Scattered over 14,000 square miles in the Andaman Sea, off the narrow peninsula Myanmar shares with Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago offers secluded cruising alongside enchanting limestone islands that indigenous seafaring people have roamed for centuries. Kara Murphy gets a closer look.
Macaques are definitely one species I don’t expect to see while snorkeling. But when I lift my head from the marine park waters off seahorse-shaped Lampi Island — one of around 800 predominantly limestone islands in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago — to glance at a tiny nearby beach, an animal, crouched in the shade, returns my gaze. Too terrified to scratch his head or ponder the hilarity of the situation, the monkey, with its large cheek pouches and short tail, scampers into the dense forest as his buddies — another adult and a juvenile — race behind him.
Laughing, I turn around. “Did you see that?”
Jamal, a deckhand/master carpenter aboard traditional Indonesian luxury yacht Dunia Baru and my snorkeling buddy today, answers affirmatively with a huge grin.
Redirecting our attention to the underwater world, we continue marveling at the prolific pink, clown and tomato anemone fish darting into their neon emerald, violet and fuchsia anemone homes as we swim around massive coral heads, decorated with blue and white Christmas tree worms. Jamal sticks close behind me, a position I check when a small, gray reef shark appears a couple yards away, and again when another species, as big as me, makes a sharp turn, causing a nearby school of fish to alter direction. Visibility is only about 10 feet; while I can’t see the shark, judging from repeated movements of smaller fish, it’s still close.
Although I know sharks are friends, not foes, I prefer a clear visual when in their company. Lifting my head again, I motion for the tender. We’ll be cruising this archipelago for several more days, and with 30 dive sites, we’ll have plenty of chances to get in the water, perhaps when visibility is better.
Our Mergui adventure began at the Andaman Club Pier, in Ranong, Thailand, about a four-hour drive north of Phuket. After we’d presented our passports to the Thai immigration office, the Andaman Club speedboat transported us across the broad estuary separating Thailand and Myanmar to 14-passenger Dunia Baru, which was waiting off Kawthaung town, mainland Myanmar’s southernmost point. While we sipped Champagne and settled into our cabins, Burmese immigration officers came aboard to collect our passports (which they’ll keep for the duration of our journey). After they sent over our Myanmar Travel and Tours guide (required for all charters), we began cruising southwest down the estuary, then north through the Andaman Sea to our first anchorage, on southern Lampi Island’s western side.
The Mergui Archipelago, which has only been open to tourists since 1997, extends for another 120 nautical miles north past 30-mile-long Lampi Island; however, Lampi is as far north as we’ll be traveling on this five-and-a-half-day trip. To venture farther north, even just to Black Rock, which lies 37 nautical miles to the northwest, we’d need at least another couple days, explains Clive White, a private dive guide with 16 years of experience in this group of islands. It’s a shame, as Black Rock is the archipelago’s premier dive site, with oceanic manta ray aggregations, bigger fish and a variety of sharks (leopard, gray reef, whitetip and blacktip reef). But we will be exploring White’s other favorite Mergui diving locations, Three Islets and Western Rocky.
When I wake our first morning, the Milky Way has painted the sky; aside from the galley light, the only other illumination comes from a few distant commercial squid boats, which cast halogen-lit colors into the inky sea to attract their prey. Meanwhile, the sole sound, apart from my own fiddling with my coffee cup and movement across the stern, belongs to the sea, as it gently toys with the yacht’s ironwood hull.
The time change (30 minutes earlier than Phuket) causes some initial confusion regarding our dive departure time, but we’re soon speeding via tender toward Three Islets, 16 nautical miles southwest of Lampi. Minutes later, a fellow diver touches my arm, beckoning me to turn around. A voluptuous coral ball is rising over the islands behind us, casting its wide, fiery eye over the still silver waters and making them blush.
The group of rocky islets we’re approaching has four different dive sites, White explains; this morning, we’ll be exploring a swim-through on the largest islet called “In Through the Out Door.” Our guide warns us that the site’s namesake, a tunnel, could be lined with scorpionfish; we should refrain from touching anything, even if currents conspire for us to do otherwise.
The visibility is, initially, quite poor. Except for my buddy a few yards ahead of me, all fellow divers disappear into the murky green water. As we descend toward an underwater ravine, though, visibility improves, and the brief tunnel, clouded with fish, is mercifully devoid of currents. Swimming alongside the sloping coral wall that follows, I do see several scorpionfish, all well-camouflaged again the coral, as well as anemones, sea urchins and baby white-eyed moray eels. Further along, three cuttlefish — two males and one female — play a mating game as they dance along the wall, providing one of the better subjects for my wide-angle camera lens. After our dive, White explains that due to the reduced visibility (the product of so many islands), as well as the rock structure and cracks, much of the Mergui is better suited for macro underwater photography.
Back on the yacht, we breakfast on croissants and “Tomlettes” (the affectionate name for Australian chef Tom Brett’s egg creations), then paddleboard and kayak toward an empty beach, which stretches for nearly two miles along a course leading to a sand spit and small islet. My bare feet beg to wander its length; our first activity, though, is a brief cruise via tender through some of Lampi Marine National Park’s 63 recorded species of mangroves. Given the setting, the conversation inevitably leads to the worrisome subject of crocodiles, how they once inhabited these waters, but how White hasn’t seen them in a long time.
While fellow guests lounge under beach umbrellas and sip icy cans of Myanmar beer, I set off for the sand spit. As I get closer, the thought of toothy reptiles gives me reason to pause. I try to remember what I once heard about outrunning a croc: I should run in a zigzag motion, as they can’t make sudden turns? But wouldn’t the reptile work out my ploy and just run in a straight line and gobble me anyway? Unsure of my ability to outrun a crocodile here on this lonely stretch of beach (or anywhere else, for that matter), I turn around shy of the sand spit and return to the human party and cooler of beer.
In the afternoon, we visit Ma Kyone Galet, a fishing village on Bo Cho Island, just off the southern tip of Lampi. One of 10 settlements in the archipelago, the village is home to about 600 people, including Burmese Buddhists and the Moken Tribe. The latter are an indigenous nomadic seafaring people who have roamed these islands in 30-foot-long wooden boats called “kabang” for centuries, collecting fish, shellfish and sea cucumbers via spearfishing, free diving and hunting to consume or sell. Traditionally, they have lived on their kabang, only settling on islands for a few months during the monsoon season, when seas were too rough to navigate. Now, though, hundreds of the archipelago’s estimated 3,000 Moken are settling in villages such as this one. The 1997 ban on logging, which made sourcing the tree trunks required for kabang virtually impossible, competition with larger-scale fishing and the arrival of dive compressors (which have resulted in decompression sickness among Moken divers) are just a few factors that have forever changed their way of life.
One reason we’ve come to Ma Kyone Galet today is because White has been working with its people for the last seven years. As we walk along Bo Cho’s beach, past the Moken’s wooden huts, built on stilts, and small dugout canoes, he tells us about See and Sea (seeandsea.org), which aims to improve the indigenous people’s quality of life. One project has involved collecting unwanted or unused eyeglasses to distribute to villagers, thus providing a chance to educate them about the negative impact of blast fishing. (The fishermen from the mainland tend to be the ones responsible for blast fishing in the Mergui, says White, although the Moken will sometimes hang around and collect some of the floating fish.) The organization has also helped contain the village’s rubbish problem, distributed malaria medication and mosquito nets, and is hoping to help build a more sustainable tourism industry, allowing the Moken to slow down on fishing and still make a living. Some villagers, for example, sell baskets they have made from plastic wrappers.
"With shards of glass still scattered along a beach frequented by barefoot children and a trench still harbouring rubbish, the village has room to improve. Still, thanks to the garbage management program, it’s much tidier than other settlements," says White.
As we descend from the village’s hilltop Buddhist temple, the notion that the Mergui might be devoid of crocodiles is challenged. A cement hut — just long enough to house a crocodile — imprisons one. White tells me the Moken caught the unlucky reptile about a year ago and gave it to the monks. Suddenly, I don’t feel quite so silly for my earlier concerns.
We spend the remainder of our charter exploring northern Lampi Island, diving Three Islets (several more times), North Rock and Western Rocky, and resting in a string of silent, sheltered anchorages. At one, our crew strikes a deal with a few fishermen, exchanging Red Bulls and cigarettes for two buckets of prawns, which are delicious when they appear as tempura with sundowners that evening. And when we pause off Macleod Island, home to one of the Mergui’s only accommodation options, the Myanmar Andaman Resort, I go ashore for a Burmese massage. The 50-minute treatment involves intense pressure on every part of my body, including my face, and a brief restriction of blood flow to my legs and arms, which causes a strangely warm sensation when the pressure ceases.
Our final remote anchorage, in the southern part of the archipelago, near a cluster of small, dramatic islands, is perhaps the most picturesque of all. One, Cock’s Comb, hides a heart-shaped lagoon within its interior. The tender drops us at its entrance, a swim-through beneath a low, rocky ceiling, and we spend a half-hour investigating its coral gardens, anemone fish, abundant sea urchins and other marine life. Unfortunately, we don’t have this fish bowl to ourselves, as about a dozen guests from the resort are also here on a snorkeling excursion.
The Moken, however, have been elusive. Dunia Baru’s crew observed a few collecting freshwater along the shore of some islands in the early mornings. But of the small fishing boats we’ve seen plying these waters, White says only a couple have been manned by Moken. They tend to head to the northern part of the archipelago this time of year, he explains, possibly because of better fishing and less disturbance.
We complete our Mergui journey back in Kawthaung, toasting our adventure with mugs of Myanmar beer in the open-air Smile Restaurant. Aside from local fishing boats and the boat carrying the lagoon snorkelers, we’ve seen only one other yacht here, and just briefly. We never had to share a beach nor did we encounter other tourists while scuba diving — a welcome point of difference from cruising experiences in Thailand’s nearby islands.
When to go
November through April is the best time to cruise the Mergui Archipelago; the peak months are December to February.