Wave Riders: A milestone in the history of Myanmar surfing

Surfers ride the waves at Ngwe Saung beach. (Csiga Balazs).

It was a typical morning at Ngwe Saung beach. Fishermen hawked sea urchins, tourists snapped selfies, and boats circled a lush outcrop near the shore, all underneath a beating sun. And then came the white board.

Grasping a red marker, Csiga Balazs, 44, a sun drenched Hungarian who has spent decades surfing the world’s beaches, wrote the names of some dozen local teenagers, four Japanese men, an American and a Briton. Then four of the teenagers grabbed surfboards and dashed into the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar’s first surfing championship had begun.

“This is just the beginning,” said Balazs, resident water sports instructor at the sprawling Ngwe Saung Yacht Club and Resort. “This program is part of the plan to rise a proper surf team, especially now that surfing is going to be an Olympic sport.”

Myanmar currently has no national surf team, but it does have the seedling of a surf culture growing about a seven-hour’s drive from Yangon in Ngwe Saung, where a consistent two-to-four-foot swell occurs throughout the monsoon season. The plan is to capitalize on these beginner-friendly waves in order to form a national team comprising local youth, many of whom have only recently learned how to swim under the tutelage of the club.

The top three surfers in the Myanmar men’s heat celebrate their achievement. (July Niko).

“I would like to represent Myanmar in surfing one day,” said Aung Zaw Lin, 14, who trains every day after school. Like the other boys, he is taught how to care for the surfboards and keep the beach clean. Their parents, who work as vendors, fishermen, laborers, and painters, shrug at the concept of surfing, while some of the boys knew it from movies. “I didn’t know what it was but it looked really cool,” said Aung Zaw Lin.

Balazs also teaches them spear fishing and water sports, and the club gives the teenagers a small monthly salary. “It’s natural they pick up surfing and love it and it keeps growing and growing,” said Balazs, who has worked at the club for two years.

Possibly the first person to surf Ngwe Saung beach was Phone Kyaw Moe Myint, 33, a two-time Southeast Asian Games sailing gold medalist and the director of the yacht club and resort. During the construction of the resort in 2012 he would “use whatever we had, like windsurfing boards” to catch waves.

He is requesting the government recognize his Surf Association of Myanmar (SAM), which he hopes will become an International Surf Association member and so compete against other countries. Tantalizingly, host of the 2019 SEA Games Philippines has proposed the inclusion of surfing as a sport, though that, as well as the debut of surfing at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, may be too soon for Myanmar.

The most ready candidates for a national team are 18-year-old twins Aung Min Naing and Aung Min Paing who the club sent to Bali in order to elevate their surfing game. Their hard work showed on competition day as both made the Myanmar men’s finals—Aung Min Paing took home the trophy. As the twins work at the resort, guests need only venture from the infinity pool down to the beachfront to get a lesson from them.

 

In the afternoon, the surfers huddled around the white board to see who had won the junior championship—Aung Zaw Lin, who was thrust upon the shoulders of his friends. Competing in the open heat was Tomy Tanaka, 44, who works for a logistics company in Yangon. A regular visitor to the beach, he said, “Beautiful water, good waves. This is better than any other beach in Myanmar for surfing.”

Tanaka, however, was not to win his heat’s trophy—a wooden carving of a surfer. That accolade went to Joshua Hughes, 30, a Yangon resident who’s originally from British surfing haven Devon. “I’m more happy the event took place and the kids got involved,” he said. Hughes gave the club a boost in July with a donation of seven surfboards, previously used as decorative pieces for downtown Yangon watering hole Bar Bondi until it closed.

Aung Zaw Lin’s friends thrust him into the air after he wins the junior final. (July Niko).
“Myanmar has a huge unexplored coastline,” he added. “There are definitely some really good surf sports that no one has ever been to.”

But for now, surfers in Myanmar have Ngwe Saung. The sport has officially arrived in the country and it is the passion of the teenagers of this sleepy fishing village who will ensure surfing is here to stay.

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