In search of Burma's hidden treasure

Forget Mandalay, never mind Bagan – for a real Burmese adventure, head south to meet the ‘sea gypsies’ of the wild, undiscovered Myeik Archipelago

8 mins

Warm salt water tickled at my toes. The gentle lap played in rhythm with the dinghy’s engine, while a lazy breeze rocked the nearby trees. It was a scene so perfect I felt I’d been sucked into a travel brochure. Here I was about to jump off into the unknown, to explore a coral reef that potentially no one else ever had. But, for a moment, I hesitated.

The ripples distorted whatever lurked beneath into a swirling mass of colour. No one could advise what exactly lay in this undiscovered otherworld. Eventually I would have to summon the courage, hold my breath and just take the plunge.

It could have been a metaphor for my whole trip: diving headfirst into the unknown. I was in Burma for nine days to experience a different side of the country, one few travellers see. On my itinerary there would be no sunrise over the misty forests of Bagan, no golden temples of Mandalay, no slow drift across Inle Lake. After a brief but obligatory encounter with the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon I had travelled south – as far south as you can go before you hit Thailand – to the border town of Kawthaung. But the adventure had only just begun.

Setting sail

In Kawthaung I sped past the day-trippers bartering in the waterfront shops and the monks gathering morning alms in the busy streets. Instead, I went straight to the harbour to join a small group boarding a boat to Burma’s forgotten islands.

A collection of 800 mostly uninhabited isles, the Myeik Archipelago pokes out from the Andaman Sea like a mismatched collection of volcanic pyramids. Most are coated in twisted mangroves and strangler figs, and edged by strips of sand so golden they could rival the country’s gilded Buddhist temples for sparkle. Their interiors conceal a potential treasure trove of wildlife: monkeys, Burmese pythons, big cats, wild elephants – no one really knows for sure, the isles are that uncharted. But that could all be about to change.

With the past few years seeing Burma reopening for tourism, and the recent relaxation of government rules restricting travellers’ movements, these islands are starting to beckon the curious. The archipelago was formerly off limits as some of the islands are used as military bases; however, permits have now been granted to a select few boats, allowing them to navigate here. With the one resort reporting booming business in its 22 rooms, and with a second resort currently under construction, it may only be a matter of time before these waters aren’t quite as empty as they are now.

With that thought in my head, I slid off the inflatable dinghy and felt the warm water envelop me. Securing my snorkel, I kicked down for a proper look. As the bubbles cleared I made out the heads of sepia-coloured brain coral just below my flippers, while jellyfish bobbed through the water. A bright-orange sea anemone waved as two clownfish finned among its tentacles. Angelfish swam right up to my mask, unperturbed by my presence. A fisherman’s net swayed in the darkness ahead, and suddenly I was surrounded by a swarm of white fish. However, as the water became deeper, the coral began to appear bleached and somehow irregular.

“Dynamite,” explained Mike, our skipper, when we reached the beach. Although he now sails tourists around in catamarans, previously he worked for 20 years as a commercial fisherman all over the world. What’s happened here over the 50 years that the country’s been largely closed off to tourism is something of a mystery but hints lie hidden beneath the waves.

The people of the sea

That night, as we gathered driftwood for a fire, our ship’s mandatory government-approved guide Hein (who, he told us, is one of only seven qualified to lead this trip) began speaking of ‘sea gypsies’. These islands, he explained, aren’t completely uninhabited. The Moken have called the Myeik Archipelago home for as long as anyone can remember. Said to number around 2,000, they traditionally spend their whole lives at sea, many being born on giant ‘mother ships’ that serve not only as fishing vessels but also as kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms. These large boats tow fleets of smaller vessels – we saw one towing 13 – which they use to go hunting. They survive on the bounty of seafood beneath their floating homes and forage for edible roots and fruits on land. “Some can hold their breath for 15 minutes,” said Hein, “and the children can see really well underwater meaning they are excellent at spearing fish.”

In the past the Moken would only come ashore during the monsoons, establishing temporary shelters on these islands and then leaving them once the storms passed. That all changed in 2004. In an effort to try to assimilate the Moken into Burmese society, the government tried to move them onto land. Though many resisted, now 60% of the 850-strong population of Bo Cho Island are settled Moken; the rest are fishermen from the mainland.

We anchored at Bo Cho the following day. Children gathered on the beach to welcome us, their faces covered in thanaka – a paste made from tree pulp, worn as sun protection and to moisturise the skin. They smiled at us, curious, but once the initial novelty wore off, they busied themselves with more pressing matters: the boys running, falling, jumping and throwing hairy caterpillars at the girls; the girls screaming and hiding. It was a scene no different from any school playground in the world – except for the bedraggled dogs, cats and cockerels that moved among them.

Surprisingly the village boasted a coffee shop and several stores, plus a line of stilted houses that served as Main Street. Underneath one, a Moken family sat playing cards in the sand, and called me over to watch. They picked and dropped cards with speed, smoking cigars intently; I couldn’t work out what game they were playing but their serious expressions indicated that the stakes were high.

“The village is named after Ma Kyone Galet – a ‘gypsy’ woman who settled on the island some 75 years ago,” explained Hein as we walked up to the temple. “You’ll see it’s mainly Moken women here during the day, the men will be out fishing. Things have changed already. If you’d come even seven years ago the Moken would have been wearing sarongs and nothing else.”

Children were climbing all over the Buddhist stupa as Hein explained that monks came from the mainland to build it – Moken people aren’t Buddhists. As the bell rang we followed the children to the school where 140 pupils spanning eight grades were being taught Burmese (Moken speak their own language, which is said to sound similar to Malay), maths and English. “You sound funny,” squealed one little girl as I asked her how old she was. Any speaking sent them into fits of giggles.

According to Hein, many of the Moken have been receptive to sending their children to school, which is funded by the government. But they do face problems. In 1997 the government put a protection order on the islands’ trees to stop illegal logging. This prevented the Moken from replacing their mother ships – which are dug out from single large trees – so there is real concern that their way of life could be lost. For now though, back on the beach with the next generation of ‘sea gypsies’, there were only smiles and laughter.

Island high

We moved on and dropped anchor at an island known as Lampi, a large crescent-shaped patch of land north of Bo Cho and officially designated a nature reserve. We took kayaks over to the huge stretch of white sand that fringed the mangroves. Hundreds of translucent crabs scattered at our feet as the smooth grains audibly crunched beneath. A plethora of tracks crossed the sand, belonging to lizards, birds and the monkeys that now screeched from the branches above.

The tide was too low to navigate one of the many rivers that weave into the interior. I tried walking alongside it for a few metres before the vegetation became too thick to pass – it seemed a machete was a walking necessity here. It was worth a try though: seven wild elephants are said to live on these shores, shipped over when logging was outlawed; there’s also supposed to be wild boar and musk deer too. But right now, as the sun seeped blood red hues into the sky, we had the beach to ourselves.

From this sublime empty beach, we headed for the one resort in the whole island chain. Khayinkwa Island (aka Macleod) is home to the Myanmar Andaman Resort – not that you’d know it at first, so well secluded are the beach huts amid the trees. While some of the group decided to rest and enjoy the hot showers, four of us headed up through the forest to the highest point on the island. Cicadas buzzed like a fire alarm in the trees. The track became steeper and the ropes laid down by the resort became necessary as near-vertical rocks broke the trail.

To either side, the leaves twitched with insects, lizards and birds. I dripped with sweat as the humidity rose under the canopy. After 45 minutes, the trees ended and we could peer down on the bay, where the boats looked like plastic toys.

Hein asked if we wanted to try for the summit and without hesitation I followed. The path up was even less trodden. Cobwebs hung around branches like wisps of angel’s hair on Christmas trees; soon we were spotting spiders that even Hein couldn’t identify as poisonous or not. We reached the top as the sky was turning crimson, just in time to watch the sun set. The auburn flash of sea eagles was replaced by the darting swoops of bats; it was time to descend.

We raced down, trying to make the most of the remaining streaks of daylight, but under the canopy it darkened quickly. The cicadas’ chirps began to break up, as though they were running out of batteries, before stopping completely. All at once, the forest fell silent. Then, as the darkness seemed inevitable, something magical happened: thousands of tiny green lights – fireflies – twinkled all around, guiding us back to the beach.

As we jumped into the dinghy and sped to the boat, I noticed that our wake was now also filled with tiny green dots – phosphorescence, the luminescent living organisms of the sea. That night we sipped Myanmar beer on deck and cooked fresh crab on the barbecue while schools of marlin leapt out of the water.

Paradise found

We passed the following day snorkelling among starfish and stingrays at the romantically named Island 115. Clambering back into the dinghy I watched as two small Moken boats rowed passed us, their occupants paying us no mind at all. I looked over at the island opposite – where the archipelago’s second resort is currently under construction – and wondered how long the Moken would keep coming here once the place was filled with more tourists.

That night a couple of us kayaked over to another island, the name of which no one seemed to know. As we searched the trees for signs of wildlife a single Moken man wandered past. We called to him and, with no common language, attempted conversation using hand gestures – from which we established he’d walked around the entire island and was about to return to his camp nearby. Via sand drawings we also garnered that he’d seen two snakes. He offered us one of his cigars, invited us to join him and then sped off at such a pace he seemed to merge into the island itself.

We gave up our trail and lingered on the sand. Looking out to sea, as the last of the sun’s rays began to seep away, we watched the tiny lights on the squid-fishing boats begin to flick on, illuminating the water – and shining a light onto this once ‘lost’ area.

Development is inevitable – somewhere this special can’t escape it for too long. But for now, we stood in the shadows of the mangroves, castaways in a secret paradise, hidden from the world.


What’s in a name?

As with most places in Burma (aka Myanmar), the Myeik Archipelago and most of its islands tend to have two names – a colonial one and a Burmese one. For example you may see the archipelago referred to as Mergui in some guidebooks and websites but mention it to anyone in the country and they won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. A lot of the islands have Scottish names, but again GPS charts, fishermen and Moken will refer to them by their indigenous names.

The trip

The author travelled with Intrepid Travel (0845 287 1190) on its nine-day Burma Sailing ex Yangon trip.

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