Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar
The sun has just gone down. There is a half-moon directly above the anchor light on the top of the mast. Enjoying the peace, the scenery, the sound of the waves on the beach 100 meters away, a few white clouds in the sky and the talk and clinging of cocktail glasses of the guests below me on deck.
You could not make me happier. And guess what, I am in the most unknown (and unexpected) cruising ground of the world: The Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar (formerly BURMA).
But it truly is the ultimate cruising ground. Islands like Cavern, McCarthy, Great Swinton, McLeod, Horseshoe and some that do not even have an English name (or any name at all for that matter), are all a paradise on their own. A 100 by 40 mile cruising area with more than 800 island and rocks to choose from, open to the
Indian Ocean on one side, assuring crystal clean water being refreshed with each tide.
Every island is covered with jungle till the high-water mark. And when I say jungle, I mean jungle. Each individual tree is again overgrown with another plant. Nature as pure as it can get. Untouched for centuries. With low tides (and there is 3,5 meter of it!!!) a white beach develops, just below the jungle. No footprints from humans on it.
But the trails from monkeys, monster lizards, hermit crabs, wild boar and more are to be found as the only proof of life. The white sand is not the sand that we know. No this is grounded, died off coral, which explains the colour and the finesse of the structure. One of the kids remarked it was like walking on flour!
But the biggest beauty of this undiscovered cruising ground is that it is undiscovered. You have it all to yourself. I make a bet with my clients every week: I pay 10$ for every other tourist boat that they could spot.
The most I ever had to pay was 10$ during a 14 day trip. But mostly I would win and not have to pay anything.
And that makes it very, very unique.
Where else can you do this? How far has one got to travel nowadays to be on his own? And if you do find a spot: how many of those places are then in a nice climate? How many of those places offer extensive luxury on a yacht in a complete safe environment? How many of those places are –even for kids- a world of pure imagination and wonder around every corner and rock, above and under water?
The list can go on, but the Mergui Archipelago is one of those last, remarkable, safe, accessible and amazing frontiers.
Meet NEMO in person
We are sailing from Lampi to Great Swinton, little wind around, so the engines are helping the mainsail. On the foredeck we have all the sun awnings up, to provide some shade. We look around and count some 22 islands around us.
And each island has several strips of white, pure white beach on them. It will take years to visit them all, but we don’t have time. We sail onward and enjoy this amazing scenery, while the smells from the galley make us already want to have lunch.
And indeed with a Thai cook onboard every meal becomes a feast. One drops the anchor in 15 meters of water, as the fringing reefs comes up very steep, but this makes the snorkeling so interesting.
So the exploration of this natural paradise continues under water and everyone is in the water within seconds. Under water more alive coral, fish, crabs, moray eels and of course NEMO itself is encountered on a daily basis.
But also whales and manta rays, and again here the big ones. Nature on steroids, as we call it, above and under water.
Hermit Crab Racing
We drive the dinghy to the beach and step on a virgin beach that is 3 kilometres long…both to the left as to the right. The kids run ahead and find themselves some smaller hermit crabs.
Now the adults have joined in and also find their own hermit crab. We draw a small circle in the sand and a wider one around at 3 meters distance.
Every one puts their own hermit crab in the smaller inner circle and now the race is on. The first hermit crab to cross the outer circle is the official winner of the hermit crab race of the day.
And do not get too excited, because as soon as you move or want to cheer your hermit crab, it stops moving and withdraws in its stolen shell. Always fun.
While we enjoy another fantastic Thai lunch on board, the boat sails on to our next destination: McCarthy Island.
As the sun slowly goes down, we all gather again on the beach. Some swim over, some take the kayaks and others came with the dinghy. A cool box has all the necessities for the obligatory sun downer cocktail.
The kids run off to gather wood, of which there is plenty on the high water mark of the beach and we quickly make a huge bon-fire. Of course we make this just below the tide-line on the beach, so that the next morning the beach is washed clean and looks pristine white again.
The silence of the complete group as we enjoy our drinks, watch the sun go down, see the first stars blinking in the sky is deafening in itself. Even the kids realise this is a special moment.
Another day in paradise comes unfortunately to its end.
No mosquitoes, no pirates and no other tourists
You are sailing around in the tropics; temperatures are constant around 32 degrees during the day. Look for shadow and a lot of sunscreen. Even snorkelling is done with a T-shirt on, to prevent sunburn.
At night the temperature drops to a comfortable 25 degrees, which makes it perfect for sleeping on deck and admiring the sky and star abundance above.
And that without a single mosquito around, once you are in the island group. Mosquitoes need fresh water and garbage to live on, and there is not enough of either.
So, enjoy your cocktail on deck after sundown. Be free, and fully enjoy this really last paradise to be discovered. Before the crowd gets in.
These waters are home to the Moken people, basically now an endangered group of people: also called sea gypsies. They live with the complete family on a special open boot, with the typical long-tail engine on the back.
And they row a canoe, cut out of a solid tree, with a specific cross-over way of rowing (see picture). They live from fishing, move around constantly. They are expert free divers. One finds them along the West coast of Thailand and on a lot of Burmese islands.
There are now two permanent settlements for them close to the island of Lampi. A visit to these villages is a must and to see how the school is run, will be a surprise for many.
Every visit to the Moken villages is accompanied with taking some medication along, or material for the school, or barter for fish against cigarettes, a pair of swimming fins, or anything else they normally would not have in this area. They are the friendliest people I have met on all my voyages.
There are also plenty of local, Burmese fishing boats around, and it is nice to trade off some fresh fish, crab or even lobster with them. All as friendly as they could possibly be. Always smiling and waving at you. In these waters we are the attraction.
The rules for sailing in Myanmar
There are only crewed yachts available for charter in Myanmar, and basically all come from Phuket, Thailand. A typical crewed catamaran comes with a European Captain, Thai cook and deckhand.
This ensures pure luxury, fantastic food and a complete relaxed holiday. A charter in Myanmar is only allowed through a special permission from the Ministry of Tourism and every yacht gets a Burmese guide on board for the complete duration of the trip.
These are friendly young, perfect English speaking guys, who also work on the boat. They have knowledge about the local fishermen, the Moken people, the fishing and they know the best snorkeling, dive and overnight sites.
A joy to have them on board and certainly not a burden. Of course this all comes at a price: on top of the normal yacht charter, including food and/or drinks, one has to obtain a Burmese visa and an entry permit for the Mergui Archipelago (normally around 300$ for a week, per person).
Since during your complete stay in the Mergui Archipelago there is no provisioning possible, make sure your yacht is equipped with enough freezers, water maker, etc.
After all, you enter no-mans land!
Combine sailing and diving.
The Mergui Archipelago offers some spectacular dive sites, up to 40 meters deep. Charter a catamaran that also has dive equipment and a dive master on board and you can enjoy the potential of these waters to the fullest.
A typical 7 day charter makes you visit some 20+ islands and anchorages and covers some 240 miles of travelling, from North to South, from East to West.
And with a season from November till May, basically no wind to worry about. No waves, no big swells, nothing. Weather patterns are sosettled that nothing happens.
The reason why nobody ever came to Myanmar, is it previous military regime and the closed society. But Myanmar has changed it rulers and its policies.
And what a beauty they have in hand. For the very lucky few to discover… NOW.
For I am afraid, it will soon all be over…
Sailing Burma itinerary sample 1 – 8 days
Day 1: Kawthung – Barwell Island
Transfer by long-tail from Ranong ( Thailand ) to Kawthung ( Burma ) arriving on the yachts around lunchtime. Once all the paperwork is sorted, we sail to Barwell Island for an evening arrival.
Day 2: Barwell Island – Lampi National Park
After exploring the island we sail north to Lampi National Park.
An idyllic anchorage and your first opportunity to see the White Bellied Sea Eagles and Brymony Kites that circle the skies.
Day 3: Lampi National Park – Great Swinton
In the morning, we explore one of the mangrove rivers on the west side of Lampi Island .
Plenty of wildlife and huge, century-old mangrove trees towering overhead. After, we set sail for Great Swinton Island , stopping off on the way at the Sea Gypsy village on Pu Nala.
Day 4: Great Swinton
Great Swinton Island has several kilometres of white sand beach, beautifully clear warm water and the most pristine coral you have ever seen!!! It is ideal for those that want to snorkel or view the coral and marine life whilst paddling along on the kayaks. Or for the experienced divers, just offshore, there is the world class dive site of Shark Cave !
If diving is not your scene, the day can be spent Sea Kayaking around to our night anchorage on the other side of the island.
Day 5: Great Swinton – McCloud Island
After we leave Great Swinton we sail south, passing dozens of deserted tropical islands before arriving at McCloud Island . Another beautiful island covered in rainforest and some great snorkelling. Here we have an opportunity to explore the rainforest and perhaps even see the illusive Rhinoceros Hornbill, whilst crossing the island to explore Nautilus Beach where sea shells of the same name may be found.
Day 6: McCloud Island – Horseshoe Island
Today we travel to the “jewel in the crown” of the Mergui Archipelago. As the name suggests, this island is horseshoe shaped with a lagoon in the middle making it the most idyllic anchorage. Being shallow, with crystal clear water and a white sand bottom, the whole lagoon appears like a giant fish tank.
Day 7: Horseshoe Island – Kawthung
This morning, we take the inflatable to the nearby island of Copula . The whole inside of the island is a giant cave, which can only be entered by dingy at low tide. The cave is home to a small number of people who live in a stilted village above the water. These people spend their life in the half-light collecting bird’s nests for the soup!!!! After lunch we depart for an evening arrival in Kawthung.
Day 8: Kawthung
Leave the yacht about 8am for the long-tail crossing back to Ranong ( Thailand ) for your onward journey.
Sailing Burma itinerary sample 2 – 6 days
Day 1: Kawthaung
We’ll meet you at the airport in Kawthaung (Myanmar) or in Ranong on the Thai side of the border and you’ll be on board in no time. Relax on deck with a welcome drink while we glide toward the Mergui! Spend the rest of the day on the beach of Hasting Island.
Day 2: Lampi Island
Early the next morning we will arrive at Lampi Island, the largest in the region. We will brunch on board and visit a village of Moken sea nomads. Let’s buy squid for dinner before sailing northwest to the gorgeous Clara Island. The water is exceptionally clear here!
Day 3: Pila Island
It’s a beautiful cruise to Pila Island and we will try our luck fishing for tuna. Once there, we barbeque on the long, long beach and go for a jungle walk along a little creek. Hear the monkeys and hornbills? Before a relaxed sundowner, we cool down by snorkelling in the azure water.
Day 4: Frost and Potter Islands
We pick up the east winds and speed towards the Mid Group. We could spend a whole week exploring its small islands, hidden coves and beaches, so we choose the prettiest: Frost and Potter Islands. Spectacular white beaches and huge fig trees.
Day 5 & 6: Zadetkyi Island
We spend most of the day on the water, only stopping for a dip in the open ocean! Some get busy sailing, others lie on deck and watch the dolphins jump. It’s dinner on the beach at Zadetkyi Island. After a long brunch the next day, we sail back into Kawthaung.