Photo: Well someone has to do it.

Exploring the Mergui Archipelago

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The Mergui Archipelago stretches from just short of Dawei all the way south to Kawthaung for more than 400 kilometres, with the most westerly isles lie more than 100 kilometres from the mainland. This spectacular part of the Andaman Sea, comprised of some 800 islands, holds without doubt Southeast Asia’s largest untapped potential for beach and island exploration, though for now exploring by boat from Myeik is limited.

Apart from Thai liveaboard tours out of Khao Lak, Phuket and Ranong — Thailand’s Surin and Similan Islands are effectively southern extensions of the Mergui Archipelago — cruises to most islands here, off limits for years, have barely scratched the surface. Islands run the gamut from tiny rocky outcrops to extensive masses hoe to multiple villages and plantations. Some remain under control of the Burmese navy and are still prohibited to visit. Traditionally, the archipelago was the domain of the nomadic “sea gypsies”, of whom the Moken comprises the largest ethnic group.

Peak hour at Marcus Island. Photo taken in or around Exploring the Mergui Archipelago, Myeik, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Peak hour at Marcus Island. Photo: Mark Ord

Geologically, the southern reaches are limestone while the northern islands are granite. This means only the southerly islands have the cliffs and white beaches familiar to those who’ve visited, for example, Trang and Krabi in Thailand. (Samui, Pha Ngan and Ko Tao are granite intrusions, so more typical of scenery you’ll see in north Mergui.) Most of the islands closer to the shore are largely flat and covered in mangroves; even on remoter ones, mangrove swamps ring the eastern coasts.

The flip side of these islands being off the tourist radar is that nobody has had any incentive to preserve them. Neighbouring Thailand realised a long time ago that such picturesque tropical islands were a great resource and while there are some farcical failures — such as Ko Phi Phi — strictly controlled marine national parks have been largely successful in protecting environments (Ko Similan, Surin or Tarutao). In Mergui, forest has been cut wherever land can sustain coconut or rubber, fish and shrimp farms have replaced mangroves, wildlife has been decimated and the fishing industry has caused widespread reef destruction.

On a more positive note, there are just so many islands we’re sure pristine spots can still be found; many islands are too remote or hilly for cultivation or habitation and as a start, rainforest covered Lampi has been declared Burma’s first National Marine Park.

This’ll do, we suppose. Photo taken in or around Exploring the Mergui Archipelago, Myeik, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

This’ll do, we suppose. Photo: Mark Ord

As with Kawthaung, organised boat tours out of Myeik are still very much in their infancy so they are inevitably hit and miss in terms of quality. For now, without booking a week-long island cruise out of Ranong or taking a spot on a liveaboard diving/snorkelling trip, taking a boat tour remains your only means of getting to the islands. With a number of returning locals having worked in Thailand’s tourist industry, we expect this to change in the near future.

When we visited in early 2016 two main operators plus a couple of freelancers offered two options. Itineraries will vary depending upon the boat’s capacity, but one trip heads south of Kadan (King) Island (the first large one from Myeik port) to Dome (Ross) Island, while a second takes a northern route around Kadan to tiny Marcus Island for snorkelling.

Relatively large Dome Island is one of the most important islands for the Moken people though as our guide did warn us, these days they “live in settled villages, have diesel motors on their boats and carry cell-phones”. The visit to one of their villages is still interesting, as their lifestyle remains very traditional in many respects, and with a good guide you ought to learn a lot.

Dome Island visits also include a short jungle hike across the island to visit a picturesque waterfall. The standard tour continues with a stop at Natthamee Yae (Drake Island), which is actually two small, rocky isles, for lunch on the beach and snorkelling.

Life can be simple on Marcus Island. Photo taken in or around Exploring the Mergui Archipelago, Myeik, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Life can be simple on Marcus Island. Photo: Mark Ord

The island and beach are stunning but underwater life is non-existent, we assume due to overfishing and dynamite blasting.

Travel times depend upon which boat is used but even with their best speedboat it’s around 90 minutes each way. Any additional stops will then depend upon the boat as well as sea and weather conditions. Typically in this area winds can pick up in the afternoon so an itinerary may be curtailed in consequence.

The second standard itinerary heads north around Kadan, stopping at a fish farm, to remote Marcus Island for lunch on the beach and snorkelling, before returning via another spectacular beach on Kadan itself. Marcus is around two hours’ travel time away. It’s a gorgeous spot but again there is little or no coral to be seen.

Plenty of beach to go around. Photo taken in or around Exploring the Mergui Archipelago, Myeik, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Plenty of beach to go around. Photo: Mark Ord

We travelled with Jade Flower Travel who offer both itineraries on a daily high season basis though they only have one speedboat. Their second boat is a barely seaworthy clapped out old thing with a couple of high-powered motors stuck on the stern. They’d be much better off scheduling alternate trips on alternate days and only using their single decent speedboat.

Service was excellent though, with a considerate and enthusiastic guide who spoke very good English. Food and drink couldn’t be faulted, with a never-ending supply of snacks and soft drinks plus fruit and seafood fried rice provided. Scenery on both trips as they weave through myriad islands is stunning.

Being only a couple of hours’ sailing from the busy fishing port of Myeik is perhaps the issue when it comes to finding decent snorkelling area — it may well be necessary to travel further afield to find decent spots.

Did we mention Marcus Island is pretty? Photo taken in or around Exploring the Mergui Archipelago, Myeik, Burma_myanmar by Mark Ord.

Did we mention Marcus Island is pretty? Photo: Mark Ord

The town’s other boat operator, Mergui Sakura, had an excellent boat, with equally good staff and service. Prices vary according to numbers but were consistent between the two operators though with limited tourist numbers in Myeik and small boats they aren’t particularly cheap.

Rates went from $80 per person for a full boat load up to $130 for four, though when we booked we were given a $20 per person refund since they ended up with more punters than they thought. Prices are all inclusive with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel.

The day after we did the trip our excellent guide announced he’d got together with the boatman to offer independent $80 day trips so this is all a situation in flux.

Note if takers are on hand, operators will organise two-day island tours including camping overnight on the beach. Rates are double the day rate. Tours will in theory be offered from November through to April, weather conditions permitting. Expect fantastic scenery and a great buzz cruising through the Mergui Archipelago but, for now, forget the snorkelling.

Jade Flower Travel, Grand Jade Hotel: 28-30 Baho St, Myeik; T: (092) 5420 7077, (097) 8090 8607;;
Mergui Sakura Travel and Tours: Kan Phyar Rd; T: (059) 42100, (094) 987 2393, (094) 959 5552;

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