By Alexander Wishneff
Adventures to two of Myanmar’s most beautiful destinations became significantly more manageable this week with the launching of two Travel Hubs in Hpa-An and Dawei.
The Travel Hubs were created through a partnership between Go-Myanmar.com and Business Innovation Facility (BIF). They are fully equipped, locally-led information centers with staff who are trained to provide tips, recommendations, and booking information to wandering visitors.
Yadanar Thant, BIF’s tourism market manager, said the benefits of having a centralized, comprehensive center for tourist services and information will not only transform the experience of visiting these two southern towns but also make life better for those who live in them.
“Go-Myanmar.com Travel Hubs will create job opportunities by enhancing communication, expanding transportation and tourism services, and fully utilizing local, sustainable tourism practices,” she said.
Each Travel Hub is a nucleus of information, supplying details on paddy kayaking, city tours, white sand beaches, cave treks, and phone numbers of the guides who know them best.
Go-Myanmar.com founder Marcus Allender said he looks forward to seeing Travel Hubs thrive as community-led additions to the local tourism infrastructure.
“This project is about putting locals front and center, to offer and grow their services. Where Go-Myanmar.com can learn, Travel Hub will distribute, and tourists can enjoy,” he said.
Coconuts Yangon left the comforts of the big city earlier this month to meet the people who aim to make these Travel Hubs an indispensable resource.
In the town of towering limestone, the Go-Myanmar.com Travel Hub is located at the Verandah Youth Café, a relaxed coffee shop in the center of Hpa-An. In addition to local artwork, Myanmar and English language books, and a tranquil garden lounge, this brew house has the best cup of joe in Kayin State.
The Travel Hub stands in the front of the café, beside a massive wall displaying things to do in the area: Kayin-style lethwei classes, kayaking, bicycle trips, riverboat journeys, cave tours, motorcycle rentals, Ein Du basket weaving, and more.
We zeroed in on the kayaking. Rentals are located at the Kaw Ka Thaung Cave, famous for its delicious mountain-fed swimming hole and bevy of floating restaurants. The main advice for navigating Hpa-An’s paddy fields, jungles, and limestone crags by kayak – don’t forget sunscreen!
Later, we met up with geologist U Thein Win to go on a cave tour. In a retrofitted half-cab, U Thein Win ferried us through caves, jungles, and mountains. When we finally reached the foot of Mount Zwe Ka Bin, he said: “I am the luckiest man. I am 70, and still get to show visitors the most beautiful place, my home.”
Travelers with leg muscles and stamina will be encouraged to take the stairs up Mount Zwe Ka Bin. The 772-meter vertical hike offers unparalleled views as far as the eye can see.
Another trek recommended by the staff at the Travel Hub was the trail up to Taung Wine Pagoda, a smaller mountain more off the beaten track. Rather than stairs and handrails, this gnarly path veers through the jungle up to a jaw-dropping, vertigo-inducing view from a mountaintop pagoda.
For those resting their weary legs, Hpa-An’s Travel Hub staff recommend Hotel Glory. Opened just five months ago, it offers the holy trinity of accommodation: affordability, comfort, and a peerless rooftop for cracking open cold ones and watching the sun set over the Thanlyin River.
Further south, BIF and Go-Myanmar.com ve haset up a Travel Hub at the cozy Tavoy Kitchen in Dawei. Located in the old town, Tavoy is an open-air restaurant specializing in distinct local food and quality coffee.
On the desk of Tavoy’s Travel Hub is a miraculous three-ring binder. Inside is every conceivable piece of Dawei tourist information – hotels, restaurants, cooking schools, beach maps, travel times, walking trails, tour guides, rental shops, historical footnotes, and menus, along with corresponding phone numbers and hand-drawn maps.
The Hub set us up with tour guide, entrepreneur, and Dawei legend Sam the Man (as his name appears on business cards and on the side of his car). In between jokes and smiles, Sam told us how important community cooperation is for growing Dawei as a tourist destination.
“We’re not competitors, we’re on the same team. We are ready and excited to work together to grow Dawei and share our destination,” he said.
Zin Mar, owner of the famous Coconut Guesthouse, was also at the Travel Hub and eager to discuss her role in growing Dawei’s tourism industry.
“Coconut focuses on two things – providing accurate and comprehensive information to guests and avoiding complacency. We strive to engage and fully accommodate guests, while also growing and adapting.”
Also worth noting Coconut’s steamed traveler fish is the best in town.
Zin Mar’s guesthouse echoes her passions – tasteful bungalows, a fruitful garden, a refurbished restaurant, and well-trained and friendly local staff. Zin Mar even offers guests the opportunity to go offshore fishing with her husband Julian, an experienced, peace-loving French angler.
Aside from catching your meal on the open seas, there’s much to do in this enchanting, salty, palm-speckled paradise. For a swim, there are Maungmagan and Samara beaches. For those seeking adventure, the stunning Grandfather and Paradise beaches are a spectacular, jungle-ripping 90-minute motorcycle ride south from Dawei. In between lie miles of remote fishing villages, waterfalls, and pristine forest ripe for exploration.
It takes a village
Myanmar is the least widely traveled country in the ASEAN bloc. Little information is publicly available about huge swathes of the country, even less has been outfitted for foreign tourists.
Go-Myanmar.com Travel Hubs shrink information gaps and expand the reach of services, providing structure and comfort to the experience of traveling in two of Myanmar’s most beautiful regions. The Hubs represent the eagerness of communities in Hpa-An and Dawei to share their home with the world.
Sam the Man is ready. What are you waiting for?