The Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar’s secret paradise

The Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar’s secret paradise

Robert Schrader

I felt irritated for a split second after the plainclothes gentleman took my passport. Kawthaung Airport, as far as I could tell, was within Myanmar’s borders. What was with the makeshift immigration formalities?

If it was a scam, of course, there was no reason for me to panic: Every other person arriving alongside me was bound for the same shuttle bus and, eventually, the same port that I was. We were all headed for the Mergui Archipelago, the only reason any foreigner ventures to this part of remote southern Myanmar.

After what felt like an eternity of foot-tapping and tooth-grinding, the unofficial-official emerged with the stack of passports, distributing them one-by-one as if he was handing out cocktails. He opened mine to the first page and presented it to me. “Welcome to paradise, Mr Robert.”

Macleod Island | Photo: Robert Schrader

Macleod Island | Photo: Robert Schrader

Charted territory

If I was bound for a luxury yacht, it was a secret to the city around me. Kawthaung is a pan-sensory cacophony: The shriek of motors; the smell of fish; blinding flashes of sunlight off the golden stupas that break up the industrial skyline; the taste of salt and, maybe, marine oil; a feeling that the rusty dock I walked onto to board my water taxi might not hold my weight.

Climbing on board the SY Raja Laut simply heightened the sense of contradiction in the air. My arrival meant that everyone could sit down for the meal our hotel-trained chef had prepared for us—it seemed like we would soon be on our way. Just then, however, a boat sputtered up to ours, and a man actually wearing a uniform—you guessed it—asked for all our passports.

As we wrapped up lunch, the handsome captain introduced himself and laid out a huge map where the pan-fried fish and sautéed Chinese greened had been. “Eventually,” he said with a slight French accent and pressed his one-legged divider into the paper. “We’ll wind up here, on Lampi Island.”

“And when will that be?” I asked.

He laughed and looked at his wrist—he wasn’t wearing a watch. “Time isn’t really a thing in this part of the world.”

SY Raja Laut | Photo: Robert Schrader

SY Raja Laut | Photo: Robert Schrader

Andaman time machine

In one way, waking up moored off the coast of an uninhabited island made the immigration kerfuffles of the previous afternoon seem superfluous. Judging by nature—and in the absence of civilisation, azure waters, emerald jungles and sand as white as clouds, had there been any, were all I had to judge by—we could just as well have been in Thailand’s or Malaysia’s Andaman Sea islands as in Myanmar’s.

On the other hand, the very desolation of our surroundings contradicted this: Of course we had to pass through immigration to get here—only a wholly sovereign nation could maintain this level of purity in the modern age.

By the time the sun had danced a little more than halfway across the sky, we were on our way toward Macleod Island, at least according to Captain Yoann’s map and divider. Physical geography seemed almost irrelevant as we made our way there, however—the only thing that distinguished one patch of land or sea from another was whether it was more blissful or idyllic, whether “heaven” or “nirvana” or “utopia” was a more apt descriptor for the perfection you’d expect to find there.

Indeed, it was upon stepping into the crystalline sea that flanked the unnamed beach where we lazed away the rest of our afternoon that I realised that my journey had been more in the fourth dimension than in any of the first three.

This is like Phuket 50 years ago; I shook my head, bubbles of air rising out of the sand like a jacuzzi as my feet sank deeper in. I’ve literally gone back in time.

Sea Gipsies | Photo: Robert Schrader

Sea Gipsies | Photo: Robert Schrader

Meet the sea gipsies

By the time the sun set on day two, day three and then day four, the calendar had become as useless a tool for measuring the trip as a map, identifying or even naming the islands our yacht had anchored off of as futile an endeavour as remembering the date we were there.

Ironically, it was happening upon the nomadic inhabitants of these islands, who seem at least superficially to live in the same way they have for centuries, that gave myself and the rest of the souls onboard the Raja Laut any sense that we were rooted in a specific time or place.

The sea gipsies, as they’ll probably be called until the Mergui Archipelago become a mainstream enough destination for political correctness to be a thing there, actually have their own village on Bocho Island. Although many of their stilted houses seem impermanent enough not to contradict their apparent nomadism, a few key details—the mobile phones in their hands, the satellite dishes that line their streets like flowered vines and the large Buddhist temple the national government is constructing—make them seem like “gipsies” in name only.

(That, and how much more excited the children who rowed up to us seems to see the salty snacks and sweet sodas our captain gave them than the fish our guide told us they were supposed to be catching for their families.)

Lampi Island | Photo: Robert Schrader

Lampi Island | Photo: Robert Schrader

Paradise unfound

The next night, as we began the long journey back to Kawthaung, I emerged from my private cabin in the ship’s belly and sat down next to Yoann, who was standing at the wheel. I was humbled by the beauty of the archipelago and sobered by its desolation but troubled when I imagined it one day being commercialised.

I didn’t want to spoil the silence of our procession through the darkness, though, or memories of the bonfire and lantern-launching that had rounded out our six days in the archipelago, with words spoken aloud.

“It’s going to change here,” he said anyway as if he could read my mind. “But not anytime soon.”

“I thought time wasn’t a thing here,” I laughed.

“It isn’t,” he conceded, “at least, not for sea gipsies like us. The shots are called up in Napyidaw, though—why do you think they take your passport when you come here?”

Mergui Archipelago: live-aboard yacht versus lone resort

As of late 2016, when this article was written, the only way to explore Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago is by live-abroad yacht. (Although I hinted, at the end of the article, that Myanmar’s government was starting to develop Mergui for mass tourism, official policy is geared toward precisely the opposite end for the time being.)

I travelled on board the SY Raja Laut, a 100-foot schooner, on a six-day cruise with 10 other travellers, which was organised by Burma Boating. The cost of such a journey is $2,600 per person (based on double occupancy). On the other hand, if you prefer to charter the entire boat, you’ll pay $5,490 per night. Click here to see Burma Boating’s entire fleet of yachts.

Burma Boating isn’t the only company who operates in the Mergui Archipelago, although it’s highly advised you work with a large, licensed company such as them, rather than hiring your own boat from abroad, to avoid the complicated legal situation that necessitates the immigration system I mentioned several times in the body of the article.

Alternatively, there is one permanent accommodation in the archipelago: Myanmar Andaman Resort, on Macleod Island. Rooms here start at $150 per night for a single chalet, including round-trip boat transfers from Kawthaung, which you can reach by air from Yangon or by boat from Ranong, Thailand. The resort can arrange day-trips that would, in combination, equate roughly to what you’d experience on a cruise with Burma Boating or a similar company.

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