Des­ti­na­tion pro­file: Mer­gui Ar­chi­pel­ago

Few peo­ple have heard of this undis­cov­ered, largely un­spoilt col­lec­tion of is­lands off the coast of Myan­mar, but it’s start­ing to ap­pear on the tourism radar, says

Selling Travel - - Contents - Sara Mace­field

We’re moored amid the emer­ald green wa­ters of the An­daman Sea, sur­rounded by a scat­ter­ing of lush jun­gle-topped is­lands, but all I can hear is a per­sis­tent tap­ping.

On peer­ing over the rails, I spot a soli­tary lady in a dugout ca­noe, hold­ing up a trans­par­ent bag of fresh squid which she’s keen to sell to our cap­tain.

She’s one of the sea gyp­sies – or

Mo­ken peo­ple – who in­habit the Mer­gui Ar­chi­pel­ago, which we’re ex­plor­ing on a week’s cruise with bou­tique line Pan­daw. Aside from lo­cal fish­er­men, she’s the only other per­son we en­counter all week.

This col­lec­tion of 800 is­lands has been off-lim­its to out­siders for decades. Lit­tle has changed since Bri­tish rule ended in 1948 and many out­posts, such as Ste­wart Is­land, still carry the names of the colo­nial civil ser­vants they were named af­ter.

Pan­daw’s de­but

Aside from niche dive boats and yacht op­er­a­tor Burma Boat­ing, Pan­daw is the most prom­i­nent player in the area, hav­ing de­buted Oc­to­ber 2017 with its first foray into ocean cruis­ing on the 20-pas­sen­ger

An­daman Ex­plorer, a former Nor­we­gian coast­guard ves­sel built in 1963.

It was made into a float­ing palace by its former Ital­ian own­ers, who own the Car­rara mar­ble quar­ries and coated the in­te­rior with 15 tonnes of it, but af­ter be­ing ac­quired by Pan­daw it had a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar up­grade too.

A cast­away dream

Mine is a round-trip pas­sage from the south­ern Burmese town of Kawthaung on the Thai bor­der. Guests mostly ar­rive from Yan­gon, hav­ing flown via Bangkok.

The week is largely spent ex­plor­ing the Lampi Is­land Ma­rine Na­tional Park, a nat­u­ral won­der­land of de­serted, largely un­spoilt is­lands that live up to the cast­away dream of al­abaster beaches dot­ted with shells. How­ever, I’m shocked at the lit­ter washed up on some shores – bro­ken glass and bot­tles ap­par­ently tossed over­board by fish­er­men.

Thank­fully, these were the ex­cep­tion, and mem­o­rable days are spent ex­plor­ing is­lands and kayak­ing through man­groves and la­goons.

The crys­tal-clear wa­ters teem with ma­rine life and I catch glimpses of sail­fish launch­ing them­selves out of the waves and preda­tory bar­racu­das chas­ing glis­ten­ing shoals of sil­very fish.

Blaz­ing sun­sets are toasted by beach sun­down­ers to the back­drop of call­ing song­birds, chat­ter­ing mon­keys and a chirrup­ing cho­rus of ci­cadas, and with no phone sig­nal or wifi it’s easy to feel com­pletely re­laxed.

For ro­man­tics, es­capists and div­ing types, this re­gion prom­ises to be an ideal match. No won­der then, that Pan­daw has ex­panded its Mer­gui sail­ings with 10-night voy­ages be­tween Kawthaung and Yan­gon, plus seven and 10-night de­par­tures to the An­daman and Ni­co­bar is­lands.

A SEA GIPSY SELL­ING FISH

KAWTHAUNG TOWN

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