Need an e-tox?Then head for one of Asia’s last unspoiled destinations — the Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar.
My phone and laptop were beginning to control my life, and I was badly in need of an e-tox. I couldn’t bear to throw these gadgets away, so I decided to go far, far away; somewhere without Wi-Fi or 3G; somewhere I could escape from the virtual world and reconnect with nature.
Allowing myself one last online indulgence to search for my spot, I signed up with Moby Dick Tours for a cruise through the Myeik (aka Mergui) Archipelago, located in the Andaman Sea off the southern coast of Myanmar.
The indicators were good: over 800 tropical islands, some no bigger than a house and others several kilometres long and wide; most of them uninhabited; no ferries connecting them, and definitely no Wi-Fi.
The trip began in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost town, where I boarded the Sea Gypsy — a homely looking, yellow and green-painted vessel with simple accommodation for 10 people, a communal sitting and eating area, a sundeck and a perpetually smiling crew. My companions for the voyage were a bunch of like-minded travellers from the USA, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Thailand.
Our tour guide, JoJo, briefed us on our activities for the next five days. These included exploring the islands and beaches, swimming, sunbathing, snorkelling, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), visiting a Mok en (se a nomad) village , mee ting local
fishermen, eating delicious food and getting to know each other.
JoJo handed each of us a map of the area, and I smiled to see the names of some islands, such as Hastings Island, Lord Loughborough Island and Great Swinton Island, which I presumed were named by ship captains in the era of British rule over Burma.
I had read that the region was once a hotbed of pirates, but I hoped we would complete our cruise without seeing a ship with a Jolly Roger flag of skull and bones bearing down on us.
Within a couple of hours heading northwest into the archipelago, we had lost sight of the mainland and were surrounded by islands that were covered in dense forest and ringed by rocky shorelines, sandy beaches and coral reefs.
Soon the Sea Gypsy dropped anchor and JoJo whisked us to a deserted beach in a small dinghy. We scrambled up a steep incline to enjoy a panoramic view of the archipelago, but we didn’t stay there long. Suddenly everything went dark and the heavens opened; rain came teeming down, thunder cracked and lightning split the sky. By the time we got back to the boat we were all soaked, despite not yet having had a swim in the sea.
Our voyage took place at the turn of the dry to rainy season, and stormy weather became a regular feature of the next few days. While in some ways this was disappointing, the storms brought with them a silver lining in the form of dramatic skies that made for memorable photos. I would find myself composing an image with bright sunlight shining on the Sea Gypsy or on one of our group paddleboarding over limpid waters, with a contrasting backdrop of dark, brooding clouds.
As we chugged around the archipelago, we often spotted dolphins breaking the surface near our boat, and eagles and kites gliding on air currents high above us. With its relative lack of human activity, the archipelago is a haven for many rare creatures, such as dugongs, dusky langurs and plain-pouched hornbills. We didn’t see any of these, but one day I was taking shots of yet another idyllic, deserted beach when someone shouted “Oh, look at the monkeys!” I swung my camera round to see that the ‘monkeys’ were in fact a family of oriental small-clawed otters scampering down the beach to the sea. Apparently, they are different to other otters in that they spend most of their time on land, and catch their prey with their paws rather than with their mouths.
Though the islands are largely devoid of any human footprint, one saddening sight was the pollution on several beaches. Plastic bottles, torn fishing nets and lumps of Styrofoam marked the high-tide line, posing a grave danger to the many endangered species that inhabit the archipelago.
Coral reefs are also under threat, not only from rising sea temperatures, but also from carelessly dropped boat anchors and tourists taking souvenirs of their trip, though I was glad that JoJo warned us against this last activity. Unfortunately, due to the stormy weather, visibility on the reefs was poor so we couldn’t fully appreciate their beauty at the time of our trip.
At present, only a few resorts exist in the entire archipelago, each of which professes to be eco-friendly and to keep human impact to a minimum. However, several other luxury resorts are currently under construction on previously uninhabited islands, and hopefully they will take a similarly sensitive approach to this fragile wonderland.
The only permanent inhabitants of the archipelago are the Moken, an Austronesian people who number just a couple of thousand. In the past they would spend nine months of the year moving around the islands, free diving for food from their dugout canoes, then sheltering on land during the monsoon season. These days they live most of the time on land, and we visited one of their villages on Nyaung Wee Island.
We found them friendly and welcoming, and we were able to watch them repairing their canoes and thatching huts while their children played on the beach. One of the local Moken women told us that they are trying to hold on to their traditional lifestyle despite intermarriage and modernisation, but she was doubtful whether
they would be successful.