Hands up who just got back from Myanmar? Bunch of you head there for CNY?
For those who have yet to visit South-East Asia’s least-developed tourist spot, or for those who’ve been, loved it, and are looking for a different way to experience it, here’s an option for the next time you get a week out of Shanghai: Take a boating trip around the Mergui Archipelago.
While Yangon, Mandalay, and the temple wonderland of Bagan continue to receive most of the tourist traffic, there are areas in the rest of Myanmar that remain almost totally untouched. Most are tough to visit, with some areas off-limits to foreigners, but there’s a region in the south of the country just across the border from Thailand that is easily accessible, and utterly pristine and untouched.
The Mergui Archipelago is a collection of 800 islands in the Andaman Sea. Most are tiny places of dense rain forest fringed with white sand beaches and coral, and all but a couple are uninhabited. The area started to open up in the late ’90s, when groups of divers began chartering yachts to take them into the region. Since then, it’s only been possible to visit if you have the cash to splash out on chartering a yacht. That’s changing now, with companies starting to offer single cabins aboard yachts that will take groups on multi-day trips around the archipelago.
Here's a selling point: You don’t need to fly into Myanmar or arrange any visas. Instead, catch a cheapo airline to Ranong, on the western side of Thailand (about an hour’s flight from Bangkok). Then take a long-tail boat from the pier straight to your yacht. The crew takes care of all the visa formalities and transfers.
The company I sorted was "Burma Boating", which hooked me up with six days aboard a 100-foot, wooden-hulled schooner called the Raja Lout
. It slept 12, plus a crew of eight, and each morning we woke to a sumptuous breakfast and then lounged around on deck, reading, baking in the sun, or watching the deserted islands slip by on either side of us. At lunch, we’d anchor, eat, dive off the boat to swim or maybe take a dingy over to explore a nearby island and snorkel the coral. In the afternoon, we’d sail the open water again and make for another island, anchoring at night for dinner on deck under the stars. The food was spectacular throughout -- multiple courses of fresh fish and squid, salads and Burmese or Thai curries.
The crowd on my trip skewed quite old. This was not a party boat filled with drunken teens. The others were retirees from Europe, with one young Burmese girl. We ate communally, on deck, and we did most of the activities and island trips together, though everyone was free to do what they liked -- lie out sunbathing all day, read in their cabin, drink all day, or stay up all night lying under the stars.
It’s also worth mentioning how cool the crew was. The captain was from South Africa, with the rest a mix of Thai, Burmese, French, plus a Malaysian cook. They all worked hard and ran the yacht like a five-star hotel, while managing to be totally friendly and chilled throughout the trip.
But it’s the location more than anything else that will blow your mind. I can’t over-estimate how much this place lives up to the tropical fantasy of the deserted island. For most of the trip, it felt like we had the ocean to ourselves, and when we stepped onto some of these islands, there were no footprints, nothing to suggest that anyone had ever been there before us.
The only inhabited parts of the Mergui are those used by the indigenous group, the Moken. These the people have fished the waters here for hundreds of years, living a nomadic life aboard their boats, coming ashore only to hunt. This traditional lifestyle is being washed away, as Moken men are lured to Myanmar’s cities or across the border to work in Thailand’s fishing industry. A few thousand have also settled into small villages on a couple of the islands, where the government has set up some healthcare facilities and schools for the kids. In fact, the company that I traveled with, Burma Boating, uses some of its revenue to maintain a charity that brings medical care to Moken villages without access to hospitals.
We visited one of the villages during the trip. Most of the residents still live aboard boats, but moored to jetties. The people there seemed happy, though life was basic. A lot of work was going into building a Buddhist temple for the village and a nurse with a huge, crazy pink hat was giving kids polio inoculations while we were there.
What has remained largely untouched is the wildlife in the Mergui. Reef sharks, nurse sharks, and blotched stingrays patrol these waters, though you’ll probably have to go out diving to see any of those. However, we did see dolphins -- a pod swam up to the yacht on our second day, leaping up out of the water as we passed.
On the islands, there are wild boar, pigmy deer, and monkeys. On the last morning we took a dingy into the mangroves of one of the largest islands in the region and, as we puttered slowly through the tangles of bone-white wood that stretched out of the waters, our guide pointed up into the trees above us where two Burmese python lay curled up in the branches.
Trips of this sort aren’t budget. In fact, the whole thing felt dazzlingly deluxe, but also with a dash of adventure -- rolling seas, salt water spraying the deck, men hoisting the mizzenmast, pythons in trees and journeys into remote villages to visit sea gypsies.
As Myanmar rushes face-first into the 21st century, the Mergui is one corner where you can still see what the country has been like since -- well, before it was even one country. It won’t stay like this for long...
I traveled with Burma Boating (Full Disclosure: they invited us, though SmartShanghai paid for travel to the region), which offers trips for individual travelers and small groups visiting the Mergui Archipelago. The five-night Mergui Sailing Adventure costs EUR1,980 per person, including all meals and non-alcoholic drinks. The government of Myanmar also charges a fee of USD250 per person for a permit to visit the area. Burma Boating will take care of the visas and paperwork for you. Several other companies offer trips to the region as well, and cruise ships are not the only option for accommodation.