As resort developers sense the money to be made in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, Nigel Richardson sails around its 800 islands and realises what is at stake
In Biggles Delivers the Goods our eponymous goggled hero flies north over the Andaman Sea on a mission to thwart the Japanese: “To the right, the horizon was defined by a long dark stain that was the forest-clad hinterland of Lower Myanmar. Below the aircraft, like a string of green beads dropped carelessly on blue velvet, were the islands of the archipelago, lonely, untouched by civilisation…”.
Beyond the guard rail of the yacht I was sailing on lay the same islands – still lonely, still largely untouched by civilisation though from sea level they resemble not so much beads as fin-backed clumps of rainforest rising vertically from the blue. This is the Mergui Archipelago, a chain of islands (800 is the round number generally agreed on) scattered across the Andaman Sea, just where the Malay Peninsula breathes in to create its hourglass figure.
The islands belong to Myanmar, which is why they stir faint yearnings in the British psyche and feature in that Biggles book remembered from my childhood. Mergui is the colonial name, now used interchangeably with the Burmese word, Myeik. Many of the place names (such as Chelmsford Point, Charles Ross Hill) on the relevant maritime chart sound as English as Bath Olivers. In the Burmese days of colonial administration the archipelago was a byword for tropical loveliness, while its indigenous people, known as the Sea Gypsies, were romanticised as a carefree, quasi-amphibious race.
Now that Myanmar is opening up following democratic reforms, travellers are rediscovering the Mergui Archipelago through the handful of commercial sailing yachts. Travel and lifestyle magazines are featuring it in their must-see lists (the words “pristine” and “paradise” liberally deployed). And – the inevitable corollary – the antennae of resort developers are twitching like mad.
As I discovered when I explored by sailing yacht, the Mergui Archipelago remains irresistibly lovely. Beyond the port of Kawthaung and its vicinity in the south, not a single tourist bed is yet available on a single island. The white sand beaches that rim the steep jungled interiors stand as empty as did the Maldives 40 years ago. But the signs of change are there – a half-built, abandoned resort on one island, a notice on another claiming ownership by a consortium – and there are rumours of deals to build golf courses and casinos.
“Investors are lining up,” Christoph Schwanitz told me. “This whole archipelago is at a crossroads and it could go either way. If the government doesn’t decide to manage the area well, with the support of international players, it could look pretty bleak in a decade or so.”
Schwanitz, a German based in Shanghai, is a partner in Myanmar Boating, the first business, aside from diveboats, to offer tours of the archipelago when it started operating last year (this season other boats have moved in – it’s a fast-developing scene). I joined their 82ft ketch Meta IV (the name is not a pun: Metas I to III existed) on a five-night itinerary through the southern half of the island chain, covering about 150 nautical miles and reaching some 30 miles from the mainland of Myanmar at our most westerly point.
It was a dreamy voyage that took us beyond internet connectivity, from green coastal waters to the kind of blue inked in by 100ft depths, past piratical-looking fishing boats and islands with the outlines of rusty blades. Scampering macaques foraged for crabs on the islands’ rocky shores, white-bellied sea eagles wheeled.
In temperatures deliciously becalmed at around 30C (86F), we swam, we bagged beautiful shells on those empty beaches, we ate tiger prawns as big as a baby’s arm, procured from passing fishing boats for a few cans of beer. “I love getting away from all the craziness in the world,” said Xenia, a fellow shipmate, reeling off a list of global trouble spot. “And here we are – Ship of Fools, right? You seen that movie?”
But, though our smartphones were useless, the world’s craziness was never entirely absent. Contrary to what those glossy magazines say, the beaches are not “pristine” – each carries a tidemark of plastic and glass washed up from fishing boats and the beaches of Phuket, in Thailand, to the south – and the underwater environment is already degraded, the coral depleted by dynamite fishing and global warming.
The delicate ecology of rainforest and mangrove, and the rich biodiversity it supports, also stands to suffer if the inevitable tourist development is unregulated and insensitive. Above all, the future looks extremely uncertain for the Moken, the indigenous people of the Mergui Archipelago.
It’s not easy to find and meet the Moken – also known as Salone in Burmese, Chao Lay in Thai and Sea Gypsies or Sea Nomads in the romantic lexicon of Western observers. As Aung Kyaw Kyaw (AK for short), our Burmese guide aboard the Meta IV, said, “They like privacy and do not like dealing with many people.” But on our second morning we ran into an extended Moken family.
We had sailed into a zone for which the Moken no doubt have a word – a sheltered patch of sea hemmed in by small islands. The anchor was down. Snorkelling was on the cards. Then we spotted a canoe coming towards us – a dugout propelled by oars from a standing position, by a lad of no more than 10 years of age.
He wore a white T-shirt and coloured pants and he was presently joined by a young girl in another dugout, then by two women in a third wearing thanaka – creamy face paint made from bark – and smoking vile-looking green cheroots. What followed was a safari-like interface.
The dugouts circled the Meta IV while we took pictures, lots of them. The Moken didn’t beg or ask for anything but we gave the children packets of noodles and the women, who seemed drunk or stoned, laughed uproariously. Then they returned to their camp on the beach – a shelter of plastic and bamboo, a pup tent, washed clothes hanging out to dry, a couple of fires – and we followed them ashore in our dinghy.
The Moken are nomadic seafarers of Austronesian descent who have lived among the islands for hundreds of years. They supplied the currency of ancient Siam – brown cowrie shells – before coins were minted. And in 2004, on the day of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands, they “read” the sea correctly and headed for land and high ground. Few if any were killed.
For all their diving prowess and affinity with the ocean, the Moken are in a bad way. Between 2,000 and 3,000 still live here, still free dive and fish with three-pronged spears, trading in fish and sea cucumbers. But they no longer move between islands in their traditional houseboats as they used to. Instead, they are corralled in villages, made to live like fish out of water, while commercial trawlers and squid boats with halogen lights mounted on booms muscle in on their fishing grounds and deprive them of their livelihood.
In 2004, the Burmese government made a crass attempt to turn the Moken into a tourist attraction by setting up a Moken “village” on a small island near where we were and holding a “festival”. The result was a human zoo – “crazy, really, really fake”, according to AK.
But sensitively managed initiatives involving tourism are probably the only way the Moken culture can survive, reckoned Christoph Schwanitz: “Then they at least have a chance to stay here and have some kind of say in the development of their own future.”
On the beach where we followed them, AK talked with one of the Moken men in a Burmese dialect. The man said that he and his family now lived on Nyaung Wee Island, which we had passed on our starboard side that morning. This resettlement island was getting overcrowded with other ethnic groups besides the Moken. So the Moken liked to vanish for a while.
On this uninhabited island they could be themselves again. They built snares to catch a tiny deer called a lesser mouse deer, hunted wild pigs with dogs and killed birds with catapults.
Next to the man, a woman cooked gnarly, fist-sized mussels in a pan over a small fire. AK asked when they planned to return to their resettlement island. The man smiled and said, “Tomorrow,” by which I think he meant mañana.
While this encounter was taking place, two other vessels had joined ours in the bay. We were indignant. The Mergui Archipelago was like a huge cinema (complete with 3D glasses and hallucinogenic popcorn) and the Meta IV had been sitting in solitary splendour in the middle of the auditorium. Now two other film buffs had crept in while we weren’t looking and sat down either side of us. Sling your hooks!
One boat was a sailing yacht like ours, the other a superyacht called Exuma, a 160ft aluminium shark of a ship (“for yacht lovers who have lost count of the zeros in their bank accounts”, according to the website bornrich.com that I read later) flying the Maltese Cross from its stern. We dubbed it The Destroyer. On its foredeck, where you might expect to find 40mm cannons, something far more deadly: two yellow jet skis.
That evening the splintered reflection of a large orange moon bobbed in the sea as we ate those bartered prawns, which were dense-fleshed and sweet. The two other boats were still in the bay, The Destroyer lit up like a floating gin palace.
So bright were its lights that I didn’t at first notice the Mokens’ fire flickering dimly on the beach behind it. “If we’re not fishing we’ll kill ourselves, we’ll all be dead,” one of the Mokens had told AK. Someone needs to cup their hands around that flickering flame, before it is snuffed out forever.
When to go
November to April. For the rest of the year it is monsoon season.
Various ways – from Bangkok fly to Ranong, the nearest place to the entry port of Kawthaung; from Yangon fly to Kawthaung; or fly to Phuket then take a taxi to Ranong (four hours, about US$120/£72). Pass through Thai immigration at the pier then take a longtail boat (about $12/£7.20) across the Pakchan river to Kawthaung. Entry formalities (including visa, $30/£18) can be completed at Kawthaung pier.
Audley Travel (01993 838000; audleytravel.com) can tailor-make a trip and also offers a 13-day itinerary that includes three nights in Yangon and three nights at the Myanmar Andaman Resort in the south of the archipelago, as well as five nights aboard the Meta IV: from £4,100 per person, sharing, with flights. There’s an additional government fee for cruising the Mergui of about US$250/£150 per person.
Flying time and time difference
About 13 ½ hrs from London to Singapore; Singapore to Phuket, 1 hr 40 mins. GMT +6 ½ hrs.
The Meta IV is a teak sailing yacht built in 1997 and refitted two years ago. There are four guest cabins (with en suite bathrooms and electric lavatories) sleeping a maximum of nine, plus four crew: skipper, cook, deckhand and guide. The cabins are advertised as air-conditioned but we were encouraged to use fans only.
Food & drink
The Thai chef cooked wonderful food – mainly Thai curries and soups, often using fish and shellfish obtained from passing boats. The on-deck chiller cabinet was well stocked with soft drinks (free), beer ($2/£1.20) and wine (a decent New World selection, $25/£15 a bottle).
What to take/gratuities
Camera, sunblock, sunhat, swimming/snorkelling gear, sunglasses, sandals for the beaches, reading material. For tips, reckon on $20/£12 a day.
What to read
Apart from Biggles Delivers the Goods, there is an excellent book on the Moken available locally, Courage of the Sea: Last Stand of the Moken by Thom Henley and Geo and Jok Klathalay.