Sharks and burning scorpions in the lost islands of Myanmar

BY MARK HUME originally appeared in The Globe and Mail

MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO – The silhouette of the shark is black against a patch of dazzling white sand, then with a tail thrash it vanishes against a dark backdrop.

“Can’t anchor here without breaking coral … but you can go in,” the yacht’s skipper calls from the wheel as he starts to back away from a shallow reef on a remote island off the coast of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The cruise has taken us into a remarkable place where we have encountered sea gypsies, giant hornbills and burning scorpions. And that’s above the surface. What lies beneath is what really drew us halfway around the world to visit a mythic country that is striving, with promises of political reform, to open itself to outside tourism.

Balanced on the transom, I look for the shark’s shadow in the vivid blue Andaman Sea, then step over as the catamaran, Ruby, a charter vessel out of Phuket, Thailand, moves away. You never know what you will see when you go into the water wearing a snorkel and mask, but here in the Mergui Archipelago, a collection of 800 isolated islands near the southern tip of Burma, we have come to expect the incredible.

It takes a moment for the blinding swirl of bubbles to clear, then the reef comes into stunning focus. There are pillars of coral rising from the sea floor, sparkling schools of fish that run the colour spectrum, the grinning blue mouths of giant clams, and in the darker water where the fringe reef fades into the deep, the bulky, vague outlines of sullen groupers withdrawing into crevices.

While the Ruby manoeuvres into a safe anchorage off the palm-lined beach, two others in our party of sun-starved Canadians go over the side to snorkel, and two launch a kayak to explore the jungle shoreline where the sand is marked by the tracks of monitor lizards, but not humans.

Just another day in paradise in what are often called “the lost islands,” not because they aren’t on the map, but because so few people ever travel here.

That is going to change as Myanmar, the official name imposed by the military junta, increasingly courts tourism and softens its international image by releasing political prisoners. In a recent issue, The New York Times rated the country as one of the top three places to visit in 2012. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both recently paid official visits (Baird named Aung San Suu Kyi an honorary Canadian citizen this month), which has helped Burma project a more welcoming image.

But, for now, the Mergui Archipelago still remains about as remote and untravelled a place as you can find on the planet – and it is hard to believe it’s going to change any time soon.

dscf0038In a six-day cruise out of the crazy port city of Kawthoung (where we were required to “tip” Burmese border officials and pick up a government “guide” who would watch our every move that week), we saw only one other cruising yacht.

Our skipper, Bob, an expatriate and adventurous Canadian who runs charters all over the south coast of Thailand, said he is asked to do only about two cruises a year into the Mergui Archipelago.

“Six days isn’t really enough,” he said as we rode an ebb tide out of Kawthoung harbour, pushed by the current of the Kraburi River, which carried along with us a stream of drifting plastic garbage. “Make it 10 days next time. We could go a lot farther north into some really remote places with just a bit more time.”

But it’s hard to imagine how things might have been better. We anchored off a different island every day, explored bays and channels that even our skipper had never seen before, and often felt alone on the planet.

There are several charter operators offering cruises into the Mergui Archipelago. Most of the boats cater to divers, but skippers are more than happy to design a trip to meet your needs. We asked for shallow reefs, white sand beaches and birdwatching. Our captain provided all that, built a beach fire, complete with burning scorpions that emerged from rotting wood, and took us up a river in search of saltwater crocodiles. He also made sure our official government guide, who had the best spying gig on the planet, earned his keep as a boat boy.

“Jet contrail!” one of our tour group declared on day five as he spotted a sign that there was a big, hyper-fast world still out there beyond our horizon.

Sadly, we did see other reminders of that – mostly in the form of garbage that washed ashore on beautiful beaches, leaving a high-tide line marked by plastic.

And we did meet other people – Moken sea gypsies, trading them cookies for fresh crab when we anchored off an island where great, lumbering hornbills came clattering in to roost at night.

In the one village we encountered, we walked down a dirt path that wound between small wooden shacks. Some had turned their front rooms into makeshift stores, selling everything from nuts and bolts to penicillin. There were no cars or bikes on the streets and never had been. Water was carried in buckets and garbage was disposed of by burning it in the street. Barefoot children ran down the beach to beat on the inflated hull of the yacht’s dingy, amazed that a boat could sound and feel like a drum.

Looking out at the Ruby, anchored just beyond a fleet of ancient dug outs and handmade wooden boats, the glistening catamaran, with its impossibly sleek lines, seemed like something from another, futuristic world.

A number of yacht charter operations, mostly based in Phuket, Thailand, offer cruises into the Mergui Archipelago. We dealt with Faraway Yachting Co. Ltd.

This was a freelance article for the travel pages of The Globe and Mail.