impossible just a year ago.
According to Mr. Bushby (whose website, southernmyanmar.com, is an invaluable resource), this once remote part of the country is already finding its way onto the region’s travel circuit. “People who do the north of Myanmar and want to finish in Bangkok or Phuket are coming here,” he says.
Dawei sits at the northern end of a 40-mile (65-km) peninsula, with the Andaman Sea coast to the west and the Dawei River to the east. Beaches line the coastal side, offering an almost unbroken stretch of white sands punctuated by the sight of golden pagodas.
One of the nicest beaches is Teyzit Beach, about 20 miles (35 km) away from Dawei. Like many others, it is at the end of a dirt track. It is several miles long, with a few moored fishing boats bobbing in a clear sea; just beyond them, you can see two small islets, each surmounted by a pagoda. The only people to be seen are a few fishermen and local children playing in the sea.
Nearer to Dawei is Nabule Beach, another sandy expanse several miles long with a temple at one end, which is easily reachable by road. But its future as a beach is uncertain, as this is the site of the proposed deep-sea port. Behind the beach there is a showroom with pictures and models of the still non-existent port with an industrial park larger than Singapore behind it.
Whatever the fate of the project, Dawei is clearly destined for greater regional prominence. If you want to experience its beaches before they succumb to investment on a massive scale or are overrun with tourists, you would be well-advised to visit sooner rather than later.
Getting There: The easiest way to reach Dawei is by air from Yangon. You can also catch a modern air-conditioned inter-city bus from Yangon to Mawlamyine and on to Dawei for around $18. (The road south of Ye about halfway between Mawlamyine and Dawei is very poor and the going is slow). You can also travel to Dawei from Thailand by crossing the Thai-Myanmar border at Phu Nam Ron (accessible by bus from Bangkok) and taking a minibus (approx. US$30). And you can catch a speedboat ferry from Kawthoung in Thailand for about $40.
Places to Stay: For budget accommodation, the Sein Shwe Mo Guesthouse ($7 for a clean single room with outside bathroom) is a good option. For $10, the Dream Emperor offers single rooms with fans and attached bathrooms.
For the best mid-range value, the Shwe Moung Hotel has clean, modern double rooms with air conditioning and attached bathrooms starting at $15.
The Zayar Thet San is the best business hotel in town, with rooms for $40-$60.
Getting to the Beaches: You can rent a motorcycle for about $8-10 per day or take a taxi (around $15 for a round trip by motorcycle or $70 by car, depending on the distance). The best way to arrange transportation is to ask one of the motorcycle taxi drivers outside the supermarket by the hotels.
For more info: The website www.southernmyanmar.com has lots of useful information for visitors.
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.