Island Hopping in Burma
December 11, 2014
Among 800 pristine Burmese islands and the few thousand sea gypsies who call them more, Jeninne Lee-St. John sails off the grid and into a dream world of romantic legend. Just let her sleep a little while longer. Photographed by Richard McLeish.
Published on Dec 11, 2014
Tonight we're docking in a protected cove off 115. It has two lovely snowy beaches, a patch of coral full of fish, a secret cave and a sweet sunset. It does not have a name. There are so many islands, about 800, in the Mergui Archipelago—a 250,000-square-kilometer region off Burma's far south coast—so many stunning, deserving islands, from lone rocks to massive, dense jungles, that they haven't all been baptized. In fact, possibly they haven't all been discovered; the British Admiralty chart we're using on this sailing includes Burmese, Thai and Indian surveys, some of which date to 1877.
A resident of 115
This is a trip into the last vast untouched waters of Southeast Asia, and, as such, it's also a journey back in time and into the depths of your imagination. For, though you're aboard the Meta IV, a 25-meter sailing yacht with four cabins and private loos that began running six-day cruises into the Mergui last year, you're also completely off the grid. Mobile service disappears a couple of hours out of port (at Kawthaung, Burma, at which the Meta IV is the only luxury vessel registered). Four crew and up to seven other sojourners are aboard for company. Only a handful of modern ships venture into these waters. Maybe you see one, maybe you don't, but you will see plenty of old-school fishing boats, manned by Moken, sea gypsies, trying to maintain a millennia-old symbiotic relationship with the water even as Burma's government mulls development. Yes, of course there's an end date to how long your mind will be allowed to wander here. Somehow that makes it even more ethereal.
The pier to nowhere seems completely incongruous. At a distance, it looks like a spanking-new totem to modernity, a shiny anachronism jutting out from an overgrown, prehistoric island. Look closer with the tide out, you can see the ocean's quick work, barnacles coating the wooden pylons and underside of the concrete stairs. The shells are razor sharp—the only time during the entire trip when shoes are required. Walk the long plank to the shore and spy a pile of fresh puppies wriggling in the sand. Behind them, three men, clad in longyi; they've been abandoned here by Burmese tycoon Tay Za to stake his claim for the tourism gold-rush. The guards watch over a smattering of half-built sea-view villas destined to become a resort, but the effect of the scattered construction materials, the weathered structures, the hammocks strung up for the men to sleep outside rather than indoors is more of a place half undone. It's like a town that has weathered the apocalypse, sending its inhabitants fleeing or perhaps to their deaths, these men and these dogs the only survivors.
You feel like an explorer happening on the last of a race. It's easy to let your imagination run riot—almost impossible not to—when you spend entire days staring at islands. It's hypnotic. It's a stream of haunting visions, to borrow from Longfellow's ode to the sea, of all my dreams, all the old romantic legends. The Mergui isn't open ocean, which plays different tricks on the mind. No, this is a beautiful repetition. So many lush dots of land, you want to project a backstory onto each of them. They can't all be empty. This one actually isn't. Not quite.
One of the Mergui's hundreds of deserted islets
Skipping across the expanse of white powder, it seems obvious as to why Tay Za colonized this place, why he tucked the villas behind the tree line. This beach is postcard-perfect, right? Ah, but our convivial guide A.K. walks on, the entire length of the beach. Wait. Why are we not diving in, why are we heading away from all that awesomeness into the woods? Because: Surprise. On the other side there's a shoreline even more stunning, a protected parabola somehow more perfect, glassy waves even more beckoning. A.K. glances at us, just a smidge triumphant, and we thank him with widened eyes. It's off to the races; not one of us can strip down fast enough. Flip flops, tops, shorts all lead in messy rows to the high-tide line like their owners evaporated into the setting. Trudging through them comes our smiling mate Kaka, cooler in hand, offering frosty drinks. Kaka, you're our hero. We could sit in these lapping waves, watching tiny, near-translucent cardinalfish dart by, staring at our toes and drinking icy beers forever.
A request: A.K., would you mind getting the dinghy from the pier and bringing it to this side of the island so we can tarry a while longer? No problem. We spend an inordinate amount of time, faces to the sun, butts in the water, collectively thanking our good fortune to be in this very place at this very time.
Chef Saman and guide A.K. take a break on the bow of the Meta IV
Then, around the headland—what's that? A bow nudges its way into view. Then a sail. Three glorious sails cutting into the horizon. We can just make out captain and crew waving from aboard and it dawns on us: A.K. and Kaka have fetched not just the dinghy, but the entire yacht to pick us up. Even though we love it here, we also can't help but feel like we're being saved, and in dramatic fashion. We cheer, because in our minds we're survivors of a shipwreck, or maybe that apocalypse, now getting rescued by eagle-eyed explorers. Or are they pirates? The imagination, as I said, is unbound.
By day three, a schedule of sorts emerges. Wake with the sun streaming in through the bedroom skylights. Swim. Reflect (listen to podcasts, practice yoga, bird watch—whatever floats your boat). Full hot Western and Thai breakfast. Daily briefing. Weigh anchor/Bloody Marys. Set sail/sunbathe. Nap. Swim. Lunch. Beers or bubbly. Expedition (snorkeling, exploring islands, kayaking mangroves, meeting Moken). Gin and tonics or pirate-appropriate rum drinks. Poseidon's bounty dinner. Games/laughs. Bonding with captain. Stargaze.
Stargaze. So far from any artificial light, the sky is ablaze every night. It feels irresponsible to take your eyes away from it. Yes, all the major northern hemisphere constellations are visible, but they are hemmed in, sharing the spotlight on this endless black tapestry with so many brightly twinkling others. It makes perfect sense that the Moken navigate not by constellations but by individual stars.
Wrapped in a blanket, rocked by the tide, lying on the bow under a snowglobe sky, my thoughts again wander, this time to the Bard's fair Verona. Remember how deeply and single-mindedly Juliet yearned for night? So much that she saw her Romeo in each celestial body? That's the moonlit Mergui: Romeo cut out in little stars, the face of heaven so fine.
It takes a second for our eyes to adjust. Are those Aboom and Abaa, the Moken spirits, on that distant shore? If Moken get lost at sea and manage to survive, they erect totems to these ancestors, responsible for saving them. You can find these poles standing in the sands of deserted islands throughout the Mergui, a testament to the enduring history of these people. But no, that's actually Jessica and Annie holding seemingly interminable, stick-straight handstands.
The three-sail Meta IV flies the national flag of each passenger and crew member.
When we embarked on this snorkeling excursion in this large and intricate reef, with a steep drop-off into the navy-blue depths, A.K. cautioned against attempting to reach shore: "It seems close, but it is far." So when the rest of us surface near the dinghy, after circumnavigating, bisecting and generally immersing ourselves in this actual aquarium—I'd been trailing one particular neon-speckled checkerboard wrasse for 15 minutes—we're astounded to see two of our compatriots on the beach, the sun reflecting off the seawater clinging to their bodies, Zen mermaids with impeccable balance.
Sorry, A.K., we're all swimming ashore. Laughing, he acquiesces that no, apparently, it is not too far for us. His original caution was fair—every island seems swimmable, every beach bathable, but the Meta IV crew knows which are blockaded by skin-slicing rocks or dangerous undertows or itchy-scratchy sand fleas. As the days pass—yes, we only have six of them but we all get to know each other really well; it's a big boat but still a boat—the crew goes from protective parenting to indulgent as they gauge our swimming skills (sure, jump off in the open ocean), and our laissez-faire attitude about where they take us (daily briefing? Yep, wherever), and what they feed us.
Chef, to his credit, is slightly more stressed. He's got a full freezer of groceries and meats, but seafood is procured at sea. Spy a fishing boat, hop in the dinghy and motor up. These are floating treehouses of a few dozen men (and maybe a dog or three), poking their heads out of the various crannies, silently interested in not just foreign visitors but also the foreign, ahem, female form. A.K. hands the captain a bag of beverages in greeting. Then, the captain offers our pick of whatever they have in the holds. It isn't payment, not even barter. Two gifts independent of each other. "Here the fishermen are so kind," says chef Saman, who in the past worked in resorts in Phuket that imported fish from these waters. "We just give them a little soft drink or beer and they give us a lot of seafood. I never saw this in Thailand."
Sadly for chef, on day one we stocked our fridges with our weights in squid and then… nobody had anything but squid for days. We don’t mind; he gets creative: stir-fried squid and veggies, squid kra pow, tempura squid. But you should see this man's face light up when, towards the end of the trip, we hit the mother lode. The kind men of this boat give us whitefish, two-dozen crabs, three kilos of tiger prawns. We enjoyed our feast that night as much for the variety of flavors as the sheer joy we witnessed on chef's face as he prepared it.
Captain Ekachai also loves his job. Since learning to sail in his early 20's, he's been out on the water for a decade-and-a-half. Wiry and fit, he has an eye for birds, a quiet charm and an attitude of lead-by-example. The man knows the boat inside and out and is responsible for everyone's safety. But if he's not at the helm, he's everywhere and anywhere on deck, as needed—even chopping veggies for chef. In fact, sitting in the stern, just as the flaming sun accelerates down into pitch blackness, watching the crew framed by the light of the galley as they bustle through dinner prep, I feel their camaraderie so strongly that it's almost enough to make me want to run away to sea.
Snorkeling is a daily affair
One day, we pull up to a floating hut, its bamboo walls covered in polychrome patterned hill-tribe fabrics. It's a gas station. Engine cut, anchor dropped, that's my cue to jump into the water. During our long sails, there's a breeze, but it's still hot. More to the point, the ocean looks so inviting. Depending on the depth, the coral, the closeness to land, the color changes from powder blue to deep emerald. It's as if someone took the rainbow and made it only out of greens and blues. After I've spent hours staring at this ocean, though it's real, though it's right below us, it starts to feel like a mirage. And so, when we stop, the draw to the water is like a thirsty man's in the desert.
I'm 20 meters from the boat, treading water in the celadon, watching a school of yellowtail fusilier swim by, when someone on deck says, "Jellyfish." That's my cue to jump out of the water. Back on board, my once-clear swimming hole and, in fact, all the water surrounding the boat becomes a polka-dot patchwork of plump purple jellyfish. The entire lagoon has gotten the mumps. It's freakishly beautiful.
But there's something wrong with the engine. Before we know it, captain has donned a snorkel mask and plunged into the undulating ocean to fix it. We watch in awe as he emerges five minutes later, nonchalant and unscathed. "I guess you're not allergic to jellyfish," I say. "I might be," he laughs. This guy is badass.
It seems impossible that this tiny boy, no more than six, can so skillfully man a stand-up canoe, and even less likely that his mother would let him bring his baby sister alone out into the deep. But these are Moken, freediving fisherpeople whose children can see twice as well underwater as Europeans, who catch fish by exhaling a steady stream of disorienting bubbles and then plunging in a hand spear, whose communities suffered almost no casualties during the 2004 tsunami because they alone knew it was coming. These Austronesian people arrived here some four millennia ago and were nomadic until the 1970's, when Burma allowed commercial fishing boats into the area (the effects of their dynamite blasts, now prohibited, are most obvious in the depletion of stellar diving spots in a coral-rich region that should be rife with them), and began allotting land for Moken to settle villages.
A little kabang captain
The boy pulls up on our starboard side. A.K. tosses him an orange. The boy drops an oar and jostles his canoe a bit perilously in an unsuccessful attempt to snag it before it hits the water. He fishes it out, steadies himself and catches the next three like a seasoned baseball shortstop, to our cheers and the squeals of his sister.
Shortly after he rows away, a longtail boat putters up to bring us to Nyaung Wee Island. I've been taken on countless "cultural excursions" to "indigenous villages" throughout Asia, and never have I had a more uplifting experience. Thank goodness for native Burmese A.K., who leads us down the two long rows of houses and shops like the Pied Piper, joking with and translating for the growing mass of local kids around us. Shy at first, they soon are climbing the Western male giants we have brought, posing sassily for photos and, led by Teha, a firecracker of a girl in green shorts, lining up to pull my curls. We watch other kids take their oral exams in the one-room schoolhouse. We watch the village headman instruct two men through the old art of building kabang—boats made from a single tree.
One hopes this dual approach of maintaining traditions while embracing education will see the Moken out of their precarious situation. Only 2,000 to 3,000 remain in the Mergui. This is a culture that, thanks to an ability to dive an ear-popping 20 meters, mined the kingdom of Siam's first currency, cowry shells. This is a culture of gypsy souls, born before the wind, also younger than the sun, just like Van Morrison sang. (Hark, now hear the sailors cry... let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.) This is a culture that you pray, as you pull away from shore, will survive, if only for Teha, the last girl waving from the sand.
Smiles on Nyaung Wee Island.
After a late-day snorkel behind a natural jetty, the waves washing over us as we try a little Moken-style deep diving, we putter to a barely there islet, a sandbar iced with small pink conch shells and large shiny cowries. We're here for the westward view: Jagged rocks all slanting sharply southward, one covered with trees all growing in the same direction, and, 50 meters offshore, a massive, cocoa-colored four-story pyramid with a hole hewn through the middle. This is serious Lord of the Rings here; you can almost picture two wizards dueling atop it. Science says that the combination of the wind and the tide ganged up on this landscape and tilted these boulders, that the steady rhythm of rough waves took thousands of years to carve that donut out of solid rock. As the sun sets, tangerines and burnt siennas flowing through that keyhole, the imagination says it was placed here deliberately by a supernatural being in need of a looking glass, a portal to parallel universe, a view on the Cat's Eye Nebula.
The last morning is radiant and reflective and somber. How much, really, would captain need to just turn this boat around and head back into the constellation of islands? Give us a number. It's not just that we want to keep exploring. We want to stay disconnected, for just a while longer. With every meter we get closer to Kawthaung, the anxiety about returning to the real world builds. Months later, recalling those last couple of hours brings butterflies to the stomach. We make a pact not to check our phones until we're completely, incontrovertibly home on Thai soil—a promise broken by the phones themselves, which turn out not to be on airplane-mode, like we thought, and, sooner than expected, start to ping.
It's too much. I head to the bow and try to be Zen. I want to rev up my imagination staring at the islands and the ocean for one last time. But the islands start to get more plentiful, the ocean turns murkier; I know these shifts are caused by our proximity to port, and I avert my gaze. Those cliffs ahead morph into the sunset keyhole and instead of staring down the tech-filled, over-connected, urban everyday life to which we're returning, I'm looking into the parallel universe we're leaving behind—a ping-free serenity of a crew's camaraderie, gypsy souls, romantic legends, and a heaven so very fine.
Burma Boating (burmaboating.com; +66 2 107 0445) sails into the Mergui Archipelago from Kawthaung, Burma, November through April.
From Bangkok, fly to Ranong via Nok Air (nokair.com) or Happy Air (happyair.co.th). Take a taxi to the international pier, pass through emigration, and then take a longtail boat across the maritime border to Kawthaung; special visas for entering the Mergui are issued on-board. From within Burma, there are domestic flights to Kawthaung via Air Mandalay (airmandalay.com) and Myanma Airways (myanmaairways.aero); get your visa before entering the country.