Exploring the Myeik Archipelago – Part 2
This is part 2 of Exploring the archipelago from Myeik (view Part 1 here)
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 sailed around the ‘undiscovered’ northern part of the archipelago for a week. In the previous blog you could read about our first trip to the Islands. This blog is about our second visit, a trip to the outer northern.
‘Far Away’ island
‘Far Away’ Island was like the romantic stories on the internet about the Myeik Archipelago. Looking out from the picture perfect beach there was nothing than a blue sea with fishing boats and tropical islands lying in a distance under a cloudless sky. There were no tourists, there had hardly been any tourists out here before, but unlike the stories the place wasn’t quite deserted.
Only on our fifth day in Myeik there were enough tourists for the agency to arrange a trip. The three times two hundred horsepower Yamaha’s of the agency’s speedboat brought us to an outer part of the archipelago in what would have been days with a long-tail. The groups first destination was ‘Far Away’ Island, as the guides named it.
Before entering the beach of ‘Far Away’ Island our speedboat had to maneuver its way pass some squid fishing boats. Catching squid happens in the night time. The animals are then attracted from the deep dark waters with special lights that are fixed on the fishing boats. Once near the lights and thus the boat, the animals are cached. In the day time the boats lie at berth in the bays and the fishermen hang around on the boats and islands. There was a hut on the beach that sold all kind of stuff, like a small supermarket, to the fishermen and on this particular day to us. Our party bought a 24 cans tray beer to wash away the chicken fried rice the group had for lunch.
The fishing village
The travel agency had been to ‘Far Away’ Island once before, but no one, not even the captain or the guides on the boat, had ever set foot on this island with the fishing village. For the villagers it might just be that the we were the first Westerners they had ever seen here. Amid great interest, from both sides, we set foot ashore.
Fish drying racks were spread along the beach. In between groups of ladies were sorting out piles of small sea creatures, mainly fish and squid. The people explained our guides that the fish would come of the boats here before being sorted and put on the drying racks. The actual village was within walking distance and the people would come here only to work. The islanders were a mix of Karens, a Christian minority in South Myanmar, and buddhists.
These people happen to be living in a ridiculously beautiful place. Their way of life, the location and that these islands were until very recently ‘forbidden’ places, made it a unique experience. The enthusiasm in our group rose when walking amidst the growing group islanders that had been gathering.
Some of the people on the island seemed to like us, the strangers, others were a bit shy, but we also got the feeling people felt uncomfortable, so to say. Some younger ladies explained, through our guide, that they didn’t want to be photographed because they wore no thanaka (kind of make-up and used as suntan) on their face.
A good article about photo tourism in Myanmar is about the face tattooed ladies of a small tribe in Chin State, Myanmar. The ladies of the tribe have tattooed faces as this is a way of showing their beauty. Over the last decades tattooing young girls has been banned and only a handful older ladies with face tattoos exist today. Myanmar has opened up over the last years and ‘photo’ tourists now find their way into the remote Chin hills. The ladies tell that they have been captured unasked while working or in other circumstances they rather wouldn’t be photographed. The tattooed ladies wonder if they aren’t becoming a freak show or what these people do with the photos of them.
A same situation is happening here on the Myeik Archipelago. It felt uncomfortable. We came rushing into their daily life without prior notice while bringing a fancy speedboat and big camera’s with even bigger lenses. If they didn’t want to be photographed we stopped making pictures of them. In some cases we could make small talk with some of the people through the guides and after talking for a while asked if they were okay with a snap.
Another great way to communicate in Myanmar is through the feet. Playing Chinlone (some kind of foot volley) has proven to be an ice breaker in many occasions. And in a way playing footbal is my normal reaction when situations are a little uncomfortable. One of our fellow tourists thanked me afterwards for playing with some of the local guys, ‘it was perfect for taking some action shots’.
With sunset we sailed back to the busy harbor in Myeik. Even late in the afternoon the waters in front of the city was full of traffic and the quay the same (as always) bustling transportzone between the mainland and the Myeik archipelago.
The northern part of the archipelago for which Myeik is a logical gateway is a lively place. People live, work and recreate in these waters and on the islands. They just happen to be surrounded by an extraordinary beautiful scenery.
The archipelago is a real place with real lives going on. In this sense the Archipel is often not just a tourist fairytale as you might read in many published stories circulating on the internet. Though we certainly can not deny the beauty of the place.
More tourists will come to the Myeik Archipelago. These days Myeik is a one day bus ride or an hourly flight out of Yangon. The Islands are open for day tours now and the tourism industry is developing. More tourists don’t have to be a bad thing and can also mean a lot of opportunities for the area, but we hope the people won’t end up being just a tourist attraction. Though this area is so beautiful we can only recommend to visit.
* LIFE Seeing Tours is a tour operator in Myeik and organizes day trips to several islands for about 100-170 USD. They are located on the ground floor of Hotel Grand Jade, next to the Central Mart (the one with a good coffee shop and an escalator).
* Here are a few articles from travelers on on-board cruises out of Kawthoung:
– Burma: Island in the sun
– The Islands of Burma
– Myeik Archipelago, the untouched islands of South Burma
* A National Geograhic article on the Sea-Gypsies (Moken) living on the Myeik Archipelago