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Unplugged in Paradise: discovering Myanmar

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It takes over eight hours by plane to get from Hong Kong to the Myeik Archipelago in southern Myanmar. You have to work a little bit to get somewhere truly wild, remote and undiscovered. Dorothy Veitch reports.

Plenty of tourists now make it to Myanmar – to Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay – but few have yet discovered the coastal towns. So, if you find yourself in Kawthaung, deep in the south, it’s already clear that you’re looking for something that little bit different.

Flying into Yangon (3 hours, 10 minutes from Hong Kong), you then board a 4-hour, 50-minute flight to Kawthaung. In town, you find a couple of sleepy guesthouses and a beautiful stretch of unspoilt beach. There are a couple of pagodas worth visiting and a small waterfall and hot spring in nearby Maliwan Village and… that’s about it.

Tempting as it might be to hunker down in Kawthaung and simply take it easy, chances are you’re not there to hang out. You find yourself in Kawthaung because it’s the entry point for trips into the Myeik Archipelago where, among other things, a total e-tox is on offer.

The islands are densely forested and ringed by white sand beaches

The ultimate e-tox

The Myeik Archipelago comprises over 800 islands, some with space for just a few palm trees and others several kilometres long and wide. Most are uninhabited, there are noferries connecting them, and out there in the Andaman Sea, there is no Wi-Fi or 4G.

The area was opened up to foreign tourism in 1997 but, with free-andeasy Thailand right next door, it’s never really taken off. In fact, until very recently, only James Bond buffs were familiar with these islands and then only vaguely – in Thunderball (1965), Ernst Stavro Blofeld demands that NATO deposits a cache of flawless white diamonds (worth £100 million) in the archipelago for crime mob SPECTRE to pick up.

To date, there are still only three places to stay, all at the southern end of the archipelago, west of Kawthaung. There’s Myanmar Andaman Resort on MacLeod Island, Victoria Cliff Resort on Nyaung Oo Phee Island, and Boulder Bay Eco Resort a little further out on Boulder Island. The Grand Andaman Hotel, a Thaiowned casino resort on Thahtay Kyun Island is worth avoiding.

Foreigners are not permitted to travel to the islands independently, but this doesn’t mean you are limited to a resort stay. There are daily boat trips into the archipelago from Kawthaung, or you can book your bunk on a liveaboard for a multi-day trip with optional overnight camping.

The larger liveaboards provide accommodation for 10 people, a communal dining area and sundeck. Don’t expect anything fancy – most of these boats are simple dive boats gamely reconfigured, but they are gaily painted and, at least in my experience, seaworthy. If you can, opt for a five-day trip, this way you really have a chance to unwind and unplug, while enjoying the surprisingly varied activities on offer.

Moken fisherfolk on Eyles Island

An Asian Galápagos

Heading northwest into the archipelago, you soon lose sight of land. The islands surrounding you are densely forested, and ringed by rocky shorelines, whitesand beaches and coral reefs. Their names, rather surprisingly, hark back to the era of British rule in Burma – Hastings Island, Lord Loughborough Island, Great Swinton Island… and, once at sea, you quickly feel as if you’ve travelled back in time.

On a typical day, you might come across one, maybe two fishing boats – in these parts, Myanmar fisherfolk spend most of their lives at sea, catching squid at night. But other than that, you’ll find yourself alone out there with just the sound of the waves for company.

Alone, apart from the incredible wildlife that is. Look up, and you spot sea eagles, kites, kingfishers, reef herons and emerald doves circling the islands. Look down, and you see dolphins frolicking in your wake, and thousands of sea urchins and tiny tropical fish darting through the coral reefs.

The liveaboards steer clear of the resort islands to ensure you get a real Robinson Crusoe experience. Take a dinghy to a deserted
beach to commune with the resident wildlife – monitor lizards, civets, chevrotains, gibbons and crab-eating macaques. If you’re lucky, a family of oriental otters might scamper right by you, heading from the mangroves into the sea. So remote is the terrain and so profligate the wildlife, it’s tempting to describe these islands as the Galápagos of Asia.

Sleepy Kawthaung is the gateway to the Myeik Archipelago

Dive right in

Beachcombing, jungle trekking, snorkeling, kayaking and standup paddle boarding allow you to experience the wildlife at firsthand,
and then of course there’s the diving. Conditions are optimal from December to April, with sightings of sharks and manta rays
virtually guaranteed.

Experienced divers head to Burma Banks, where the continental shelf drops off, and to Shark Cave where the grey reef sharks sometimes lose their inhibitions and swim up close. At Black Rock, you’re soon surrounded by huge shoals of colourful fish, and there are spectacular red-whip, mosaic and table corals in the waters surrounding the Little Torres Islands, as well as batfish and luminous moon wrasse.

For sightings of Bryde’s whales, Omura’s whales, occasional blue whales, strap-toothed whales and killer whales, ask your skipper to head to Whale Bay on Kisseraing Island.

To date, the archipelago’s only permanent  human inhabitants are the Moken, originally an Australasian people, locally known as sea gypsies. In the past, they spent nine months of the year moving around the islands, free diving for food from dugout canoes, and three months sheltering on land during the monsoon season.

Nowadays, they live mostly in the villages, notably on Eyles Island, where life seems to continue much as it always has. Visitors are welcomed, and it’s a delight to watch the ‘sea gypsies’ going about their business – repairing their canoes, thatching their huts and playing with their children.

It’s rare that you find yourself somewhere that you can honestly say hasn’t been disturbed by man since its creation. The experience, the total break from 21st century reality, is at once profoundly moving and a huge culture shock. Approaching the mainland after an idyllic five days, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when one of our group yelled, “I’ve got a signal.”

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