Moken, or Sea Gypsies in the Mergui

Maybe I’ve just become jaded. Or travel weary, but that seems unlikely. Don’t get me wrong, after the hellish trip (see “Hell Hath no Fury“) to get here I’m thankful for the respite. But we paid the price in other ways. Namely in cash. The Mergui archipelago in Myanmar opened to tourists just 10 years ago. But the area remains incredibly difficult to explore, and this fact had me convinced that paying outrageous permit and bureaucracy fees (all up over $12,000 USD for the two trips we operated) would reveal a precious and strange land.

Mergui archipelago
Incredible Jellyfish abound in the Mergui

I’d read all kinds of tantalizing accounts. Ancient peoples called Moken, or Sea Gypsies who spend most of their lives in handmade canoes. Children who dive to depths of 200 feet on a breathold with goggles made from beer bottles hunt shellfish, and can see twice as well as European children. Undiscovered surf breaks. Whalesharks and Manta Rays. Solid sea breeze. Gorgeous uninhabited islands and pristine coral reefs. Well we’ve just sailed the Mergui for a month. Some of these things we did indeed find. Many of them we did not.

Mergui archipelago
The Moken, or Sea Gypsies are friendly but prefer to be left alone

To sail into the Mergui you must begin in Kaw Thaung, also known as Victoria Point. Here you find what is commonplace in many border towns. Dusty streets, dirty people, filthy markets, street hawkers and disease. The smell of urine and feces and rotting fish take any of the splendors out of the few well-trodden gold painted temples that adorn the surrounding hills. Clapboard shacks line the seawall, competing for space with a never ending stream of long tail boats whose captains’ jockey around by blasting streams of brown water and garbage behind their screaming unmuffled motors. The only tourists who come to Kaw Thaung are on visa runs from Thailand. Hundreds of sunburned white people are shuttled back and forth every day. Not one of them stays on the Myanmar side, for good reason.

We had the pleasurable opportunity to remain in Kaw Thaung for three days between trips. I was told we had to anchor directly in front of town, where the strong currents circulated raw sewage and we ran the risk of having our newly painted yacht smashed into by drunken long tail drivers. As inviting as it was, I unapologetically broke the law and found an anchorage across the channel where immigration could keep an eye on us and we would not be so tormented by shit and malaria filled mosquitoes.

Mergui archipelago
The Gang

As charming as Kaw Thaung is, we were well and truly ready to get out of town by the time our guests and Jody arrived, who I hadn’t seen for a month. Some of you may remember on our last trip in Indonesia she was sick with Typhoid. This time around she’s been the host for 3 different kinds of parasites; including E-Coli, which she picked up in India in November. On the day of her arrival she’d been on antibiotics for nearly 3 weeks straight. The rest of the guests were in better form. Their cheerfulness and excitement helped reinvigorate my mood, which had been drowning in our dismal surroundings.

The gang checks out what’s on offer

The Mergui archipelago is dotted with jungle clad islands and yes, most of them are uninhabited. Several are totally off-limits, I learned from our smiling and helpful guide Jojo as they house military personnel. The beaches from a distance and up close are spectacular. Rarely must you travel more than an hour to reach a new place to explore.

Claudia and Victoria take in the surroundings

For these reasons as a cruising ground there is much to like. The water is warm though it isn’t very clear. We spent a lot of time peering about snorkeling and found some truly amazing jellyfish, some well over 3 feet round. Mikey and I had some success spearing small reef fish which Bobby would expertly turn into a delicious side course. Local fisherman are all too eager to trade giant prawns, lobster, succulent crab, or tiny fish (the big ones are mostly gone) for packs of cigarettes or alcohol, or more in demand, wads of Thai Baht.

Strange creatures indeed…and big!

But the coral in most places has been dynamited and is sadly in poor condition, something we find more often than not. Turtles nest on many of the best beaches, but on more than one occasion we saw evidence of fisherman steeling the eggs after they had been carefully deposited by hopeful mothers. There are no regulations or laws or people in place to protect any of the area. It’s hard to understand why people rob from their own future.

Mergui archipelago
Moken fishing (doing it as they have for millenia
– these are not ones responsible for the overfishing)

We did have it all to ourselves as well, but that’s only if you don’t count the fishermen, whom are everywhere. At night the horizon at every point of the compass is alit with boats attracting squid with powerful lights. Pesky sand flies, which for some reason never bothered me made mincemeat out of most of the guests during their forays to land and sometimes did a bit of dining on board on the windless nights as well.

Mergui archipelago
These guys nail it all- lobster, crab, squid, prawns, fish…

The days were spent mostly relaxing for we had no wind. Everyone became skilled on the SUP boards and we all went for a wakeboard one gorgeous evening behind our newly powered-up dinghy. One day we ventured up a meandering river and gawked at thousands upon thousands of tiny crabs who scampered like miniature sized wildebeests on an African migration. A family of monkeys takes a walk on the beach. Eagles soar on thermals over our heads.

Mergui archipelago
Our guide Jojo at the helm with Mikey looking on

On the very last night the wind finally paid us a short visit and Gavin and his girlfriend Victoria got to be the first ever kiteboarders in Myanmar under a fiery fading sun. It was a short session, but their smiles radiated well into the evening. That night, as the group played a final round of cards (the loser, Katherine had to swim around the boat in Karen’s recently purchased pink dress – or “jumper” as some of the more stylish in the group insisted) I realized I have in fact become cynical. As I’ve alleged over and over it isn’t about the place but the people and our group was as great as they come. I love every one of them and our friendships only strengthened as the days went by. This is what is important.

Mergui archipelago
Yet another incredible sunset

But the truth is I am spoiled. I am acclimated to white sand beaches and turquoise water. I am familiar with paradise. I am also familiar with over-fishing and pollution. And I am no stranger to wastelands of plastic and dead coral. And for these reasons, if we ever have the opportunity to sail around the world again, I’ll unfortunately have to give the Mergui a pass.

Mergui archipelago
But I’m still glad we came

Because we don’t think about future generations, they will never forget us.” –Henrik Tikkanen

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