Here in the southern tip of Myanmar “roads” are far and few between; subsequently planes and boats are the preferred (and sometimes only) modes of transport. From Yangon it is a three hour plane trip with just as many stops in between. The flight offers us a wonderful view of this still untouched part of the country from an aerial perspective. Below us lies a vast and unpopulated stretch of land and to the West the Andaman Sea extends endlessly into the horizon towards India; looking eastwards hills and mountain ranges form the stark natural border between Myanmar and Thailand. Kawthaung, in fact, evokes a far stronger impression of the latter than the former – an impression no doubt enhanced by its status as a free trade zone. Indeed, its proximity to Thailand should not be underestimated: Phuket is a mere 300 kilometers away and the nearest Thai town of Ranong is only 20 minutes by ferry. Many Thai tourists and Western travelers come over from Thailand on short-stay visas, lured by the prospect of the many and various bargains to be had.
From the airport we drive directly to the bustling jetty to board the “Sea Gypsy” and leave civilisation behind us as quickly as possible. We don´t have a specific destination for our journey as such, we simply want to float along and marvel at the wonders of this magnificent archipelago. Of the 850 islands dotted around only a handful of them are populated. We pass a shiny new casino which, perched like a siren calling atop her rock, entices the punters from its vantage point on top of an island just opposite Kawthaung. A little further, there already is a new luxury resort; a few others are either already under construction or in the planning stage.
Only a few islands are inaccessible for tourists since they are either used by the military or as pearl farms. Considering the number of islands in the archipelago this is hardly a problem – there are many more left than you would be able to visit even in several weeks! Having been isolated from civilisation for many years – the archipelago lies far off from the busy shipping routes – the Myeik Archipelago counts as one of the last virtually untouched island chains on Earth; some islands are yet to be even set foot upon by a human being. In past centuries a few Chinese junks have strayed from their course and found their way to the islands. In more recent times smugglers have exploited these remote, sequestered islands as they hid their contraband in one of the myriad coves. In fact it is only recently that tourists have been allowed in at all.
Our boat is named after the Sea Gypsies, also known as the Moken or the Salone. They are a seafaring tribe of which very few remain, making their homes in their houseboats as they travel through the archipelago. Their boats can be distinguished from those of the local fishermen by the shape of the bow. Although once entirely nomadic, most Sea Gypsies are now land-based – a lifestyle encouraged strongly (and on occasions forcefully) by the government. These days they live together with the local people on some of the islands, where they depend on the day’s catch for sustenance. On our second day at sea we visit the fishing village of Ma Kyone Galet; here cooked sea cucumbers skewered on sticks are considered a special delicacy. Whilst civilisation in these villages has now been firmly embraced, sadly not so the idea of any kind of waste disposal which shall be increasingly important as these once natural environments come to rely more and more upon the material world. Naturally the village has its own monastery and the monks here keep a white rabbit as their pet. The white rabbit represents the spirit of the moon and is revered almost as much as Myanmar’s national animal, the peacock, which symbolises the spirit of the sun. The abbot shows us a giant crab caught and subsequently donated by the local fishermen; such an act of generosity stems partially from the goodness of their hearts and the esteem in which they hold the monks, but importantly it is also considered a highly propitious token for future success at sea.
The combination of overfishing and the effects of “El Niño” (a climatic phenomenon in the tropical Pacific occurring every 3 to 7 years and lasting roughly 9 months to 2 years which sees the large scale intrusion of anomalously warm, nutrient-poor marine water replace the cold, nutrient-rich surface water) has severely depleted the number of fish and corals in the area – a trend evidenced by the marked increase of sea urchins in the same place.
Small fish dart playfully around in their schools; the larger ones, however, keep themselves hidden or simply are no longer there. Nonetheless we manage to spy a few vibrantly-coloured corals and glimpse some clownfish and sometimes even a lionfish. Occasionally we also see the odd sea turtle or ray drift by us.
On our way we pass by numerous fishermen going about their work both in their small logboats and in their larger vessels. On their fishing trips they can live on these boats for several days before returning to their villages. Some islands serve as stop-off points for weary fishermen; using tarpaulin, temporary shelter is erected by the islanders to offer these fishermen a welcome break from their relentless exposure to the elements. On one such island we meet some women and children who have learnt to take advantage of the frequent presence of fishermen on their island: they collect the otherwise discarded skins of the puffer fish caught by their guests and, having turned the skins inside out to avoid the rather unpleasant spikes, flatten and dry them either on hot rocks or spear them on wooden poles. After this they are ready to be sold on to merchants and tradesmen in Thailand who fashion these skins into wallets and waterproof boxes which they go on to sell for a handsome profit.
Our days are pleasantly full – in our moments of downtime we are content to daydream and lose ourselves in the sky and the sea. We enjoy the exceptional food that our cook seems to magically conjure up. He always manages to get the freshest delicacies from the passing fishing boats. We snorkel and we swim. We walk on beautifully lonely beaches to nowhere in particular. We collect shells. We take the canoes and kayaks on board and venture along some rocky coastlines or delve deep into the murky mangrove forests of the islands. The sea changes its colour from deep blue to a turquoise green.
The numerous and nameless beaches are as white as snow and more often than not simply breathtaking. The air is clean and clear, the sunsets almost too fairy-tale. At night brilliant and otherworldly flashes of marine phosphorescence invite us to join them for a nocturnal swim.
The journey of discovery continues.