Island-hopping In The Mergui Archipelago

  • One of the four cabins on Meta IV.

    One of the four cabins on Meta IV.

  • At anchor under a star-studded sky.

    At anchor under a star-studded sky.

  • Captain Ekachai Pongpaew charting a course through the islands.

    Captain Ekachai Pongpaew charting a course through the islands.

  • Curried squid and grilled chicken from the boat's galley.

    Curried squid and grilled chicken from the boat's galley.

  • The first mate at the wheel.

    The first mate at the wheel.

  • A Moken sea gypsy in his dugout canoe.

    A Moken sea gypsy in his dugout canoe.

  • Carrying up to eight passengers at a time, the 25-meter ketch Meta IV is the flagship of Burma Boating's yacht fleet.

    Carrying up to eight passengers at a time, the 25-meter ketch Meta IV is the flagship of Burma Boating's yacht fleet.

  • Local fauna.

    Local fauna.

  • Many of the Mergui islands' craggy coastlines remained uncharted until recently.

    Many of the Mergui islands' craggy coastlines remained uncharted until recently.

  • A shore excursion to Kyun Phi Lar Island.

    A shore excursion to Kyun Phi Lar Island.

  • Enjoying a solitary moment on the sandy shores of Kyun Phi Lar Island.

    Enjoying a solitary moment on the sandy shores of Kyun Phi Lar Island.

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The Moken have fascinated me ever since I read that virtually all of them escaped unharmed from the 2004 tsunami. Some reports suggested the Mokens’ superior sea lore helped them read the signs of the looming catastrophe and move to safety. AK argues the islands’ natural geography would have protected them from the worst of the waves. Either way, I’m keen to meet these fascinating people.

The first morning in the Mergui brings a swim in the warm Andaman waters, a kayak excursion to Za Det Nge island, and a few more sobering facts about the reality of this “pristine” archipelago. The beach at Za Det Nge looks postcard-perfect from a distance, but up close it is a marine dump. The taproots of tropical trees are snagged with faded plastics, glass bottles, expired flip-flops, polystyrene floats, and the accumulated jetsam of the ocean. Even more shocking is the discovery, when snorkeling these translucent waters, that dynamite fishing has decimated the region’s coral reefs. This is not the virgin paradise I was expecting. The government neglect that has spared the Mergui islands from the ravages of development has also, apparently, spared them any attention at all.

But it is still a paradise of sorts, as we’re reminded when we arrive at Za Det Nge by kayak and a ball of hundreds of black fish surrounds us then bleeds like ink into the shallows. Or when we’re under sail, with the engine cut, and the only sounds are the thwack of waves against the hull and the slap and billow of cloth above us. Or lying in bed on sultry nights and gazing up through the skylight at the starry firmament.

Our first sight of Ma Kyone Galet village is a row of rickety shacks on stilts lining the shore of Bo Cho island. There is a small pagoda to the left, and above it a lush path leading to a gilded stupa. We anchor offshore on the morning of day two, excited by the prospect of visiting a Moken village.

AK warns us before we leave the Meta IV that we will need shoes. “There is rubbish everywhere of course because this is a remote area,” he explains. “When we walk on the beach we need to take care a lot.” He’s not kidding: the muddy sand is mined with nasty shards of broken glass. Minding our steps, we make it safely to dry land and wander along a sandy street offering small cakes to children and observing the locals observing us. Women and children take shelter in the shade of stilt houses, hoping to catch a cooling breeze off the water.

During a sudden downpour we take cover in a humble café where the flat-screen TV shows a football match in a distant country. The people are welcoming, and I get to chatting with the village nurse. She says the most common illnesses on the island are malaria and cardiovascular disease. There are also injuries from knife attacks, she says, using her hands to make slashing motions at her neck and ears.

We spend a happy half hour in the schoolhouse with shy but smiling children, taking photos and playing games. To reach the school we first have to cross an arched bridge over a squalid creek that functions as a communal garbage dump. While hundreds live in this village, AK reckons only about 80 are Moken. He says they settled in this east-facing bay for protection from the southwest monsoons. The New York Times reported a different story in 2013, however—that the Moken were forcibly settled here by the military junta in the late 1990s.

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