For centuries the haunt of reclusive sea gypsies, Myanmar’s remote Mergui Archipelago offers one of the region’s most idyllic—and vulnerable—yachting destinations.
By Kendall Hill
Photographys by Christopher Wise
In the 21st century it is difficult to imagine a corner of the world where 800 mostly uninhabited islands still exist in the heart of its most populous continent. Where annual visitors are measured in the hundreds, not the thousands. And where each morning, if I rise before my fellow sailors, I can swim to the nearest of these islands, leave the first footprints on its fine bleached sands, and inhale the honeyed perfume of blooming sea poison trees lining the shore.
This is how each day begins on a six-day sailing trip through the Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar, filled with pinch-me moments that more than reward the effort of getting here. Off-limits to tourism until the late 1990s, it is only in the last couple of years, since Myanmar opened up, that voyages through the islands have started to take off. Burma Boating, the outfit I’m sailing with, was one of the pioneers when they launched a website three years ago offering yacht charters. Within a fortnight they had their first reservation; in two months, they were booked out for the season. Demand was so strong they added a second boat in the first year; now they have six.
Burma Boating’s German co-founder, Christoph Schwanitz, tells me he discovered the islands by chance when he and a group of friends chartered a boat in Phuket to sail to India’s Andaman Islands, about 800 kilometers to the northwest. Denied a visa, they instead set a course for the Mergui Archipelago, a day’s sailing away.
“Nobody could tell us anything about it,” Schwanitz recalls. The only other vessel he saw during a week at sea was Eclipse, the superyacht owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Things have changed, obviously, since then—dive boats and Burmese fishing boats are a more common sight now—but there is still a powerful sense of remoteness. Even getting here is an adventure: passengers must arrive in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost point and the main gateway to the Mergui islands, by domestic flight from Yangon or via a long drive north from Phuket to the Thai border town of Ranong, and then make a slightly dodgy crossing of the Pakchan River by leaky longboat. But the sight of the 25-meter teak beauty Meta IV bobbing off Kawthaung’s coast banishes any fears about this being some rough and ready expedition.
Our crew consists of Thai captain Ekachai Pongpaew, his uncle Chet, chef Wa, and our Burmese guide Aung Kyaw Kyaw (AK for short). They decide our precise itinerary according to prevailing winds and tides. “This is a relatively uncharted territory,” Schwanitz says, “but we always have a Burmese guide on board and they know the area very well.”
Life on board is barefoot (no shoes allowed) and do-as-you-please, be that learning the ropes when the Meta IV is under sail, or lazing on a sun lounger with a book. Below deck lie four compact but comfortable double berths with en suites. To be honest I’m less concerned with the slightly cramped bed than with the onboard catering (which is generally excellent) and whether the icebox is fully stocked (generally yes).
On the first night my last-frontier fantasies are drowned out by the hornet engines and spotlights of fishing boats sheltering beside us in Octopus Bay. These noisy boats become a regular, but thankfully not constant, feature of our island days.
The other folk we encounter often are the ethnic Moken, or sea gypsies, who have lived a semi-nomadic existence on these waters for centuries. We usually spy them standing upright like paddle-boarders in their dugouts, scissoring oars to propel themselves across the sea.