Sailing through Myanmar’s Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago
2nd February 2017 | by Gemma
'I’m the first to admit that I’m a glass-half-empty person, so when Captain Roland proclaimed that every day of our six day Mergui Archipelago sailing adventure would be better than the last, I reserved judgement. Scattered in the Andaman Sea, off the south-west coast of Myanmar, this string of 800 or so islands certainly had the capacity to produce endless memorable experiences, but nevertheless, Roland’s boast was a big one!
Fast forward to the end of day two, standing beside a beach bonfire, sipping mojitos, as we watched a double rainbow (yes, really) fade and the sun disappear behind the surrounding forest-clad islands. And me fairly confident that already we'd experienced the best these islands had to offer.
We had managed to raise the sails that morning – not always possible, even on a ‘sailing’ trip – and spent several hours skimming the waves at 10.5 knots. We had donned snorkel masks, and happily floated amongst the plentiful marine life, and made an impromptu on-board visit to a passing fishing boat to secure dinner for the evening, swapping a bucket of fresh squid for half a dozen beers. And here we were on a pristine white sand beach, with not a soul in sight aside from a couple of shy monkeys. As I watched the star-peppered night sky, I wondered how it could possibly get any better.
Most of the islands of the Mergui remain uninhabited, but small thriving communities can be found in pockets of the region. On day three we visited one such island, where a mix of Burmese and indigenous Moken people have settled.
As you might imagine, it’s a basic, self-sufficient lifestyle, cut off as it is from civilisation and any mod-cons. We strolled past ramshackle wooden houses, each home to several generations of family; barefoot toddlers dressed in hand-me-down clothes played on the beach; vest-clad, smoking men peered curiously from doorways, and elderly toothless women smiled shyly as we greeted them with a badly pronounced Mingalabar.
Less shy were the children we encountered at the village school, where the sight of four Europeans caused much excitement and disrupted the lessons taking place. Well turned out in uniform, the younger children were happy to pose for photos, and the older kids keen to practise their English.
Despite having little in terms of possessions and comfort, everyone we met sported a huge smile, and it made us mindful of what we take for granted Traditionally, the Moken are itinerant 'sea gypsies', expert free-divers living in harmony with the ocean. The Mergui is their stomping ground, and until recently they enjoyed the solitude of the islands.
However, their nomadic lifestyle is slowly vanishing as the Burmese government attempt to ‘civilise’ them, creating Moken villages on land and introducing fishing restrictions. I found it poignant to learn that there is no word for worry in the Moken language, but wonder how much longer their existence will be so carefree.
Returning to the boat, we set sail for our next overnight mooring. Dolphins joined us for a snippet of the journey - although they were less playful and more wary than their western cousins, it was still an amazing sight to see them shadowing our yacht at a distance. There was also time for a unique freshwater shower, delivered by a powerful waterfall at an island stop en-route. Another unforgettable day culminated with an hour of magical snorkelling and an impressive multi-dish dinner rustled up by Burmese chef Kaitlin, in his pokey galley kitchen.