May 2005: For years I would stare at the map and wonder about the uninhabited archipelago of islands in the south of Myanmar and the sea gypsies, their only occupants who tend to live longer on the sea in their makeshift boats than on land. The islands were one of those places on the map that was blank. There was little information and no travel blogs. Myanmar, a military dictatorship untrusting of the outside world, in itself was not easy to get to. The Mergui Islands however were virtually impossible to get to and had been kept off limits by the Myanmar military in order to sinister activities such unsustainable logging and human rights abuses of the minority tribes that live adjacent to the islands on the mainland. Then in the early 2000’s the Leonardo Dicaprio movie, “The Beach,” came out featuring a group of backpackers that discover uninhabited islands of paradise in southeastern Thailand. I wanted this experience but unlike in the movie the Beach, I knew that the islands of southeastern Thailand have become inundated with tourists, and I wanted the islands of the movie, so I found a local adventure liveaboard sailboat that departed from Thailand near Phuket to Kawthoung, Myanmar and onward into the Mergui Archipelago, a series of uninhabited islands covered in primary jungle, coral reefs and white sand beaches. The islands are so wild some like Lampi island are even home to wild elephants and tigers. To see the Burmese islands of Mergui Archipelago, I booked a spot on a small liveaboard boat and explored the islands for one week during the Burmese monsoon season. This is the story of my adventure.

 

 

Location of Mergui Archipelago

Boat Trip Across Thailand to Kawthang

I flew into Bangkok, Thailand a hub that I had used many times before to get all over Southeast Asia. I spent one night in Bangkok before flying to Phuket in the south where I met the boat captain, a swarthy young Frenchman, who I would discover had a penchant for Thai hookers. I would have my own cramped cabin and share the boat with a French couple and a few Burmese seamen. Our boat was small and basic but the most important thing for me was that it was cheap. The cost was exceptionally cheap considering our ambitious plan, but I would learn to realize that it was cheap because we were sailing during monsoon season, and we would encounter some very rough seas during the trip. Enroute to Kawthoung from Phuket, we visited a few Buddhist temples on small Thai fishing villages.

 

Muralof the Thai King Promintly Displayed in Bangkok

Buddhist temple on a Thai fishing village

Buddhist temple on a Thai fishing village

Entering Myanmar

Once in kawthoung, the boat stayed out in the bay, and I was dropped off onto the wharf via a dinghy to obtain my visa on arrival. The captain had all of his permits to visit the Mergui archipelago inspected and stamped and we picked up a representative of the Myanmar government that would accompany us for the trip to as he claimed, “ensure our safety,” but really to keep an eye on us and make sure we weren’t engaged in any undermining activities. Myanmar was clearly a different world from Thailand. The Burmese people and the town of kawthoung definitely had a different feeling compared to Thailand. For one everyone in Myanmar wore huge retro blue motorcycle helmets. Myanmar seemed to lack any real western influence and there were n foreigners in kawthoung. Aside from my French companions, I would not see any during the whole week in Myanmar. I checked into my hotel, the Honey Bear Hotel for the night, my last night sleeping on land for a week.

 

Entering Myanmar

Street scene in kathoung

Me and one of the Burmese crewmen on my boat

Ocean Crossing

Choosing to sail across southeast Myanmar during monsoon season was not the wisest idea. The first day on sea was rough and waves crashed on to the boat and we were swamped with torrential rains from thundering storms. I fought to avoid sea sickness. After a day and night of sailing and motoring we finally reached the first island in the Mergui Archipelago as the lush jungles and sea cliffs came into view.

 

Storm on horizon

Reaching the islands

Exploring Lampi and Other Islands

There were times when the sun came out and the weather beautiful. This allowed me the chance to explore. in between bouts of rain. planned to scuba dive but the rough sea churned up the sediment in the ocean ruining the visibility, so diving was out of the question. Instead, I swam off of the boat and kayaked to lonely island and snorkeled off of the beaches by myself and kayaked the mangrove inlets of Lampi island. I saw crab eating macaques, and sea eagles but no tigers or elephants, however I did see one elephant print in the mud on Lampi Island. We also ate well on the boat. The crew caught lots of fresh fish that we would eat and mix up with Thai spices and fruit. Then we would spend watch the sunset every afternoon while drinking cold beers and sharing travel stories. It was pure heaven.

 

My kayak on Lampi island

Island wilderness

Whitesand beaches

Exploring inlet water on Lami island by kayak

Exploring inlet water on Lami island by kayak

Lonely island beach

Lonely island beach

Sea Gypsies

The islands of Mergei are a wilderness untouched by humans with no real permanent settlements. They are home to one people however, the sea gypsies. The sea gypsies are nomadic but live in temporary bamboo stilted homes on the islands but spend most of their time at sea in makeshift boats. The sea gypsies are at home in the sea and extremely well adapted to marine life. They are able to free dive dozens of feet beneath the sea and spear fish with ease. They fish for subsistence and to make a living by selling some of their fish. We came across a few of their boats and they welcomed us on board and were friendly about showing us their life and we would purchase a few fish off of them for dinner.

 

Sea gypsies

Sea gypsies

Sea gypsies

Sea gypsies

Sea Gypsy Village

We spent one night anchored offshore of a sea gypsy village. The Myanmar government built a few permanent homes hoping to convince the sea gypsies to settle there but they never did. Instead, they would stay temporarily and then continue on wandering the seas living the nomadic lives they desired.

It was a lot of fun exploring their village and they were very welcoming. I was shocked to see that they loved volleyball although they improvised the game to play with their feet too. I spent all day visiting the sea gypsies, playing volleyball with them, playing with the kids and eating fish with them. I watched them make their boats from giant trees and use rope to haul the boats out to sea. I also visited their village Buddhist temple with a humble gold colored pagoda.

 

Sea Gypsy village

Sea Gypsy village

Sea Gypsy village

Family with their pet dog

Working together to bring a boat to sea

Children

Buddhist temple

Grandchild and grandma

Sea gypsy life

Smoking is very popular

Sea gypsy life

Sea gypsy life

Voleyball

I arrived back in Phuket just on time for my birthday after a very rough ocean passage in a storm. The French captain joined me in Phuket for my birthday for a beer and after a beer he politely removed himself from my company with a Thai prostitute with the 20-dollar tip I previously game him leaving me to wander the streets of Phuket by myself for the night visiting some very interesting raucous go go girl bars.

 

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