As the sun fades into dusk, the last stream of visitors to Lovers’ Island makes their way across the sand bar back to the beach before the rising tide severs the island to the sea. The name, Lover’s Island, seems to invoke mythology of star-crossed lovers banished from the mainland only to kindle their love among the lush foliage 500 metres from shore.
The reality, as my guide on a recent snorkeling trip said to me, is less exotic. “Lover’s Island is a name given for foreigners.”
May of the islands that dot the coast around Ngwe Saung – a five-hour bus ride from Yangon – have adopted newfangled names in the years since Myanmar began promoting tourism in the mid 1990s. Just an hour by boat from Lover’s Island, located on the southernmost tip of the tourist map, the islands formerly known as “North Island” and “South Island” have been transformed into the catchier Bird Islands, respectively. And, just as there aren’t any romancers populating Lover’s Island, Bird Island is replete with all sorts of aquatic life, none of which can fly.
But despite the tricky name, there’s plenty to love about the small outcrop located between the Ngwe Saung Yacht Club and Hotel Ace. Both the island and its surrounding beach are easily accessible by motorbike or bicycle, hire-able from hotels, resorts, and even street-side renters in Ngwe Saung Village. After a twenty-minute ride down Myo Ma Road, past resorts increasing in luxury on one side and fields of tall grass on the other, visitors will find a narrow, unmarked and unpaved dirt road. Follow the sounds of beachy pop music to the fish frying under colourful umbrellas, and you’ll know you’re close.
Unlike the other, more-highly-populated “silver” stretches (as the translation goes) of Ngwe Saung’s 15-kilometre-long beach, the one adjacent to Lover’s Island is a cornerstone haunt of local tourism. After crossing a shallow, algae-infested stream, visitors arrive to the beach where beachgoers clad in everything from speedos to burqas to longyis sit shaded by umbrellas. Young men lounging on idle four-wheelers fashion juice boxes out of coconuts while older men tend to horses decked out in traditional fabrics – waiting to play their part in “horse-back riding on the beach at sunset” fantasies.
While the names of these islands do not hold true to any historical or biological facts, Lover’s Island, the most famous in its cohort, is a quick, charming destination for Ngwe Saung visitors. During low tide, the Bay of Bengal parts to reveal an alley of sea-floor to Lover’s Island.
At the base of the island is a fiberglass mermaid posed at play with her hair. Whatever her original purpose was has been forgotten, now seemingly nothing more than the perfect selfie companion. A few metres away lies a Buddha encased in glass and a small staircase from which one can see a shaded view of the shoreline. Just behind the Buddha is another set of stairs, uneven and made of dirt, leading to a trail which wraps around the whole of the island, a maze-like forest of overgrown weeds, bush, and low-hanging trees. The trail splits like a river, depositing visitors out at different corners of the island. Intrepid hikers might try a different route, climbing the rocks that ring the island. Be warned: they are quite sharp and covered in thousands of little insects and crabs. Best to have flip-flops or waters shoes on hand.
These volcanic rocks form temporary tide pools when the waves crash in. While there are some coral reefs encircling the island just beneath the water’s surface, my guide admitted the view underneath wasn’t much to see. And besides, he added, the marine life in this region, from Ngwe Saung to the other popular and populated tourist spots like Ngapali and Chaungtha, is largely unprotected. In a few years’ time, it’s likely that overfishing and unregulated tourism will lead to the demise of the sparse but remaining natural ecosystem.
Though pleasant and scenic, Lover’s Island doesn’t share the same sordid past as say Ramree Island, which sits 110 kilometres from Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe in northern Myanmar. During World War II, the Island became a bloody battle site between the Japanese, the Allied forces, and the saltwater crocodiles lurking in the mangroves.
Nor, however, is the island a site of religious or spiritual importance. Rather Lover’s Island, with its abundant greenery and rocky coastline is relatively unremarkable except that it is an island easily accessible to all, offering if anything, a snapshot of the diversity of a laid-back beach town.
How to get there
Book a bus from Yangon to Ngwe Saung through Golden Star or Asia Dragon. Tickets cost 18,000K round for the 5-6 hour journey.
Buses either leave from Yangon’s Bogyoke Aung San Stadium at around 9 pm and arrive at 3 am or 12pm and arrive at 5pm. If you book an overnight bus, make sure you book a half night or arrange accommodations with your hotel. We stayed at Soe Ko Ko Beach House and Restaurant, right off of the main Myo Ma road. We booked two nights in a comfortable, one bedroom bungalow for US$35/person but there are plenty of hotels and resorts in the area.