‘What I love about this place is that Robinson Crusoe experience; whichever island you go to, you feel like you’re the first person to set foot on it, where the white, powdery sand feels like you’re walking on deep snow,’ says Eric Pöpper, general manager of Burma Boating, which operates yacht trips in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago. ‘It’s a stunning experience, and of course, you have the whole island to yourself.’
The Mergui Archipelago is just off the southernmost tip of Myanmar’s mainland. It’s rare to find such a pristine marine and beach area anywhere in South East Asia, especially considering that not far off you have Phuket and other crowded Thai islands. The sights of empty sands and turquoise seas are otherworldly.
The Mergui Archipelago, or Myeik, as the locals call it, is made up of 800 islands distributed across a 600-kilometre stretch of the Andaman Sea, forming a large marine ecosystem that extends to another 40 islands that are part of Thailand. Towering formations of limestone and granite are covered in tropical forests, with extensive coral reef systems just below the waves. Large swathes of mangrove forests and seagrass meadows also attract diverse marine life.
The town of Kawthaung serves as the main point of entry to the archipelago, reachable by domestic flight from Yangon or a boat ride from Ranong in Thailand. As Kawthaung is just waking up to tourism, it’s not the most developed place, but change – here and across the archipelago – is afoot. ‘The Burmese and Thai governments are working closely together towards the same goal, which is to develop the area into an eco-tourism destination,’ says Pöpper. ‘I think the area will really explode in the next five years, and you can already see more hotels being built, with many travel agents setting up camp as well.’
Left:Florian Dahm; Right:Christopher Wise
I start my journey on an 80-foot sailboat, the Y-Not, along with my guide Hein, as well as a skipper and cook. As there’s barely any internet connection, the journey forces me to stay off my mobile phone – a blissful digital detox. For three days, it’s calm seas and cool winds as we pass by greenery sprouting luxuriantly from the tops of imposing karsts. Hornbills fly above the canopies of the forests, while kingfishers glide over the sea, diving occasionally in search of a meal. Snorkelling in the ocean is just as, if not more, stunning. Reef creatures wind among anemones, and schools of fish form bait balls as protection against, well, me. Here, it’s easy to leave the world behind, especially when you’re busy marvelling at the wonders Mergui has to offer.
But nature saves its headliner act for after dusk. After kayaking my way into the sunset, the few hours of pitch black before the moon rises are the best time to jump into the sea and surround myself with bioluminescence, formed by countless specks of plankton emitting a bluish glow. The phenomenon is quite common in the area and is most pronounced during a new moon. The glow is simply mesmerising, and as I stare into the sky, it’s as if I’m floating with the stars above.
The sea journey ends at Awei Pila, one of the few resorts to have received permission to build in the archipelago. This tiny slice of heaven offers modern, luxurious amenities but aims to roll marine conservation into its main activities.
‘In my opinion, the diving here is better than the Maldives,’ says Marcelo Guimaraes, a veteran marine biologist who works at the resort. ‘Because Myanmar is so virginal in terms of development, I have a chance to get it right from scratch. People only really started building resorts in the area in recent years, therefore I can really preserve the reefs and make sure they last. We start by keeping the dive sites from overcrowding by only allowing a few divers in at the same time. Since diving is new to the area, I think it’s very appealing for people to try a site that hasn’t been explored before.’
Guimaraes says that apart from monitoring the surrounding reefs, he will also start a coral farm later this year, and this grown coral will be added to the resort’s house reef. Guests will be able to participate in this effort and name the corals they help to propagate. ‘They can come back in a few years’ time to check how their coral has grown,’ says Guimaraes.
The main threat to the reefs here is not coral bleaching caused by warming temperatures or pollution, but discarded fishing gear drifting in the ocean. These lost nets can cover the coral, preventing it from feeding. Guimaraes now works closely with environmental groups to remove these nets and teach locals not to discard fishing equipment into the sea.
Pöpper adds that the resort and his boating operation – both owned by Burmese hospitality company Memories Group – aim to create a mutually supportive relationship with the community. ‘We encourage local villages to clean up their beaches, and in return we help bring them modern utilities such as electricity,’ he says. ‘We want to build schools as well, educating the future generation on how to preserve the area, and we will soon provide sea doctors to go around the islands to provide medical care.’
Here I’m able to see how awareness and change can start on an individual level. Hein, my guide, lives in Kawthaung with his family, and when he’s not at sea he trains others on the importance of protecting the area’s environment. ‘I want the pristine beaches to remain intact,’ he says, ‘and I hope we all will do the right thing for our future.’
Need to Know
Founded in 2013, Burma Boating organises sailing holidays and yacht charters in the Mergui Archipelago. Trips range from four days to several weeks long.
Awei Pila Resort
This exclusive private island resort is surrounded by virgin forests and offers view of the Andaman Sea. It includes 24 tented villas (with more in the works), an infinity pool facing the ocean and a spa.