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Asia travel

Pristine waters on a sailing trip around southern Myanmar’s untouched Mergui Archipelago

A yachting adventure on some of Southeast Asia’s most remote and clear waters allows a glimpse of its natural beauty and abundant marine life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 4:30pm

The captain leapt up and bellowed down the deck: “Dolphins off the port side. A pod of them – a big one!” The other passengers and I had recently finished breakfast and were dozing in deck chairs. We leapt up, straining our eyes against the blazing sunshine as our yacht sliced through the calm, golden-capped waters of the Andaman Sea.

We were aboard the Raja Lout, a 30-metre wooden-hulled schooner that we’d boarded the previous day just outside the Thai port of Ranong. We were heading north through the Mergui Archipelago, a collection of islands in the far south of Myanmar.

The captain had sharp eyes. It was minutes before we glimpsed what he’d seen – a collection of fins heading towards us. The dolphins reached the boat and swam underneath the bow, twisting in the water to show their white bellies. There were a dozen or more of all sizes and as they disappeared behind the boat a couple leapt from the water, hanging momentarily in the sunshine before crashing back beneath the water.

It was one of many glimpses of the fabulous natural world that is preserved in the Mergui Archipelago, one of Myanmar’s most remote and pristine locales.

The Mergui is a collection of more than 800 islands, all but a couple uninhabited. The area is part of Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region. Historically, it’s home to the Moken, a nomadic people who travel the Andaman Sea, fishing its waters. They are often called “Sea Gypsies”, due to their wandering lifestyle, though a few thousand have now settled in small villages on a couple of the islands.

Until 1997, it was impossible for any tourists to enter the area, after which the Mergui became accessible for high-end diving trips. Even now, visitors need a permit to enter the area, and formerly it’s only been accessible to the ultra-wealthy who were able to charter private yachts to take them in search of these perfect beaches and reefs.

However, the area is now opening up, with companies offering private cabins aboard yachts. The travel is still in the luxury class – our schooner had accommodation for 12, an eight-man crew and an excellent chef. But each cabin can be booked separately so visitors no longer need to charter a whole boat and crew.

We made a five-night loop of the southern archipelago, visiting different islands each day, where we had the chance to swim, snorkel at nearby reefs, or just explore pristine beaches. The Raja Lout would sail if the winds were favourable – in our case, we had the sails up almost every day – or run under the power of its motor if the winds were against us.

Each evening we anchored in a sheltered bay and enjoyed a huge dinner of fresh fish, vegetables, fruit and Burmese or Thai curries, before lying out on deck under the stars, until lulled down to the peace of our cabins by the gentle motion of the sea.

Throughout the trip, we hardly saw another vessel, except for a couple of local fishing boats. One evening, a young Moken boy rowed up to our hull in a canoe carved from a single hollowed-out tree trunk to trade his freshly caught squid with our chef for rice and curry that he’d made for us that night.

Guests can also visit one of the villages where the Moken have settled. There they can play with local children and see some of what remains of their traditional lifestyle, though it’s clear the Moken’s old ways are quickly being replaced as more and more head to Myanmar’s burgeoning cities, or across the border to work on fishing boats in Thailand.

What has remained largely untouched is the wildlife in and around these islands. Reef sharks, nurse sharks, whale sharks and blotched stingrays patrol the waters. Killer whales have also been sighted. On our final day, we took a dinghy into the mangroves of one of the larger islands in the archipelago. Puttering along beneath lush vegetation, our guide pointed out two Burmese pythons, coiled up and snoozing not two metres above us in the branches.

However, the true attraction of the trip is seeing the natural beauty of this untouched area from the deck of a boat, the sails snapping and filling with wind, taking you into some of the least-charted waters in Southeast Asia.

Getting there:

Nick Taylor travelled with Burma Boating, which offers a range of trips in the Mergui Archipelago for individual travellers and small groups. The five-night Mergui Sailing Adventure costs HK$17,420 per person including all meals and soft drinks. Part of the company’s profits are used to run a charity called the Sailing Clinic, which provides medical care to islands without access to hospitals. For more info, visit burmaboating.com