Two new eco-luxury resorts have set down stakes in Myanmar’s once off-limits archipelago. Are they worth the schlep?
For years, I had heard whispers of lost Edens in the Andaman Sea, of tropical islands thick with jungle and fringed by turquoise waters, the only life on them wild, not human. It was a place where sea gypsies ruled the waves, and creatures from the deep thrived among splendid coral formations.
Only opened to tourism in the late 1990s, the Mergui (a.k.a Myeik) Archipelago sees only a trickle of visitors, most of whom arrive on dive boats or chartered cruises from Thailand. Little remains known of the chain’s 800 mostly uninhabited islands, scattered along 600 kilometers of coastline in southern Myanmar. Some are mere nubs of granite and limestone, spat out by tectonic convulsions, though the largest would dwarf Hong Kong Island. But change is afoot even here.
A chance, blurry-eyed meeting with Christopher Kingsley in a Qatari airport lounge last September brought the archipelago firmly to my attention. A keen diver, the Singapore-based American entrepreneur heard about the wonders of Mergui in the 1990s, though it wasn’t until 2007 that he finally visited. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful and untouched the area was,” he recalled. “The scale of the islands, no tourists, clear water, and yet still Myanmar, a country I love.”
Securing a lease from the national forestry department in 2015, Kingsley and his wife, Farina, began building what he calls an “haute bohemia utopia” on Wa Ale, a private jungle-covered isle in Lampi Marine National Park. No trees would be cut down during construction, and no heavy machinery brought in; this was to be a truly sustainable eco-resort designed to provide a wild, off-the-beaten-path adventure for luxury travelers. And like Indonesia’s Nihi Sumba and Song Saa Private Island in Cambodia, a foundation would be established to help fund local social welfare and conservation projects.
Wa Ale Island Resort opened one month after my encounter with Kingsley; before the end of the year, another eco-luxury property named Awei Pila debuted on a nearby island. Clearly, it was time for me to visit the archipelago, to see how the promise of paradise holds up.
My trip begins in the Thai border town of Ranong, where I’m ferried across a bustling channel to Kawthaung, a half-hour away on the Myanmar side. At the chaotic pier, we pull up to a swank boat, where I’m greeted by liveried staff and escorted to the immigration office to deal with formalities. It’s quick and painless, though I nearly miss my flight on the return leg because the sole duty officer is at lunch.
Once sorted, we cast off and are soon in open water. Onboard with me is a French couple, who are full of bonhomie despite their 4 a.m. start from Yangon. The three-hour journey to Wa Ale is pleasantly uneventful; we pass verdant islands and the occasional rickety fishing vessel, a dolphin surfaces fleetingly, and flying fish skim the blue-green water.
We arrive in time for lunch. Enjoyed communally in the main pavilion, it’s a literal taster of things to come. A mostly vegetarian spread consists of Southeast Asian and Mediterranean dishes: Thai papaya salad, Burmese-inspired noodles, roasted beetroot salad, and pizza cooked in a proper wood-fired oven. From breakfast to dinner, the meals here—fish baked in banana leaf one evening, pork curry another—are excellent. It’s a credit to head chef Ray Wyatt, an Englishman who, along with his Burmese sous chef Aung Soe, creates daily-changing menus far from civilization, using produce from the resort’s organic garden and farms around Myanmar.
After lunch, I’m escorted along the hot, powder-soft sand of Turtle Beach to my tent, one of 11 built to withstand the buffeting monsoon months of June through September, when the resort closes. The kilometer-long stretch of dazzling coastline is deserted, except for some footprints and the flipper trails of the turtles that give the beach its name. With a maximum of 27 guests at any one time on 3,600 private hectares, Wa Ale is never going to feel crowded.
The tents, flanked by trees, are barely visible yet feature knockout views of sea and sunset. Think beach safari-chic, with gauze-covered four-poster beds, USB charging points, spacious lounges, and bathrooms with twin vanities and outdoor showers. There are no room keys, no TVs, no minibars, no mobile phone reception (though decent Wi-Fi), and no air-con. At night, I’m lulled to sleep by the rhythmic tumble of waves, while state-of-the-art fans keep me cool.
You could chill all day on your deck with a book, venturing a few steps to the sea to cool off, though that would mean missing out on some terrific experiences. Lampi Marine National Park, the country’s only such reserve, is a treasure trove of biodiversity. Activities at Wa Ale are conducted privately and include paddleboarding through mangrove forests, snorkeling and diving the surrounding islands, excursions to a neighboring fishing village, and sunrise and sunset walks as brahminy kites circle the skies.
On the first morning, I am woken before dawn with a glass of fresh mango juice delivered to my tent, before setting off on a wildlife hike through the jungle with resident naturalist Alexander Evans. Surrounded by dense foliage and towering banyan trees, we hear plenty of wildlife—the staccato squawks of oriental pied hornbills; the rat-tat-tat call of giant squirrels—but sightings prove elusive.
As we loop our way back, there is a crackle of twigs and a rustle of leaves. High above us are absurdly cute spectacled langurs, their white-rimmed goggle eyes peering down at me. Nearby, a giant black squirrel resembling an oversize bottle brush darts past. From turtles to hornbills to long-tailed macaques, Wa Ale is a haven for nature lovers, one that Kingsley is determined to protect. To that end, 20 percent of the resort’s net profits and two percent of room revenue are donated to his Lampi Foundation, which he says has already helped to save thousands of sea turtle hatchlings.
Less than an hour away by speedboat, Awei Pila offers a markedly different experience in an equally stunning setting. Owned by one of Myanmar’s wealthiest men, construction and banking magnate Serge Pun, the resort opened in December on a perfect sliver of shoreline that seems ready-made for Instagram. Twelve thatch-roofed yurts perch meters from the water’s edge, while another dozen nestle among the trees behind. Less pricey than Wa Ale, it still has all the trappings of a traditional beach resort, including a beachside infinity-edge pool and a small spa. At 54 square meters, the yurts are compact yet stylish, and I confess to enjoying the in-room air-con.
Sustainability is also important at Awei Pila, which recycles its gray water, uses crushers to turn glass bottles back into sand, and runs partially on solar power. The resort has funded the construction of a new monastery as well as schoolteacher salaries for the two village communities it shares the island with. It has also partnered with environmental organization Ocean Quest to conduct a series of cleanups, including the removal of discarded fishing nets from dive sites. According to Marcelo Guimaraes, a Brazilian marine biologist who also serves as the resort’s activities manager and scuba instructor, these nets are “suffocating the coral reefs and affecting their health in the long term.”
Guimaraes leads me on an introductory hike across the island one afternoon. Along the way he points out thanaka trees, an evergreen that produces the yellow cosmetic paste seen on the faces of men and women in Myanmar. We pass a site where work has started on private pool villas, which will up the island’s luxe factor when completed later this year, and finish with a tour of the local fishing villages.
Wildlife is less apparent than on Wa Ale, though other unique experiences abound, and Guimaraes is keen for guests to discover them. “We want guests to mix it up, relax for a couple of days, then paddle, hike, get out and explore the incredible beauty of this place,” he says.
Heeding his advice, I set off in a kayak one morning. It’s eerily meditative as I paddle around the headland to Needle Rock just as the sun hits it, turning the outcrop’s craggy gray surface gold. There is no one else around—no boats, no birds, no wind, just the slap of water against the hull of my kayak. I tingle at the isolation and recall Guimaraes’s words on why the archipelago is special: “So few people have been here, you could be the first person to see something or set foot in a particular spot.”
I won’t, however, be the first person to explore Shark Cave; a short boat ride from the resort, it’s one of the archipelago’s best-known dive sites. Strong currents make entering the tunnel too dangerous, so Guimaraes leads me around the reef base instead. Though we don’t spot any sharks, we see missile-like barracudas, grotesque scorpionfish, a graceful blue-spotted stingray, and tetchy lionfish, their venomous fins flared in warning. These being inshore waters, visibility isn’t as good as what you’d find in the Maldives, but marine life is abundant.
Back on the island, I enjoy a cocktail by the pool before heading to dinner in the open-air dining pavilion. (As at Wa Ale, meals are included in the room rate.) Lunches are à la carte affairs that might feature beef schnitzel, tuna tartare, or an exotic white seaweed salad. Dinners are set courses, though requests are possible, and one evening I am treated to off-menu lobster, prawns, and squid bought from local fishermen.
On my penultimate day at Awei Pila, I wake up to find something amiss. Glistening offshore is the
broken hull of a small boat. Then plastic bottles and bags drift ashore. According to the resort’s general manager, Steffen Kroehl, a freak mix of super-high tides and currents has carried the flotsam here from elsewhere in the archipelago. It’s all hands on board as guests join the cleanup, and by sunset the beach is pristine again.
Despite the cleanup, I’m left wondering how my presence, and that of the resorts, might contribute to environmental problems. According to reports by nonprofit organizations Fauna & Flora International and Istituto Oikos, however, the reality is that the fragile ecosystems of the Mergui islands have long been under threat. Dynamite fishing has damaged coral, fish stocks are depleted, and hunting and poaching have driven animals into hiding. Then there is the pollution. And the semi-nomadic Moken, the so-called “sea gypsies” who have long been the traditional custodians of the archipelago, are increasingly forced to live on land, their decline the result of overfishing by commercial fishing boats and the growing influence of the outside world. Myanmar’s government sees sustainable tourism as a way forward.
I leave the last word to Wa Ale’s manager, Alyssa Wyatt. Over a breakfast of mohinga, a fishy noodle soup that is Myanmar’s national dish, she tells me that when she and her chef husband Ray first arrived on the island two years ago, it took workers weeks to clear decades’ worth of garbage that had washed ashore on one beach alone.
Since then, “every day there is a new discovery, whether it be a trek where we see new animal life or hear a new bird or discover a new tree … or even snorkel and dive and encounter new marine life. The turtles are being protected by us and are returning to lay their eggs. This island is thriving.”
And with the right approach, so too could the rest of this beguiling archipelago.
There are several daily flights between Bangkok and Ranong, from where it’s a half-hour boat trip to Kawthaung for the onward speedboat transfer to the resorts, which operate from October through May.
Where to Stay
Wa Ale Island Resort
From US$400 per person, full board.
Doubles from US$750, full board, excluding alcoholic drinks.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Making Tracks For Mergui”).