KAWTHAUNG, Tanintharyi Division—The rumors we had heard that the remote Myeik archipelago was a difficult place to visit meant that we almost didn’t go. That would have been a big mistake.
Getting to the departure point for our five day trip through some of the area’s 800-plus islands was just a plane ride from Yangon to Kawthaung in Tanintharyi Region, and a quick car ride to the waterside.
Goodbye city. Hello nature, space and peace.
Soon we and nine co-voyagers were on board the “Sea Gipsy,” a refitted, two-decker barge freshly painted in cream and brown, its bow decorated in yellow lace and fruit to pay respect to the nat (spirit) Le Saw.
There were five double cabins, an open-air dining area and kitchen, a captain’s wheelhouse and a chic, spotless bathroom.
Our cabin, tucked away at the rear upper deck, had superb natural ventilation and spectacular open-air views.
As we left the loud noises of land behind, the sense of calm that comes with a soft sea breeze descended over the boat. Passengers armed with novels eased onto sun loungers as we moved quietly through the blue expanse.
As yet, few leisure boats cruise this part of the Andaman Sea, unlike nearby Thai waters, which swarm with activity.
While our five day voyage was of course partly dependent on the weather and tides, days spent swimming, paddling and snorkeling were plotted the evening before when Ko Kyaw Kyaw, our capable and experienced guide, would pull out his chart and suggest action-packed yet relaxing adventures.
One morning before breakfast we kayaked into an eerily still lagoon at Lampi National Park. Thousands of tiny flying fish bounced past mangroves, built like gangly, contorted ballerinas, and a pair of hornbills flapped overhead.
We stopped briefly at Ngaung Wee and Bo Cho islands, home to small communities of Salon sea gypsies whose traditional seafaring life is now under threat.
One late-morning snorkel over a coral reef revealed a collage of colors and abstract shapes. I found myself surrounded by a marauding school of tiny, hungry Nemo fish who ignored me as they clowned around, hoovering up a breakfast of bits being expelled by a giant purple-lipped clam.
We also took a jungle walk on Det Nge Kyunn Island through dense tangled vegetation to the sound of screeching, scampering monkeys and the occasional sight of sea eagles hovering overhead. Our walk led over a small hill to yet another deserted, pristine beach.
“There are not many places where you can enjoy being so disconnected,” said one of our number. “It meant we became more creative, making up our own games like leaping off the boat from a great height. Exhilarating.”
In the evenings, as the bruised purples and pinks of a dramatic sunset gave way to darkness and the engine stilled, everything became very, very quiet. Far out, fleets of squid boats worked through the night, shimmering like giant silver stick insects under the Milky Way.
One night, after a bonfire barbeque on the silken sandy beach of Tar Yar Island, we had a late night dip amid sparkling green phosphorescence.
The Sea Gipsy’s six experienced young crewmen, well versed in guest needs and comfort, took great care to answer all obscure queries about the magnificent archipelago and to fill us with delicious food.
Chef U Myo Min cooked up a storm in the galley below deck, presenting tempura prawns, tuna sashimi, crab, Indian style chicken curry and succulent beef pork with dips. Plenty of fresh vegetables, salads and perfectly ripe sweet fruit made for a wholesome diet.
Our captain, U Aung Myo Hla, was an unflappable man of few words, content to scan the horizon constantly for signs of impending rain, stray squid boats and uncharted rocky outcrops.
His former life steering fishing boats and a speedboat to Dawei meant he knew the area very well. He revealed just a slight nervous flicker when we were delayed returning from a visit to Ngaung Wee Island and the boat started to drag anchor and drift towards a coral shelf.
Young helper Ko Oo smiled throughout, even when he playfully tipped over the side into the water. Ko Kyaw Kyaw, our guide and a local of Kawthaung, was recruited for his excellent bunch of skills; initiative, humor and hospitality, to name a few.
A former government servant who spent 10 years with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, Ko Kyaw Kyaw had valuable knowledge of navigation and tidal patterns, and knew prime diving and snorkeling areas and suitable villages to visit with tourists.
He works eight months each year from October to May and has much to share about Moken culture and the economic realities of the region.
“I’m lucky, I enjoy nature. I like quiet places with few people,” he confided. “I used to be quite uncomfortable in social situations. This job has taught me a lot… Now I’m happy to share what I know about this area and tell jokes. Life is interesting these days.”
However, Ko Kyaw Kyaw has seen the region gradually change over the years and worries that its rich marine life may be under threat.
“The archipelago is still very quiet but we need to start doing something to protect it… Fishing boats anchoring on the coral, throwing rubbish overboard and using dynamite to fish have caused coral to die,” he said.
“I see plastic in the water and rubbish on some beaches. There seems to be fewer turtles. I believe that’s because they are eating plastic bags, thinking they are jellyfish. Villagers and fishermen need education about environmental protection or we will lose all this great natural beauty.”
About 20 companies have applied to the Myanmar government for licenses to operate in the archipelago and develop resorts. One hopes the necessary protections will be first put in place ahead of any development in this area, which is like no other.
Life felt better after days at sea. Like the skin sloughed from the face and heels by wind, sand and salt water, tensions and worries dissipated on the journey.
My fellow travelers wholeheartedly agreed.
“It was extraordinary to be anchored in turquoise water between what seemed like a million islands,” said Natalie at the end of the trip.
“A tonic for the soul, and five degrees cooler than Yangon,” said Tim.
The trip was arranged courtesy of Moby Dick Tours. This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.