Cruise the remote islands of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago like a Bond villain

“It would have been amazing to have been here 30 years ago.”

It’s the classic traveller’s refrain, typically uttered as said traveller looks wistfully across a crowded beach and fends off touts peddling cheap suits, sarongs and hair braids.

But a new cruise off the far south coast of Myanmar in a classic 1960s motor yacht makes that phrase redundant – for the time being at least. Taking advantage of an easing of decades-long restrictions on foreign travellers, it sails to the Mergui Archipelago, 800-plus islands that qualify as the last great collection of unspoilt “tropical paradises” in the region.

The Myanmar government’s reported approval for the construction of 14 “eco resorts” means it’s unlikely to remain so unspoilt for long.

The voyage begins at Kawthaung, a shabby but brightly coloured frontier town at the very southern tip of Myanmar, where the country seems to peter out and Thailand takes over.

Just getting to the jumping-off point is all a little James Bond. Pre-dawn flight from Bangkok to Ranong. Sunrise rendezvous at remote airport for a run to the border. A wooden longboat into Myanmar, with its stern-faced passport officials. Then, moored just off the coast, the classic lines of the MY Andaman Explorer, a ship that could easily have sailed straight out of a 1960s Sean Connery-era 007 classic.

For me, the idea of sailing around on a vessel with just the 10 suites and more than half a century of history is almost as much of a draw as being able to visit the Mergui islands. Originally built for the Norwegian coast guard as the MV Atlantic Guard in 1963, the 61-metre-long vessel is “ice class”, which means it has a hull thick enough to withstand small icebergs and, one presumes, small local fishing boats on dark nights.

On board we are met by Captain U Thein Oo, a tiny man with long experience in these parts; some of the 17 crew; and our fellow passengers – a whole two couples, comprising retired French-Canadian child psychologists and a teacher and broadcast technician from Shellharbour, NSW.

Inside we find a ship that retains much of its heritage, including the original Rolls-Royce engines, mixed with a comfortable if not cutting-edge level of luxury. Cabins range in size across three decks, and there’s plenty of open space for lazing about.

There’s also an unexpected digital detox bonus – with no Wi-Fi on board, we are, at least for a few days, liberated from the usual obligations of life.

Laid-back haze
As we motor north-west the archipelago materialises above the horizon one steep-sided island at a time. Most feature dense jungle cascading down to white sand strips that wink invitingly as we cruise past.

It soon becomes apparent that while the bones of an itinerary exist, there’s a refreshing willingness to change as opportunities arise.

“Is it possible to stop on one of these beaches for a swim?”

“Sure, we’re ahead of schedule. Why not.”

And so the days slip by in a leisurely haze of beaches, snorkelling, sunset cocktails and delicious meals. Only 11 islands are permanently populated, so there are plenty of deserted bays in which to drop anchor and dive into warm waters in mesmerising shades of aqua.

The beaches are clean, but when you get into the undergrowth beyond the high waterline south-east Asia’s lax attitude to litter is plain to see. In 15 minutes on a 200-metre stretch of an otherwise deserted beach, I collect more than 60 thongs. (Don’t even start me on the number of drinking bottles.)

Mercifully, things aren’t so bad beneath the water. Having seen the damage heavy-footed tourists have done to reefs around the region, the coral, purple-lipped giant clams, sea anemones and tropical fish prove a revelation. There’s time to float above a family of clownfish, track a lionfish, spy a moray eel or just soak up the colours of surgeonfish, parrotfish, moorfish, triggerfish and angelfish.

Such an abundance of sealife has sustained the local Moken people – “sea gypsies”, also known as Salone – for centuries, but a period of dynamite fishing has taken its toll on some reefs. We’re told this ended when live-aboard dive boats started arriving a few years ago, but while the recovery of the reefs is promising, it won’t be complete for a while yet.

Natural wonder
It’s in the evening, after another glorious sunset has made way for the sort of starscape you can only see somewhere as remote as this, that we see how most Moken fishermen make their living these days. In the distance, dozens of small homes-cum-fishing boats, known as kabangs, are revealed by their dazzling yellow-green lights as they chase squid.

Two stops are locked into every itinerary, both reached on the Explorer’s two-person kayaks. The first, early in the trip, is the sweeping beach and towering mangroves of the Lampi Marine National Park. We see plenty of birds and monkeys but miss the protected species, including sea turtles and dugong.

The second, Cocks Comb Island, is a bona fide geological wonder. It boasts an enclosed, heart-shaped lagoon reached via a cave that cuts through a high cliff to the sea. The cave is wholly underwater at high tide (we had to wait for the water to fall). It’s a stunning experience, with iridescent blue water full of fish.

It proves a suitable re-entry to the real world when fast boats full of Thai tourists pull up soon after we swim in. It’s a good thing there are still hundreds of other islands to explore and, hopefully, a few years yet before you’ll be heard saying “I wish I was here 30 years ago.”

Source: Financial Review

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