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Mesmerising Myanmar: A tranquil tropical paradise that has to be seen to be believed

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These are the vexing thoughts that have temporarily invaded my mind as I paddle serenely towards one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.

It’s the kind of beach you normally associate with TV adverts for a certain coconut flavoured chocolate bar.

Creamy white sand untouched by human footprints, lapped by dreamy turquoise water and backed by lush green jungle teaming with birdlife. It really is what I imagine paradise would taste like. And I’m surrounded by thousands of them.

This tropical utopia is on one of 800 islands scattered off the southern coast of Myanmar, formerly Burma, in an area known as the Mergui Archipelago.

Never heard of it before? That’s because it was off limits to foreigners until 1997 under the Burma’s military-led Junta and tourism is still heavily controlled by the government.

The islands have, in fact, enjoyed scant international mention for much of the past century apart from mentions in the Biggles air adventure books and the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball, in which the evil Ernst Stavro Blofeld demands a vast ransom in diamonds, to be paid here in the archipelago.

The only diamonds I discover are of the sandy variety as well as the underwater treasures in an area which has been described one of the world’s best dive sites. With this as one of it’s major drawcords it’s no wonder that Lonely Planet has made Myanmar as one of its top-10 must-see destinations for 2017.

I’m told, by no-one who is old enough to remember, that the islands are like those in Thailand were 60 years ago. More like 600 years ago, I imagine.

Today tourist numbers are, blissfully, still in the low thousands with many visiting through the handful of commercial sailing yachts or live-aboard diving trips.

But the world is closing in as Myanmar accelerates forward following decades of political isolation.

The continuous erosion of the Moken ‘Sea Gipsy’ culture, environmental damage and the spectre of uncontrolled mass tourism all pose a threat to one of the world’s last must-see paradises.

I begin my voyage of the islands on the Sea Gipsy – a Burmese-style junk boat – in the scrappy port town of Kawthaung which sits at the very bottom of Myanmar on the border with Thailand.

As I clamber aboard the cream and bottle-green coloured boat I’m warmly greeted by the crew of six who show me around the 100ft vessel which is decked out with teak lounge chairs, a large dining table shaded by a white canopy, and cozy, open-air sleeping cabins. There’s even a bar.

I also meet my travelling companions, a united nations consisting of a French couple, three Norwegian/Canadian’s and three Australians.

The boat, adorned with the Red, Yellow and Green Myanmar flag and a bunch of flowers secured to the bow for good luck, we gently make our way out of the cluttered harbour with Victoria Point, as Kawthaung was known in colonial times, soon a small dot on the horizon.

Our first destination, That Yan Kyunn or Barwell Island, is two-and-a-half hours from the mainland, leaving enough time for mobile phone and internet connections to fizzle away and to kick back and relax. Sheer bliss? Well not quite.

Any thoughts we have of spending our first evening watching a blazing Bengal sunset dipping it’s toes into the Andaman sea are quickly extinguished as we head directly into the teeth of a squall.

Weather reports suggest there is a Cyclone brewing and it’s already causing problems further south in Thailand. Oh goodie.

Faced with the prospect of a storm we decide there is only one thing for it – jump in the sea. There is something quite ethereal about snorkelling among colourful fish with the rain beating down on the back of your head.

After an hour or so fish-spotting and a quick trip to the beach it was time to get back onto the boat to get warm and dry before nightfall.

‘The snorkelling was magical at Shark island’
We all gathered in the bar area at the back of the Sea Gipsy to drink rum, nibble on some freshly cooked snacks and shelter from the wind.

This was followed by a delicious meal of seaweed soup, grilled seabass and spicy squid.

As we eat our smiling guide, Kyaw Kyaw, sets out our plan for the next day having spoken on the radio with the station manager in Kawthaung to find out the latest weather updates.

“We will head north to an island,” he says.”It has a beautiful beach, we can go kayaking and paddle boarding – no problem.”

With that reassuring thought in our heads we prepare to spend our first night at sea.

Early next morning, with the weather picking up, we are treated to a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee in bed before arriving at the unimaginatively named 115 island.

On the Sea Gipsy guests can drink rum, nibble on freshly cooked snacks and shelter from the wind
What it lacks in name it more than makes up for in beauty.

Myself and a crewmate decide to circumnavigate the tiny jungle-clad islet in a kayak, watching as dozens of crabs scuttle across rocks as we approach while a bright blue kingfisher darts through the air and red jellyfish float by.

Around the corner is the crowning glory of this speck in the ocean, a chevron-shaped beach of talcum-powder soft white sand.

Next we are enticed by the prospect of “outstanding” snorkelling at Shark Island, fortunately named not because of its sharp-toothed marine-life but because of its appearance.

The snorkelling was magical, Angel Fish, Banner Fish, Parrot Fish darting in and out of the coral while tiny Clown fish hid amongst swaying pink sea anemones.

But the depressing signs of man’s negative impact on the environment were all too apparent here. Shattered coral lay on the seabed, a victim of dynamite fishing prevalent in the area.

Shark islandPH
Angel Fish, Banner Fish, Parrot Fish and Clown Fish can all be seen when snorkelling on Shark island
The island’s only beach simply took my breath away. It had supermodel good looks, turquoise water lapping onto creamy white sand backed by a dark green blanket of soaring rainforest.

That night we anchor in a sheltered bay on Pilar Island or Great Swinton as it was known by the British.

Dinner, again, is a wonderful array of seafood, fruit and vegetables.

Next morning I wake earlier than everyone else and decide to take a dawn paddle-boarding trip explore the island.

As Sea Eagles soar above my head I paddle across the bay to a wide and flat beach backed by mangroves. It is flanked on one side by the steep and daunting rainforest which bursts into a early morning cacophony of bird life.

After breakfast and a refill of water the compass is set to the North West and Bo Cho Island. Here we catch a dinghy to another isolated beach with fresh turtles tracks the only sign anyone has been here in days, perhaps longer.

We then wade waste deep through a hot spring behind the sand before being enveloped by the dense dripping wet jungle. Soggy and covered in mud we arrive 90 minutes later at the Moken village Ma Kyone Galet.

For centuries the Moken, or Sea Gipy’s, roamed the islands, worshipping spirits and reciting long epics of a mythical past. They collected mollusks, crabs and sea cucumbers, speared fish, hunted and dove deep to find valuable pearl oysters.

Today, about 2,000 Moken are believed to inhabit the archipelago, significantly reduced through migration, intermarriage with Burmese and deaths of males from rampant alcohol and drug abuse.

Tania Miorin, who manages an environmental and tourism project in the village and Lampi Island Marine Park, said the key challenge is to protect the environment and maintain traditions while providing income to local people.

“We are trying to educate the local people about the environment and the benefits tourism can have but you have to give them incentives to protect the park.”

The project, run by the Italian group Instituto Oikos, includes the development of eco-tourism, putting a draft management plan into practice and training park staff.

Lampi Island, Myanmar’s first and only marine park and the size of Phuket, is a “Lost World” of thick forests, the region’s best mangrove forests and an abundance of wildlife including Hornbills, pythons and flying foxes. Heading across the island’s protected waters we witness a giant black Manta Ray leap out of the water.

On our final full day we head south, stopping at the stunning Pho Ni Island for the best snorkelling yet and Red Monkey Island for a refreshing swim.

GETTING THERE
From Yangon take a two-hour flight to Kawthaung. Alternatively, fly from Bangkok to Ranong. From there you can take a long tail boat to Kawthaung. eVisas are now available.

WHEN TO GO
The waters are best between November to February but the season continues until the end of April. May to October is the Monsoon season.

I TRAVELLED WITH
I did a 5 day/4 night Island Safari through Moby Dick Adventures http://islandsafarimergui.com email info@islandsafarimergui.com

$1,110 per person plus $100 archipelago entry fee.

WHERE ELSE CAN I STAY?
There are currently two hotels hotels operating in the Archipelago, the Grand Andaman Resort on Stay Kyun Island and the idyllic Myanmar Andaman Resort on Macleod Island and another nine projects are pending approval with the Myanmar Investment Commission.

Source: http://www.express.co.uk/travel/beach/770548/beach-holiday-2017-myanmar-tranquil-tropical-paradise-burma

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