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OPINION

Sweet summer sweat?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAsia's best beaches are a long, hot, hair-pulling haul, far from prying eyes and plastic pollution. Here are a few.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Best Asian beaches, Long Ke Wan in Hong Kong is a pristine stretch of sand

Long Ke Wan, Hong Kong is up there with the best in Asia/ photo: Vijay Verghese

MY iPod refused to work no matter how much I fiddled with its new-fangled dongle, so I switched on the car radio. There was a Sunday morning sermon on. Thus it was I found myself serendipitously blessed by the ‘Spirit of the Uterus’. While unfamiliar with modern liturgy – after all it was just 24 hours since a black American choir had gloriously belted out the gospel Stand by Me at Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s occasionally British wedding – I ransacked my mind for appropriate terms of reference until a quick retranslation on the radio ended my conundrum. ‘Sorry, the Spirit of the Eucharist…’ Ah. Better but dull. Such are the joys of Hong Kong when the mercury hits 34 degrees Centigrade and the humidity climbs to 80 percent.

I was returning from a hike to secluded Long Ke Wan where just a few souls who had camped overnight trailed the edges of a superb swathe of unruffled white sand slipping discretely like a well mannered glacier into a mirror-smooth sea. It was a captivating moment not least because I now realised I had to make my way back up a vertiginous path to the MacLehose Trail without tree cover through baking thick soupy air that you could have cut with a knife – or slashed at bravely with an anchor-size Nikon D800 that increasingly felt like a one-way ticket to Davy Jones’s locker. Well, Delhi had touched 43C just the week before and my mum was still smiling with a large flower elegantly perched in hair, so…

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I finished the 20-minute walk back to the East Dam at High Island Reservoir at a gentlemanly pace, finishing in about an hour, collapsing every 50 feet to strike a deeply philosophical pose whenever anyone wandered by. ‘Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen…’ I thought, along with one beetroot-red Indian.

{Untreated waste flowing directly into the turquoise seas where toddlers and mothers shrieked with delight finally prompted a total shut down of Boracay

I was hot on the trail of Asia’s finest beaches, performing the quotidian grunt work that goes into creating the ‘romance of travel’ packed with 500 thread-count linen and gin-clear seas. This is the stuff that makes readers swoon – along with the authors, albeit at the business end of a large IV drip at the nearest ICU.

The secret of a great beach is inaccessibility and perhaps a hint of mystery that percolates best through word of mouth. There is not one stretch of great sand that I have seen over the past 40 odd years that is on a highway or bus route. Like virginity, once discovered, the magic is soon lost, forever. Take Boracay’s storied White Sand Beach, the envy of Asia. Mounting issues with refuse and untreated waste – most of it flowing directly into the turquoise seas where toddlers and bikini-clad mothers unknowingly shrieked with delight – prompted the Philippines government to finally step in and shut the whole place in April for a massive cleanup.

In Phuket after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami town planners were presented with a grand opportunity to reconstruct the place with proper roads, sewage treatment, and waste management. This would be the new Cannes, they said. They fell to it and today you’ll find the place transformed – t-shirt vendors, beach masseuses, hawkers, dodgy taxi drivers, mafia-controlled beach umbrella rentals, girlie bars, deep-voiced transvestites with pythons draped around their shoulders, and knock off DVDs with classics like my favourite ‘Shaving Private Ryan’. Clearly immigration has had an impact on southern France. I first visited Phuket in 1982 to be shown an idyllic casuarina-fringed bay. It was dreamy. ‘This is the future,’ my hosts informed me. ‘It’s called Patong.’

The island does still boast some spectacular sand, mostly along the west coast, with the best two being the virginal stretch arcing past the Andaman White Beach resort at Naithon, and the bay fronting Amanpuri and The Surin. Farther afield, Rai Le in Krabi, a former stunner in the shadow of dramatic limestone karst outcroppings is now wheezing its last gasps.

With 7,107 islands, the Philippines has a lot of white sand to choose from and the buffet-chomping flag-waving hordes have not yet arrived thanks to minimal infrastructure and tiny prop planes that are tossed about in tropical gusts. You may need to be weighed along with your bags. While El Nido in Palawan offers jaw-dropping azure seas (if coarse sand), some great creamy bays are to be found in Panglao Island, Bohol, and on the more remote Siargao that attracts bronzed surfers and drone aficionados. But if you crave something completely different, try the pink sand (pulverised red coral) beaches at Santa Cruz, Zamboanga, in the far south where separatist insurgencies add to the colour.

A pink blush is on offer too in Komodo, Indonesia (along with its lumbering monitor lizards) while Bali serves up glistening black sand beaches, the photogenic Nusa Penida (an outlying island) and the Gili trio. From Vietnam’s arrow-straight My Khe (China Beach) running along Danang (and Phu Quoc in the south) to Sanya’s Haitang Bay, Malaysia's Sipadan (occasionally visited by the gun-toting Abu Sayyaf who like to take visitors on gloriously spontaneous visa-free tours around the region), heavenly Havelock Beach in the Indian Andaman Islands, and the emerald specks of the Maldives, there is a plenty of sink-in sugar-white sand on offer depending on weather and wallet.

While hotels and governments have a huge role to play in maintaining pollution-free beaches – and this must be aggressively legislated and enforced – the main onus lies with travellers. It’s time to stop contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other plastic trash gyres, some bigger than Texas. Disobey at your peril. That big uterus in the sky is watching. And you never know when a heat crazed journalist might wallop you with a large gunmetal camera.

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