Friday, 23 May 2014

Myanmar’s islands are Asia’s hottest new destination - but they’re still deserted

THE thing about Myanmar’s Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago is there are no tourists.

Written off by the British, then sealed off by Myanmar for almost half a century, the Myeik Archipelago is finally open to foreigners - but only those on selected tour groups.

Keen to escape the daily grind, I’ve joined an Intrepid Travel group on a sleek new catamaran sailing through this lost world for five days.

As the southern Myanmar city of Kawthaung slips out of view, the drone of civilisation is replaced by the sound of trade winds stirring leaves and puny waves lapping deserted white-sand beaches. Occasionally, I see signs of other people - the distant lamps of a squid fishing boat or some sea gypsies from Myanmar’s ethnic Moken group paddling wooden canoes.

But these lush green pieces of paradise are mostly deserted. If Asia has a capital of tranquillity, this has to be it.

On the second morning we find a local squid boat anchored nearby and our Myanmar guide, Hein, takes me over on the dinghy to try to get lunch.

The heavily tattooed fishermen on deck happily hand over a bucket of freshly caught squid in exchange for five cold cans of lemonade. It seems an uneven trade but Hein disagrees.

“Money is no good for them at sea, they like drinks,” he explains.

The squid is welcomed by our on-board chef, Soe, who prepares a scrumptious stir fry for lunch.

I soon found out that Mr Soe is a culinary genius. He produces four different dishes with rice at every lunch and dinner in his tiny galley. Only once or twice do we eat the same dish at two meals.

Later on the second day we paddle kayaks up a winding mangrove creek on a huge deserted island called Lampi.

Shimmering baitfish schools leap from the water, and further upstream, a monitor lizard suns itself on an overhanging branch. With no signs of human life, the forest is dead still and Hein spooks us with tales of wild elephants roaming the undergrowth. The glassy, stagnant creek looks like it could hide snakes or worse, but we push on, feeling adventurous.

Eventually I grow tired and I’m secretly glad when we come across a large fallen tree trunk blocking the creek, forcing our retreat.

Back on the catamaran Mr Soe has thoughtfully laid out cakes and tea for an afternoon snack.

I wait half an hour before jumping into the water for a quick paddle.

Later in the evening we eat dinner watching the sun melt into the Andaman Sea, spreading ribbons of ochre, orange and deep purple through the inky water.

The next morning, I sip coffee watching the sun creep back up over the bay as birdsong fills Lampi’s forests.

I have another swim and on climbing back aboard I see Mr Soe has laid out bacon and egg sandwiches with more coffee for breakfast. Soon we pull up anchor and I’m disappointed to leave this beautiful place.

But after a morning’s sailing we find ourselves in yet another deserted wonderland - Swinton Island.

We don snorkels and swim around a rocky point where hundreds of brightly coloured fish dart through corals.

The beach is full of activity as scores of hermit crabs drag their shells up and down the foreshore; it’s a silent crustacean peak hour.

By late afternoon I realise we’ve gone the whole day without seeing anyone else.

As night falls, the ever industrious deckhand Mr Win scales an enormous cliff to collect wood for a bonfire.

We collect branches from the bottom and lob them on a huge heap which will light up our own private soiree on the beach.

Mr Win attends to our bonfire with the attention of a firemen on a steam engine.

Mr Soe prepares another perfect meal: chicken curry, fresh fish cooked on the coals, crunchy tangy salads and coconut rice.

With our bellies full, we drink beer, share stories and listen to music through a portable speaker while a blanket of stars shines down on us.

“There’s no other people on this whole island,” someone observes.

“In fact there’s no one else anywhere near here. How many times will you have this is your life?” I look into the crackling embers and smile contentedly.

Our skipper, a young South African sailor called Miles, tells us some of the islands, including this one, have been bought up as land for resorts.

He seems unconcerned that it’s the last time the tour will visit Swinton.

“There’s always others around here,” he smiles, gesturing to the vast sea that’s been our home for the past four days.

Myanmar’s government has been opening the area very carefully and slowly.

Perhaps it understands the need to preserve the tranquillity that makes this place special.

It’s inevitable that the Myeik Archipelago will eventually change forever, but right now, the pace of development feels as slow as our catamaran chugging between the islands.

IF YOU GO GETTING THERE: It’s quite difficult to get to the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago, butIntrepid Travel offers people a chance to explore with its Burma Sailing trip from $1895 per person. The nine-day trip ex-Phuket includes six nights on board a sailing catamaran and two nights in a hotel with most meals included.

STAYING THERE: The catamaran has cosy cabins with hatches leading onto the main deck. The bed is two single mattresses pushed together, with a curtain dividing them. So unless you travel with a partner or friend you may have to share a large double bed with a stranger, but most time is spent on deck anyway.

PLAYING THERE: Intrepid provides snorkels, fishing rods, kayaks and paddleboards. As all meals and water are included, the crew also sell glasses of wine for about $A3 or cans of beer for about $A1.50. All you’ll need to bring is your clothes, a towel and a pair of walking shoes.

For more information visit intrepidtravel.com.

*The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel.


source: Herald Sun
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