Nature on Steroids
The sun has just gone down. There is a half-moon directly above the anchor light on the top of the mast. The great Dipper is turned upside down, compared to my 'normal' horizon in the Mediterranean Sea. I am lying in the boom, on the sail of the catamaran Cataleya, high above the deck. Enjoying the peace, the scenery, the sound of the waves on the beach 100 meters away, a few white clouds in the sky and the talk and clinging of cocktail glasses of the guests below me on deck. You could not make me happier. And guess what, I am in the most unknown (and unexpected) cruising ground of the world: The Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar (formerly BURMA).
But it truly is the ultimate cruising ground. Islands like Cavern, McCarthy, Great Swinton, McLeod, Horseshoe and some that do not even have an English name (or any name at all for that matter), are all a paradise on their own. A 100 by 40 mile cruising area with more than 800 island and rocks to choose from, open to the Indian Ocean on one side, assuring crystal clean waterbeing refreshed with each tide. Every island is covered with jungle till the high-water mark. And when I say jungle, I mean jungle. Each individual tree is again overgrown with another plant. Nature as pure as it can get. Untouched for centuries.
With low tides (and there is 3,5 meter of it!!!) a white beach develops, just below the jungle. No footprints from humans on it. But the trails from monkeys, monster lizards, hermit crabs, wild boar and more are to be found as the only proof of life.The white sand is not the sand that we know. No this is grounded, died off coral, which explains the colour and the finesse of the structure. One of the kids remarked it was like walking on flour!
But the biggest beauty of this undiscovered cruising ground is that it is undiscovered; you have it all to yourself. I make a bet with my clients every week: I pay 10$ for every other tourist boat that they could spot. The most I ever had to pay was 10$ during a 14 day trip; but mostly I would win and not have to pay anything... and that makes it very, very unique.
Where else can you do this? How far has one got to travel nowadays to be on his own? And if you do find a spot: how many of those places are then in a nice climate? How many of those places offer extensive luxury on a yacht in a complete safe environment? How many of those places are - even for kids - a world of pure imagination and wonder around every corner and rock, above and under water? The list can go on, but the Mergui Archipelago is one of those last, remarkable, safe, accessible and amazing frontiers.
Meet NEMO in person
We are sailing from Lampi to Great Swinton, little wind around, so the engines are helping the mainsail. On the foredeck we have all the sun awnings up, to provide some shade. We look around and count some 22 islandsaround us. And each island has several strips of white, pure white beach on them. It will take years to visit them all, but we don't have time. We sail onward and enjoy this amazing scenery, while the smells from the galley make us already want to have lunch. And indeed with a Thai cook onboard every meal becomes a feast.
One drops the anchor in 15 meters of water, as the fringing reefs comes up very steep, but this makes the snorkellingso interesting. So the exploration of this natural paradise continues under water and everyone is in the water within seconds.Under water more alive coral, fish, crabs, morayeels and of course NEMO itself is encountered on a daily basis. But also whales and manta rays, and again here the big ones. Nature on steroids, as we call it. Above and under water.
Hermit Crab Racing
We drive the dinghy to the beach and step on a virginbeach that is 3 kilometres long, both to the left as to the right. The kids run ahead and find themselves some smaller hermit crabs. Now the adults have joined in and also find their own hermit crab. We draw a small circle in the sand and a wider one around at 3 meters distance. Every one puts their own hermit crab in the smaller inner circle and now the race is on. The first hermit crab to cross the outer circle is the official winner of the hermit crab race of he day. And do not get too excited, because as soon as you move or want to cheer your hermit crab, it stops moving and withdraws in its stolen shell. Always fun.
While we enjoy another fantastic Thai lunch on board, the boat sails on to our next destination: McCarthy Island. As the sun slowly goes down, we all gather again on the beach. Some swim over, some take the kayaks and others came with the dinghy. A cool box has all the necessities for the obligatory sun downer cocktail. The kids run off to gather wood, of which there is plenty on the high water mark of the beach and we quickly make a huge bon-fire. Of course we make this just below the tide-line on the beach, so that the next morning the beach is washed clean and looks pristine white again. The silence of the complete group as we enjoy our drinks, watch the sun go down, see the first stars blinking in the sky is deafening in itself. Even the kids realise this is a special moment. Another day in paradise comes unfortunately to its end.
A shower in heaven
In the morning we go back to the beach and enter the jungle. After a ten-minute walk we have crossed the complete island and are, again, facing the Ocean. Standing on a beach, stretching as far as your eyes can reach. The famous 'Maya Beach' in Thailand (where they filmed 'the Beach' with Leonardo DiCaprio), just completely lost its charm. It just never stops, these surprises, these miraclesand this eternal beauty. We return to the boat and sail over to Bo Ywe island. We have two trawling fishing lines behind the boat and within 1 hour we catch 4 medium size (30 cm) tuna fish. They will serve as the freshest Sashimi, you will ever have had. On Bo Ywe we drop anchor in front of the smallest beach in the area.
50 meters from left to right... at low tide, and at high tide there is nothing left of the beach at all. But a special beach nevertheless, as it is home to one of the few fresh water sources in the area. And this fresh water spring comes out of a rock at 4 meters height. And splashes down right on the beach. And it thus makes the best shower I have ever had in my life, every time I visit. We even used it to fill up our water tanks on the boat on one occasion. Of course the source gives more water in December than at the end of the dry season in April. But even my last shower in May was a luxury, no 5 star hotel could ever give me; Luke warm water, gently pouring down and I shampoo my hair, whilst standing on a beach with a scenery that is hard to describe, but imprinted on my eyes. Just before the soap reaches them and I have to close them and give in to my senses of the warm water streaming down on my head and shoulders.
No mosquitos, no pirates and... no other tourists
You are sailing around in the tropics; temperatures are constant around 35 degrees during the day. Look for shadow and a lot of sunscreen. Even snorkellingis done with a T-shirt on, to prevent sunburn. At night the temperature drops to a comfortable 25 degrees, which makes it perfect for sleeping on deck and admiring the sky and star abundance above.
And that without a single mosquito around, once you are in the island group. Mosquitos need fresh water and garbage to live on, and there is not enough of either. So, enjoy your cocktail on deck after sundown and don't worry about mosquito-spraying, or annoying buzzing sounds around your head or having to sleep under a clamboo. Be free, and fully enjoy this really last paradise to be discovered.
Before the crowd gets in....
These waters are home to the Moken people, basically now an endangered group of people: also called sea gypsies. They live with the complete family on a special open boot, with the typical long-tail engine on the back. And they row a canoe, cut out of a solid tree, with a specific cross-over way of rowing (see picture). They live from fishing, move around constantly. They are expert free divers. One finds them on the northern Thai islands (Surin Island) and on a lot of Burmese islands. There are now two permanent settlements for them close to the island of Lampi. A visit to these villages is a must and to see how the school is run, will be a surprise for many.
Every visit to the Moken villages is accompanied with taking some medication along, or material for the school, or barter for fish against cigarettes, a pair of swimming fins, or anything else they normally would not have in this area. They are the friendliest people I have met on all my voyages. There are also plenty of local, Burmese fishing boats around, and it is nice to trade off some fresh fish, crab or even lobster with them. All as friendly as they could possibly be. Always smiling and waving at you. In these waters we are the attraction.
The rules for sailing in Myanmar
There are only crewed yachts available for charter in Myanmar, and basically all come from Phuket, Thailand. A typical crewed catamaran comes with a European Captain, Thai cook and deckhand. This ensures pure luxury, fantastic food and a complete relaxed holiday. A charter in Myanmar is only allowed through a special permission from the Ministry of Tourism and every yacht gets a Burmese guide on board for the complete duration of the trip. These are friendly young, perfect English speaking guys, who also work on the boat. They have knowledge about the local fishermen, the Moken people, the fishing and they know the best snorkelling, dive and overnight sites. A joy to have them on board and certainly not a burden.
Of course this all comes at a price: on top of the normal yacht charter, including food and/or drinks, one has to obtain a Burmese visa and an entry permit for the Mergui Archipelago (normally around 300$ for a week, per person). Since during your complete stay in the Mergui Archipelago there is no provisioning possible, make sure your yacht is equipped with enough freezers, water maker, etc. After all, you enter no-mans land!!!!!
Combine sailing and diving. The Mergui Archipelago offers some 20 spectacular dive sites, up to 40 meters deep. Charter a catamaran that also has dive equipment and a dive master on board and you can enjoy the potential of these waters to the fullest.
I have sailed a fair bit in my life and the last 20 years of my life are spent continuously on board and mostly doing charters with my guests. But I have never, never experienced anything like the last 5 months here in Myanmar. It is by definition and by far the really last frontier for a sailboat. One has over 800 islands and rocks to choose from, each with at least 1 but sometimes 50 pristine, white virgin beaches to choose from. There is NO civilisation, no lights on land, no electricity, no cars, no telephone, no internet and... no other boats. You have the whole thing to yourself. The preferred charter area is from Kaw Thuang (embarking) to the island of Lampi in the North (some 80 miles away) and one goes all the way to the West, where the last island is basically in the middle of the open ocean. A typical 7 day charter makes you visit some 20+ islands and anchorages and covers some 240 miles of travelling, from North to South, from East to West.
And with a season from November till May, basically no wind to worry about. No waves, no big swells, nothing. I have dropped anchors and spent nights in places where I normally would not sleep quietly, as the place looks too exposed. But hereâ€¦.wooow, donâ€™t worry. Weather patterns are so settled that nothing happens. The reason why nobody ever came to Myanmar, is it previous military regime and the closed society. But Myanmar has changed it rulers and its policies. And what a beauty they have in hand. For the very lucky few to discover... NOW. For I am afraid, it will soon all be over...
Roland Bouwkamp is the owner of sy Sylphe, a 60 foot 1940-built Marconi rigged wooden racing yacht. He charters with his yacht in the quieter places of the Mediterranean Sea in the European summer. In the winter he tries to find another area of this world to keep him warm.
Roland speaks fluent Dutch, English, French and German. Before he became owner of Sylphe he worked during 8 years for Medecins sans Frontieres in some of the most â€œhorribleâ€ countries of the world: Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Sudan, etc.
His last 15 years he withdrew to the sea and its peace.
Interested in joining a cruise aboard Catamaran Cataleya in Burma's Mergui Archipelago waters?
Check out http://www.far-away.net/multihulls-crewed/s-y-cataleya-join-in-cruises.html
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