MOLTEN sparks fizzle in the thick black air as the metallic clang of a hammer beating down on a machete blade shatters the night silence.
The cacophony then eases as it is replaced by the soothing heaving of bellows before the nocturnal noise and firework show erupts again.
It is a contrasting performance which blacksmith Kyaw Lin Htun embarks on most days, as he has done for the past two decades, forging out a living using basic skills which have been passed down to him through generations.
This is the way of life for most people in Zikhone, a sleepy southern Rakhine village which sits in a time capsule where tradition holds sway.
The 39-year-old’s toil perhaps best sums up the State in which he lives – the brutal and violent clashes of ethnic tensions in stark contrast to a tranquil easy-going tropical coast and warm, friendly people.
Fortunately, Zikhone falls into the latter category.
Named because of the abundance of plums that grow in the area, it also happens to be the location of one of the most beautiful beaches you will find in Myanmar, maybe anywhere in the Indian Ocean.
A jaw-dropping swathe of pale yellow sand backed by thick palm groves with a pretty river lazily flowing into the warm sea at its top end, Zikhone is reminiscent of Palolem in Goa before the hoards arrived.
Scant few have been here yet.
It’s not just the beach that is a thing of beauty here, it’s the way of life.
Wandering the tangle of dusty lanes which make up tiny Zikhone is a joy in itself.
White fluffs of Kapok, a cotton-like tree fibre, drift on the breeze. Villagers collect herbs, flowers, coconuts and wood, while crimson chillies, cashew nuts and puffer fish are left to dry in the baking sun.
Carefree children, oblivious to the daily chores carried out by their elders, wave and smile before skipping off amongst a pretty carpet of peach coloured tulips which have recently sprung up amongst the palm trees thanks to a rare April rainstorm.
Cows and buffalo languidly flick away flies as they simply seek shade under giant green banana leaves.
It’s tranquillity in a coconut shell.
While ongoing political strife, oil pipelines, Ngapali – the poster boy of Myanmar’s beach resorts and Mrauk U – ‘the new Angkor Wat’, hog the headlines further north, this peaceful region of Rakhine has gone somewhat unnoticed.
Not only does it boast a 100 kilometre long necklace of stunning beaches, it’s backed by forested mountains, some healthy wildlife populations and enticing rivers.
But like many areas in the country, southern Rakhine has suffered from poor infrastructure and very few, and poor quality, places to stay.
Things are slowly changing. Road improvements mean the journey from Yangon can now be done in a relatively smooth 6 ½ hours by car or 8 hours by bus. It’s a mere 4 hours by road from Ngapali.
And the October opening of what is being described as Myanmar’s first true Eco resort, the Arakan Nature Lodge, will surely set the benchmark for any future developments which are sure to take root along this glorious stretch of the Bay of Bengal.
Its setting among the swaying coconut palms behind Zikhone’s wonderous beach could not be more idyllic.
It is the brainchild Ueli Morgenthaler, a palliative care nurse from Switzerland, who is hoping to give something back to the country he has had a love-affair with since the 1980s.
“I have been coming back and forth to Myanmar since 1983 and have lived here several times, it is a wonderful country,” he says, with his toes buried in the sand while gazing at a fiery Bengal sunset.
“I have seen the country change a lot since I first came here. One of Myanmar’s main assets, at the moment, is nature. If you have these you can offer eco tourism then this is a way of helping to protect that.
“I’m hoping this will be Myanmar’s first truly eco lodge and help set a trend for the future.”
Ueli says the idea to develop his own eco lodge came while he was working at a spa resort in Ngapali in 2012.
“I witnessed the way hotels do things, the problems with sewage, the way they treated local staff – it shocked me really.
“I looked at lots of land all the way down the coast but when I saw Zikhone I knew this was the place where I can prove that a different type of tourism can be done.”
Much like life for the village blacksmith, it has been an arduous process from the beginning for Ueli, spending almost four years trying to navigate the maze of local bureaucracy, laws and cronyism.
“It’s been very tedious but it will be worth it once we open in October,” he adds.
The Arakan Lodge is a back to nature kind of place, boasting Swedish composting toilets where a unique combination of saw dust, rice husk and ash helps take care of any human waste and odours.
German technology makes sure the lodge will be fully solar powered and the water, although not hot, comes from one of four natural wells.
The 10 wooden bungalows are designed in the style of a traditional Rakhine home and have been carefully made from reclaimed ironwood – named because it’s so tough and does not float – from the local area.
A further 10 bamboo bungalows are being added before the Autumn opening.
It has been a painstaking process sticking to the traditional and eco philosophies Ueli set out to achieve.
“You can never say 100 per cent but we will be as eco as we can be, he says, adding: “It will be a fully-fledged eco lodge.”
“Our staff, much of the food, materials we use – it will all come from this area. We will also try to educate our guests about the area, that is important too.”
If Zikhone is a plum location then its neighbouring beach, reached by wading through a small river is an absolute peach.
Named ‘Moonrock beach’ by locals because of the stark grey lunar rockscape you pass on the way, it is backed by nothing but a series of camel-humped hills covered in vegetation and has good snorkelling offshore.
Although it’s tough to pull yourself away from this utopia there is plenty more to see along the coast.
Jumping on a motorbike I head north, stopping off for a swim at the impossibly beautiful Laung Jo beach, before reaching the small town of Kanthayar 30 minutes later.
Kanthayar is an oddity. It has somehow managed to find its way into two previous editions of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Myanmar, largely because it has a smattering of, average, accommodation.
Its beach is poor in comparison with the surrounding area and even the all-seeing Google Maps has managed to mark it in the wrong location, placing it some 15 kilometres inland instead.
Further north is the large village of Satthwa which makes for a shady stopover before you reach the nearby pretty Lun Taung bay.
Another hour north there are protected mangroves and turtle sanctuary at Kyeintali. Keep going and you eventually reach Ngapali.
Heading south from Zikhone and beyond Gwa, the main town in the region, even more exciting treasures can be found.
Gwa itself is a functioning riverside town with a beach that is nothing to write home about. But across the river, by boat for now until a bridge is built by the end of the decade, lies an endless string of delicious golden beaches all the way down to the border with Ayerwaddy state.
The picturesque Gwa river, which rises in the Arakan mountains, is an adventurers dream just waiting to be navigated.
Arakan Nature Lodge
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 0095 (0)9 4314 3271
Or: 0095 (0)9 42000 6162