Exploring the Myeik Archipelago – Part 1
Since recently the government allows day trips to the Myeik Archipelago. This opens up a whole new part of the vast islands formation in the Andaman Sea off the coast of southern Myanmar. We visited three islands during our week stay in Myeik.
It’s just after sunrise, but the port of Myeik is already in full swing. Anything you can think of makes its way from the quay to the boats. From scooters, pots and pans, bags with ginger and unions, to toys, water and petrol. Big chunks of ice are loaded from trucks and pushed into a shredder, from where it goes into the docks of the waiting fishing boats. Men in suits with briefcases, whole families and groups of ladies with tin lunch-boxes are hurrying their way down the footbridge towards the ferries lying at berth.
The porters exhausted heads are already heavily sweating in the hot first rays of the morning sun. Maybe it’s the local gin and playing cards till late where they suffer from, but anyway they have to work hard and fast this morning to get all the goods to the boats. Above the jetty’s main entrance the sign reads: ‘Towards a new and modern developed nation’. For now though it’s the manual labour done by these fellows, the unknown workers with small daily wages, that is the oil of the nation. With full admiration I look upon a sight of days gone by.
The Myeik (Mergui) archipelago is made up of some 800 islands stretched out over a vast area of approximately 400 km before the coast of southern Myanmar. Myeik is the northern and main gateway to the islands. The other is Kawthoung, on the southern edge of the Archipelago.
The archipelago is said to accommodate many picture perfect nearly empty beaches, just as beautiful as the crammed tourist places in (close by) Thailand. A traveler who visited the archipelago on-board a luxury cruise departing from Kawthoung reports lyrical: ‘800 uninhabited islands here, the land is made up of thick green jungle, with strips of long golden beaches along the shores. There are no roads to these beaches, no resorts, sun loungers or umbrellas, no man-made structures of any kind, just nature’ .*
National Geographic listed the Myeik Archipelago among their Best Trips 2015. They call the ‘hundreds of undiscovered white-sand beaches, dense unexplored jungles, and clans of the mysterious Moken sea gypsies’, the ‘forbidden Islands’ as the government has kept the islands off-limit for a long time and are even today seldom visited.
A few months ago the only way for foreigners to see the islands was by getting a special permit (application took two weeks) and joining a live aboard cruise, most of which departed from Kawthoung. Just one month before our arrival the government has started allowing day trips through licensed tour agencies. We hoped that it would be possible to arrive in Myeik and arrange a day trip.
The agency whom we had contacted in Myeik had several attractive trips on offer, there was only a big problem: no tourists. There were about 7-8 people needed for them to organize a trip and at this moment there were only two, us. Over the last month the agency had organized a few trips, but due to its novelty not many foreigners found their way to Myeik, yet. We saw our chances to get to the islands go up in smoke. Luckily we had some time to spare and could see if in the next few days some other tourist would show up.
In the meantime a local guide showed us his charming town with fascinating local industries. Somewhere between Myeik’s traditional rice-noodle lunch and visiting a cashew nut factory, he tells us he can arrange a local fishermen who could take us on his wooden boat to ‘nearby’ situated Mergui Island. The next morning we were off.
The main Jetty is a two way walking bridge form the quay towards a large steel pontoon. Boats are coming in and out at the pontoon constantly. The deafening sound of the long-tails is now and then interrupted by the soft zoom of a waiting passenger ferry. The exhaust from the long-tail engines fills the air with a smell of burned petrol. Our boatsmen get the engines roar and slowly we are drifting away from the pontoon.
The panorama on the waters in front of Myeik makes me think of a famous painting: ‘De Gouden leeuw op het IJ voor Amsterdam’ (Willem van de Velde de Jonge, 1686). The port of Myeik is filled with ships. The large wooden fishing boats which lie at anchor show resemblance with 17th century wooden sailing ships. In the background you can see the silhouette of the city. The activity and the background completes the image of the waters in front of Amsterdam at its prosperous Golden Age.
In open water our long-tail moves ahead slowly through the beautiful scenery of the archipelago. We pass large and small islands, all of them covered by a thick jungle. The large islands have a village, the smaller seem uninhabited and look like turtles. The people on the boats we pass wave friendly when they see us.
‘Do you know Justin Baiiiiiiberrrr?’ and ‘how many guys in one direction?’. My newly made best friend on Mergui Island is eager to talk with me about the latest pop-music. I fake that I am also a ‘Belieber’ and answer with full confidence, ‘there are five in One Direction’. My friend gives me a weary look. Nonetheless, together we stream some video clips of Taylor Swift and LMFAO on his phone. He keeps on laughing while telling me I look just like one of the members of the latter pop group: the one with the curly afro [Red: RedFoo].
There was a kind of Myanmar style beach party going on Mergui Island. A large passenger ferry and some long-tail boats had brought a bunch of locals to enjoy their day off. Dance music pumped out of the speaker, the beach bar where one could buy snacks and beers was full, people were swimming and dancing in the water and the beach had umbrella’s.
It was quite a surprise when we cornered the bay of Mergui Island. Perhaps naive, but we thought to visit a bounty island where we would be the only ones, at most there would be a fisherman passing in a dug out canoe. Nothing was further from the truth, but certainly not least fun.
The people were so enthusiastic that is was infectious. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us and make small talks. ‘SWIM!,SWIM!,SWIM!’, they were shouting at us. The locals were dancing or swimming in the water in whatever they were wearing. In most cases, jeans or skirt. So, there we went, in our clothes and with the brought european style swimming gear safely dry in the bag.
It was fun and a good experience, seeing and joining locals on their day off, but there were unexplored waters and many more islands to explore. Seeing another part of the archipelago came down to another few tourists who wanted to join on an arranged speedboat trip. View part 2 here.