I was invited to go on the first exploratory cruise into Burma’s Mergui Islands along with two other journalists. The Merguis had always held a long time fascination for me for several reasons. First of all, they are strictly off-limits to foreigners and have been this way for at least a half century because of Burma’s xenophobic and paranoid government (I don’t know why, but all these off limit places are the ones I want to visit the most). Secondly, they look so fantastic on all my maps. I was already familiar with some of the fabulous islands just south of the Merguis that sit in Thai waters, and it was a sure bet the Merguis would be equally as beautiful and exotic, probably more so because of their isolation.
The third thing that fascinated me about the Merguis was that many of them were named after Englishmen. I surmised these names must have come from the crewmembers of the first English sailing ship that chartered these waters. I imagined what their reactions might have been upon seeing these islands for the first time, an adventure I was going to be soon replicating myself.
At this time I was living on another tropical island myself, Langkawi, off northwestern Malaysia. So I hopped on my motorcycle, took a ferry to the mainland, and after a full day’s ride, arrived in Ranong, Thailand, just opposite the southern tip of Burma, where the story below begins. This article was published in several periodicals, but first appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal on March 7, 1997.
The very first diver to touch bottom on the very first virgin dive site we recce alights his flippered foot on something hard and sharp. He reaches down, picks it up, shakes off the muck, and places an old shard of terracotta pottery into the net bag hanging from his weight belt. The next minute he chases an inquisitive two-foot lobster back into its hole, tries for a grab, but suddenly draws his arm back when he sees its crevasse-mate; a moray eel.
Was this a portent of how great all the scuba diving was going to be in the heart of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago? Probably not, but this random anchorage was only a hint of what lies waiting beneath the fathoms of this seldom visited part of the world. It will be decades before divers uncover even a fraction of its underwater potential.
We were already well aware of the sailing potential on this five-day exploratory voyage on the Gaea, a 51″ ketch-rigged trimaran. The awesome beauty of the surrounding seascape usually had us stunned speechless, marveling at how such a lush and fertile area could be so bereft of signs of human habituation.
Join the crowd if you never heard of the Mergui Archipelago because most people haven’t. This is a group of more than 800 tropical islands strewn across 10,000 square miles of Andaman Sea, and is one of the least known and least explored areas left on the surface of our planet.
It wasn’t always this way, especially a millennium ago, as these islands lie just to the north of a busy sea route across which the riches of both the Indian and Chinese empires flowed. Boats would drop their precious cargoes off on either side of the thinnest part of the Thai Peninsula, called the Isthmus of Kra, the sliver of land that separates the Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea. The goods were then caravanned overland by elephant where waiting empty boats would continue ferrying them on their sea journey.
The Age of Steam killed this shortcut when it became more economical to just cruise around the entire Malay Peninsula and avoid the bandits and ensuing transit tributes the rulers of the Isthmus of Kra demanded. The Mergui Archipelago fell into a deep slumber through 19th century British colonial rule right into World War II. Comatose better describes the Merguis since then.
When I left on my own voyage, Kawthoung harbor was aglow from a full moon. The Gaea raised its sails and its engine sparked to life. We curved around Victoria Point and headed northwards up Burma’s coastline to begin our cruise into 800 unknown islands. A smile finally cracks the Stoic face of Captain Frost, an expat Aussie living in Phuket for a decade. “The whole idea of this trip is just to prove we can. I guess this is proving it.”
Astern, the hilly coastline of Burma’s Tenasserim province recedes in darkening bands of grey. Soon the only non-celestial lights we see are a few squid boats working the horizon.
After a six hour cruise, we approach our intended anchorage on the lee side of Hastings Island in the hour after midnight. Neil Meyers, the first mate and divemaster, mans the bowsprit with a searchlight to look for bottom hazards while Graham shouts out the depth in meters. Speed is dead slow.
The sea chart Graham is using “actually the only one available” is too large-scale to show any useable detail except the most obvious. Our chosen mooring looked safe enough on paper, lying between a triumvirate of closely clustered islands, but in reality it wasn’t. The current was swift, the channel was shallow and strewn with rocks, and the bottom was covered with coral. There was no way of Graham knowing this without actually seeing it firsthand.
A reef closes in and Graham slams the Gaea into reverse. The order to drop the hook is given. Neil takes a swim down the anchor line to make doubly sure it is biting in solid.
It will be a long time before all the blank spaces on Gaea’s charts are filled in. This spirit of adventure and discovery will be part of every cruise for many seasons to come.
Besides good diving, we are also on the lookout for a mysterious group of people called Moken in Burmese, Chao Lae in Thai, and Sea Gypsies in English. Hardly anything is known about them besides their romantic-sounding name, making them one of the least studied indigenous groups on our globe. They are nomadic seafarers who spend their lives on their boats in family units, living off the bounty of the sea while searching for pearls. They spend the monsoon months, though, on temporary encampments dispersed throughout the Mergui Islands.
Their boats are distinctive dugout hull bottoms with planked sides and a covered living quarter in the middle. Historically they used woven, palm-frond sail, but today it is a good bet they will be powered by longtail motors.
For our first afternoon adventure, Graham picks an interesting looking bay with a charted beach on the north coast of nearby St. Lukes Island. We arrive shortly before noon opposite a perfect stretch of unbroken sand.
We anchor, pile into a dinghy and row to shore. The coral sand is as fine and white as confectioner’s sugar and our feet sink in up to our ankles. There are loads of monkey and civet cat prints and crab trails and holes, but not one human footprint. After an hour, finding nothing of interest besides this drop dead gorgeous beach, we paddle back to the Gaea for more exploration.
We reach our night’s intended mooring off Pulau Bada in the late afternoon and sit around on deck entertainment by the Technicolor sky, watching the orange sun sizzle into a piece of ocean unobstructed by islands or clouds. The sea is as calm as a bathtub.
The next day we continue cruising north and islands are now thick around us. Each one we pass seems lovelier than the one we slid by only a few minutes before. Their variety is myriad. Some are mountainous and large, nearly the length of Phuket or Singapore. Others are flat and small, the size of a few city blocks. The tinier ones would be crowded if three terns landed on them. Some islands are nonexistent except at low tide when their crustacean encrusted boulders poke above the surface for a few hours.
The larger islands are covered in primary forest. But the western most isles, the ones exposed to the full brunt of the Indian Ocean rollers, are scoured clean of all vegetation except for tenacious scrub clinging onto their leeward sides.
Aquamarine waters fringe every island like a welcome mat. Deserted beaches, shimmering white, the sand textured by wind and sea and not by man, beckon us to stop. As we approach each island, the resident eagles launch themselves from their tree-top aeries to become our welcoming committee. Soaring high above the Gaea, they check us out with one sharp eye as our brilliant white vessel slices silently across their hunting grounds.
For millennia these ocean jewels have been shining their charms to a non-existent audience instead of playing to standing room only. I can’t quite believe that I am one of the first outsiders in a long, long while to be gazing on such stunning beauty.
We round another island and a beached Moken longtail sees us and gives chase. When they catch up and sidle besides us, Oon Gee, our Burmese guide from the Hotel and Tourism Ministry, yell to the fishermen over their unmuffled motor who we are and why we have come into their waters. They shout back a bunch of stuff in their native language which included an invitation to their Moken village. They run ahead of the Gaea to show Graham were the underwater obstructions are.
Oon Gee tells us, “They took one look at the Gaea and thought ‘What a boat! So wonderful! We have to meet these people.'”
When their island comes into view, we toss them two South East Asian Diver t-shirts and two ice-cold brews, probably the first cold ones they have tasted in their lives, and tow them in the rest of the way. We anchor off their beach and take the dingy in the rest of the way. Our escorts introduce us to the village headman, seventy-nine years old, blind and wizened. He welcomes us to his community, called Ma Chew Glee, home to one-hundred Moken. “Feel free to look around,” he tells Oon Gee to tell us.
After a few hours of wandering through this neat and tidy grid of bamboo and thatch huts raised a few feet above the sand, we bid the headman adieu, telling him we have to get going, thanking him for his hospitality.
Our night nook is off Kubo Island nestled in the elbow of Lampi Island, also called Sullivan Island on our chart; most of the Mergui Island were named after crew members on the first English sailing ship to enter these waters. Lampi is one of the larger islands in the chain and was recently gazetted a national park. Oon Gee tells us that elephants and tigers still roam on Sullivan Island.
This anchorage is another beauty. I lay down on a large mat atop the top deck, underneath a fly sheet. I try hard to stay awake listening for trumpeting elephants and roaring Bengal tiger. But the gently swaying Gaea lulls me to sleep within minutes
The following morning, we dingy to a beach and look for elephant and tiger tracks. Instead we find prints equally as rare; human ones. A bamboo drying rack is evidence of a recent Moken camp. Our own footprints begin to clutter up the beach. But by the next high tide the slate will be wiped clean again, ready for the next group of explorers.
After lunch we navigate a winding, narrow channel off the northern tip of Lampi. The entrance is guarded by small black dolphins that leap from the water like apostrophes. This one kilometer passage was absolute magic. Golden afternoon sunlight sparkles the water like liquid diamonds. Stretches of mangrove and long narrow coves pierce the island to our port. Thick jungle spills over several small beaches shaded by feathery casuarina pine trees. Brahminy kites show off their aerial acrobatics above us.
The Gaea spins west, then north, then west and north again before exiting into the unbroken Indian Ocean, no more islands in front, eight hundred behind. As if this scenery wasn’t enough, a school of sailfish started feeding on the surface behind our wake. Simply put, this was the most beautiful and untouched slice of earth I have ever seen. My boat mates concur.
Our last day in the Merguis is our designated diving day. Even though this cruise was primarily billed as a sailing excursion, Graham made sure to pop in a few dives. Two promising looking rock pinnacles were picked for the first two dive sites. “You can get a rough idea from a chart where good dives should be,” says Neil donning his wet suit, “but there is no way of finding out for sure unless you go down for a peek.”
The consensus on the first dive was although the underwater populations were healthy, the visibility good, and even taking into account the pottery shard that was found so easily, it was not sufficiently interesting enough to be given a return visit. Hardened divers want to see adrenalin-pumping BIG pelagics; angel fish the size of pizza pies do not suffice.
We slip down the second dive site an hour before dusk. Boulders the size of boxcars tumble to the bottom like a gigantic train wreck, forming caves, crevasses, and crannies, perfect home for many fish species and excellent anchor for corals and crustaceans. After resurfacing, all aboard rated this a good dive site, and the first, red star was drawn on Gaea’s charts.
Seventy miles and fourteen hours to the southeast lies Kawthoung, and we sail through the night taking turns standing watch. We arrive at ten the next morning and Oon Gee leads us on a walking tour of this booming border town frenetic with noise and energy.
We climb a hill commanding the best view of the bustling harbor. At the apex is a statue of an historic warrior-king in medieval armor, Bayint Naung, chasing way future enemies with a ferocious and fearless glare.
On an opposite hillock, a gigantic reclining Buddha proffers a different sort of harbor protection; one of peace. Several sea level Buddha shrines fend the rocky points.
Every shape and color of boat is buzzing around Kawthoung Harbor in every direction at once. Graham Frost gazes down at his Gaea anchored in the center of all this activity. Broad and gleaming white, it looks as foreign as a starship in a shopping mall parking lot. He smiles as contentedly as the watching Buddhas. He is a man who has achieved his own version of nirvana.
The Gaea’s maiden run was an unqualified success and the decision was finally made by the Myanmar government to lift the veil of isolation and secrecy surrounding the Mergui Archipelago. Full permission was granted exclusively to Graham Frost, owner of South East Asia Divers Live-Aboards, for regularly scheduled sailing excursions (sorry, yachties; stop salivating; no private boats allowed.) Starting February 11, the Gaea will leave every Monday on five-night, four-day sailing cruises into the Merguis. The gateway port is Kawthoung, the southernmost tip of Myanmar, better known as Victoria Point.