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7 once-in-a-lifetime experiences at the new destination Mergui Archipelago

The mysterious Mergui Archipelago, off the east coast of southern Myanmar and Thailand, is the newest destination in Asia to open up to luxury travel. With 800 largely uninhabited islands scattered across a broad swathe of the Andaman Sea, the large region was once the rest and recreation playground for Burma’s British colonial holidaymakers dating back to the time of the poet Kipling. But for most of the second half of last century it was strictly off-limits to all. It is only in the last few years that foreigners have been able to explore the ‘forgotten islands’, initially on liveaboard charter dive boats, and now, from high-end island resorts. So far, half a dozen barefoot luxury resorts have opened, with more slated for development.  With Myanmar’s ‘one island-one resort’ rule, as well as environmental protection guidelines and bureaucratic hurdles, it is still not easy to get to the remote limestone and granite islands, but definitely worth it. Despite the costs of getting to the gateway port towns of Ranong and Kawthaung in Thailand and Myanmar, the $US50 tourist visa fees, and hefty marine royalty fees, the attraction of the Mergui Archipelago is its exclusivity as well as its soft white sand beaches and pristine environment. Think of it as being the new Maldives, but less crowded, less sanitized and built, and more natural and raw.    Ideally suited to couples, friends and family groups, the island resorts cater to those who just want to laze by the pool or beach sipping a cocktail in between spa treatments and meals, but they are geared up for adventurous travellers who want more than just an escape from the rat-race. A more immersive experience is available, with sea swimming, snorkelling, paddle-boarding, kayaking, diving, hiking, bird-watching and visits to villages of sea-faring nomadic sea gypsies.    With the emphasis on water activities, the resorts are only open during the dry season, avoiding the rainy monsoon which can bucket down from June to September and stir up water turbidity. From October to May, visibility is generally good, and winds calmer, enabling boat excursions and snorkelling trips over coral gardens, or SCUBA dive trips further out to encounter sharks, manta-rays, or whale sharks.    All the resorts have dive centres with dive masters, with some having resident marine biologists on hand to educate about the unique environment. Past dynamite fishing and over-fishing have left large holes in coral reefs, reduced fish stocks and larger species, and plastic and marine debris from all over Asia wash up at some bays. While there are reminders of the wastefulness of the modern world, the islands do come with a digital detox, with no mobile phone coverage, though most resorts now have unreliable satellite WiFi for those who cannot stay away from emails and social media. All the resorts are endeavouring to be clean and green, with the use of green technologies such as solar panels, biodegradable products such as bathroom soaps and reef-friendly sunscreens, and efforts to reduce plastic and waste. An example of the eco-initiatives is resort-branded refillable water bottles given to arriving guests rather than single-use plastic bottles, with filtered spring water on tap.    The islands hold some once-in-a-lifetime experiences for intrepid visitors to the last island frontier.    Kayaking and picnicking at 115 island aboard the Sea Gipsy Regarded as one of the most beautiful islands among the 800 or more of the archipelago, 115 island group is best visited during an Island Safari aboard the Sea Gipsy. The small cargo boat, converted into a passenger's vessel, sets off two times a week for its slow journey around the islands, calling in at Boulder island on its way back to Kawthaung port. The 115 island group is one of the highlights on the itineraries which also take in Moken fishin gvillages and isolated bays ideal for beach-combing, swimming or snorkelling. Guests sleep in wood-panelled open-air gazebos at night, while a sun deck and lounge area offers the ideal spot for chillaxing and socialising. The Sea Gipsy carries kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, and there are even opportunities to catch fish with the friendly staff. The delicious meals around a shared table include beach picnics and starlit dinners.  Unwinding at Wa Ale Island Resort You may not want to leave the island paradise at Wa Ale island, one of the best examples in the world of barefoot luxury. With a minimal environmental footprint, and sustainable tourism ethos, Wa Ale Resort is a conservation-led project which enables guests to immerse themselves in the tropical island, with creature comforts and more. Tented villas, with earthy tones blending with the surroundings, are spread out behind the main beach, which is also a protected sea turtle sanctuary and nesting site. Near the main pavilion, jungle treehouses look out through trees to the blue Andaman Sea. Boardwalks and some of the other buildings are made from re-purposed old boat planks and mainland warehouses, at this well-designed, expansive resort. The focus is on soft adventure activities and healthy cuisine prepared by a 5-star chef using the resort’s own organic kitchen garden produce and local seafood. Add Wa Ale Island Resort to your bucket list.  Snorkelling at Victoria Cliff Resort on Nyaung Oo Phee One of the best snorkelling islands is Nyaung Oo Phee, 90 minutes by speedboat from Kawthuang, where Victoria Cliff Resort has a resort for day trippers and overnighters. The restaurant and villas along the beachfront and in the tropical jungle provide the ideal base for replenishing before exploring NOP’s nearby snorkelling sites, with some just a walk off the beach, while others require a short boat trip. A highlight is the super soft powdery sands at Madam Beach, where guides take guests into the warm waters to spot clownfish, while late afternoon visitors might even witness anemones pull in their tentacles and pull over a protective purple sheaf. As well as variety of fishlife, the clear waters support a mix of soft and hard corals, including spectacular seafan, staghorn and harp corals. While most to Nyaung Oo Phee are day-trippers from Ranong or Kawthaung, those that stay overnight get to see a Myanmar dance performance followed by an amazing fire show.  Being stranded at Boulder Bay Eco-Resort If you seek a paradise island for adventure, and want to get back to nature, Boulder Island is the perfect place, one of the most remote in the archipelago. The main bay with a tidal reef and coral gardens has a distinctive balancing rounded rock defying gravity. Wooden cabins are spread throughout the jungle, some with sea views, at Boulder Bay Eco-Resort, and a bamboo yoga shala on the nearby beach is a wonder of eco-architecture. With several different bays, a network of jungle trails, a dive and marine research centre, and excellent snorkelling from the beach, there’s plenty to occupy your time at the low-key, rustic resort. Or you can ponder the possibility that the island provided inspiration to the creator of Peter Pan’s Neverland. Boulder Bay Eco-Resort, one of the less expensive resorts, is perhaps the most eco-friendly of the developments, with green design, solar panels, spring water, biodegradable bathroom products and on-site environmental educators.  Beachviews and fishing village at Awei Pila  One of two archipelago resorts with a swimming pool, the full-facility Awei Pila Resort is centred around its gleaming infinity pool which looks out across a white-sand beach to an inviting swimming bay. Those same serene views can be appreciated in private from raised platforms with sofas in front of beachfront circular ‘yurt’ tents scattered along the beach and in the flanking forest. In contrast to the flash resort, over the hill (or by boat) there’s a small shanty settlement of Moken sea gypsies and a larger village of Burmese fishers and traders, providing an insight into the lives of the few who make a living in the waters off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand.  Sunset at Victoria Cliff Hotel and Resort Kawthaung Oriented towards the distant Mergui Archipelago, the Victoria Cliff Hotel and Resort in Kawthuang is the best place on the mainland of southern Myanmar for stopovers and sunsets. As flights between Yangon to Kawthaung don’t always connect with boat departures or arrivals to and from the island resorts, the top choice in Kawthaung is the Victoria Cliff with its ocean view villas and rooms, or garden view accommodation. A restaurant and terrace bar provide the ideal spot to enjoy dramatic sunsets, while two swimming pools get you into the aqua-life mood or allow a slow acclimatization back to the real world after an island adventure.  Chance your luck at the Grand Andaman A casino hotel which is now more family-friendly with more of a focus on food than gambling, the Grand Andaman hotel makes it easy whether you are coming or going, or just looking. Its gaming tables and slot machines may operate 24/7, but so do some of its dining facilities and its impressive-stocked duty-free store. The hilltop resort, a short boat ride from Kawthuang, also has direct boat transfers across to Ranong in Thailand. Foreigners can visit without a visa, just by paying US$10 cash for a Kawthaung area border pass.

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  1. $50 for a tourist visa ain’t too bad, you should try India! I think that it was £75 last time I visited. Not that the dosh oiled the wheels if still took 2 hours to get through immigration.

    1. Yes, $50 isn’t too bad for a Myanmar visa, and it is really easy to obtain, in a day or two, from the official government website Myanmar eVisa https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/, or if you just going to Kawthaung, and not out to the island resorts, you can get a border pass for $10, a popular option for many foreigners living in Thailand doing the ‘visa run’.

  2. In my book no mobile phone coverage and dodgy wi-fi is a very good reason for visiting. People don’t seem to understand that holiday means holiday. I certainly wouldn’t want to say at a resort where you get wi-fi on the beach. For me this archipelago sounds like the perfect get away from the frantic pressures of business life.

    1. Thank Ellen. Yes, it is a rare thing in the world to get into an area with no mobile phone coverage, and as the wifi on the islands is limited, often only around the reception area, and via satellite, it can be very refreshing to disengage from your device and really get into the raw, rugged environment.

      I think the trouble these days that people go on holiday as if on assignment from Instagram and Facebook. So the Mergui archipelago and its amazing eco-resorts offer something which is needed, and necessary.

  3. This archipelago could do very well. There are a lot of travellers who are addicted to South East Asia, they take large chunks of time out to travel for weeks and months on end. They are always looking for somewhere new to explore.

    1. Thanks for your comments Ben.

      Yes, there are lots of travellers who enjoy South East Asia, and the Mergui archipelgo is one of the newst, latest destinations, sometimes likened to what other parts of Asia were like 30 or more years ago.

      I expect prices to come down in the year ahead, but this is definitely a place you want to visit sooner rather than later.

  4. I did my Divemaster training there 10 years ago. This year I could go back to the most beautiful island and do some exploration dives. It is such a unique experience.

    1. Hello Andreas, thanks for your comments.

      Did you go from Ranong or Phuket when you went to the islands a decade ago?

      What was it like back then?

      Would you go back to the archipelago?

    2. Hi Keith,

      sorry for the late reply. Did not see your message. Yes, I went via Ranong to this Island. Guests on MacLeod Island got a special permit. It still has the same untouched vibe it had 10 years ago. I always wanted to go back to these islands and I will go back there again. I am not aware of a place with islands that feels so remote.

  5. I’m kind of torn between thinking if we’re really discovering or exploiting new lands. I admit, I do enjoy my piece of paradise in seclusion with all the usual modern conveniences, but sometimes I do wonder. Anyway, since there are strict rules and getting there seems to be quite an effort, I’m hoping that the islands will stay pristine and raw longer.

    1. Hello Burke, thanks for your comments.

      Yes, I think we all share that ambivalence about the development of any new place after it has been ‘discovered’. Though in this case, it wasn’t really discovered, it was just slowly opening up initially by divers who spread stories about the wonders of the warm waters and dive spots throughout the islands.

      I think also that the strict environmental controls, as well as the high entry costs, means that it won’t be a mass tourism destination. The lack of infrastructure on the uninhabited islands means it may long remain ‘off the beaten track’ and offer a welcome escape from the pressures of modern life, and the perils of over-tourism.

      Have you travelled much in South East Asia?

  6. I had the opportunity to do some exploration diving with the marine bioligists on Boulder Island in the southern Mergui Archipelage. It is so good to see healthy coral reefs.

    1. Hello Andreas, great that you managed to get into the archipelago and visit Boulder Island, one of the best islands among the 800 islands of the archipelago.

      I’ve been impressed by the efforts at Boulder island by the eco-resort on mapping and surveying the coral reefs, and also trialling the restoration of sections of the reef using discarded fishing cages. There are moves by the resort to get a no-take zone around the island to restock fish numbers.

      I understand that the coral reefs in the archipelago helped the coral bleached reefs further south, and so have an important role not just in Myanmar, but in Thailand too.

  7. Island-hopping around the 115 islands on board the Sea Gypsy sounds like the ultimate get away from it all holiday to me. Just a bit put off by the trek to get there. But once you are there you’d probably forget all the bureaucracy and travel hassles, looks to be a real paradise.

    1. Going to Boulder Island was actually very easy to what I was used 10 years ago. You get the 28 days visa online and you pay 50 dollars entrance fee. But I heard this fee will disappear.

    2. Hello Gary, thanks for your comments.

      Yes, an Island Safari aboard Sea Gipsy has got to be one of the most relaxing ways to really appreciate the marine environment and scatter of islands.

      And actually, not too difficult to get there. Within a day or so from anywhere in Asia, and even from Australia and New Zealand, you can be on a boat heading out of Kawthaung.

      A small price to pay for the wonders that await, and the solitude, far from the crowds.

      Otherwise, don’t you think its too easy to go to somewhere that is over-developed?

  8. There are 800+ islands, 115 (Mosquito or Frost) Island is one, of the nicest, but the resort that’s been there for some time, is in the best bay, with a wharf out into the pristine bay.
    There are numerous proposed developments but various restrictions (distance, cost, market) will limit the number, hopefully, the islands will hold their isolated charm.
    The biggest challenge is the blast fishing and discarded nets (tonnes), its leading to out of control overfishing. But local environmental awareness is high, hopefully this will also improve the region.
    The diving is among the best in the world, but mostly uncharted.

    1. 10 years ago I experienced dynamite fishing myself while being underwater in the Mergui Archipelago. But the coral reefs of Boulder Island are healthy. Also the dive sites further away which I dived back then did not change at all. So maybe dynamite fishing is not common anymore but it also seems the Mergui Archipelago was not hit by the last El Ninjo.

    2. Hello John.

      Actually, 115 island isn’t one island, it is a group of islands, and the resort that has been half-built there, called Aureum 115, doesn’t show any signs of being completed or opening. There was some postings on Facebook in June 2018 about its opening, but I suspect it hasn’t been finished, due to funding issues, and it hasn’t got approval.

      The resort is owned by Tay Za, a Myanmar business tycoon and close associate of the country’s former head of state, Than Shwe.

      Most other resorts don’t have long wharves and seem more eco-sensitive in their approach.

      You are right that the islands may hold their charm due to distance, cost and market.

      While over-fishing is still a problem, there seems to more surveillance and enforcement. Blast fishing with dynamite isn’t done anymore, and I have met some people who were imprisoned for using that technique.

      Many of the discarded and ghost nets have been removed by the resorts over the last few years, but there are still some washing up or uncovered during storms. There seems to be a real effort and greater awareness than before, but it isn’t a local issue, it is a region-wide challenge.

      You are right, the diving is among the best in the world. Have you been?

    3. Hi Keith,
      Been there once or twice, I’m finishing off a pilot book (for yachts) covering the wider Archipelago. I’ve been giving presentations on the region for a number of years around Se Asia, it has to be experienced.
      115 or Frost island or 2 other names/numbers is in a group of islands atolls and rocks, two of which will host the next resort to open, Amata (there will allegedly be 3 next season). The islands all have English names, although removed discharged, but still recognized as the only charts are the old pre-WWII English Admiralty ones. The names were changed by the government, there are local names, but the most comprehensive list is actually numbers. Hence 115 while likely to be the height of the island this is also not to be relied upon. It’s all a bit messy with names islands, identification, and that’s not to mention the Russian charts.
      Tay Za Started building many years ago and has hosted guests but never really took off. The first wharf collapsed and was replaced, Macleod island (Andaman resort) has a wharf for cruise-ship guests, but I’m not sure they are still receiving clients, most of the resorts are too exposed to build any permanent erection. Some of the resorts are 3hours by high-speed boat (in good weather) so until flights are approved, it will remain an expensive destination.
      Blast fishing has definitely reduced the Navy is much more proactive, however, fishing is out of control, way more than 5 years ago. The extensive fishing is matched by discarded nets which have become a huge problem.
      The resorts, Pilar, and Boulder and Wa Ale are heavily involved in environmental work and are doing a great job along with FFI to recover the reefs and fishing conditions.
      This is a huge area, and there is some great deep-sea fishing to be had, and if the regional government could balance industries this could be a developing tourist market, alongside the fishing industry. And rapidly developing Pearl farming.
      It’s exciting, producing dozens of jobs, and the area is getting more tourism, especially domestic.

  9. Hey Keith, thank you for adding this amazing place in ‘places to visit’ list. Mergui Archipelago seems like an amazing place for my next vacation. No network and wifi are a step towards spending a peaceful vacation.

    1. Hello Isabella.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Yes, be sure to add it to your ‘must visit’ list, as the island group is really something special, a rare find in this busy and developed world.

      There is a big advantage of having a digital detox.

  10. Beautiful islands, but I do get a little guilty thinking about enjoying these new resort areas that not too long ago were virgin natural habitats. The difficulty in accessing it plus no wi-fi, however, is a good thing. Why? It has fewer chances of quickly being turned into a “concrete jungle.”

    1. Besides Boulder Island I only know MacLeod Island. There are some new resorts on a few other islands. But Boulder Bay Eco Resort tries to keep the impact as little as possible. They even had marine biologists on the island.

    2. Hello Brian, (and Andreas),

      Thanks for your comments.

      I don’t think you should feel guilty about enjoying this special part of the planet.

      While the islands were largely uninhabited, there was some human presence, and also some past exploitation of timber felling, tin mining and fishing, so some parts aren’t exactly virgin territory.

      However, some islands have seldom been visited, and there are beaches where you might be the first person to step onto the golden soft sands.

      I agree with you that because of the constraints and distance, it will be kept well preserved and not over-developed.

      BTW, Andreas, MacLeod island seems to be not operating, as they were sold a few years ago, and then didn’t focus on accommodation, instead last year the old resort hosted a few large cruise ships, but there is no word on it being on the schedule for Dream or Genting cruises next season. The reef there isn’t so good, as it is too close to the mainland, and dropped its ‘eco’ tag a while ago.

      Boulder Bay Eco Resort is quite impressive for its commitment to marine and island conservation and sustainability, and also as it has resident marine biologists and nature guides involved in both research and education.

  11. Those blue crystal clear waters surely attracts me! It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Myanmar and I didn’t know there are gems like these hiding in it’s islands. It really bothers me that I haven’t known that there are beautiful beaches and resorts in Myanmar. All I’ve ever got to visit is the cities and their beautiful architectures such as the pagodas. Hope I can visit these waters soon.

    1. Hello Kelton, thanks for your comments.

      When did you last visit Myanmar?

      I know when I first visited about a decade ago, it seemed impossible to get to the islands, or even south of Yangon to Dawei, Myeik and Kawthaung. So those towns have opened up to overland travel, and also some cross-border excursions and travel.

      The main beaches in Myanmar are those close to Yangon via Pathein, such as Ngwesaung and Chaung Thar, and the more developed Thailand-like (but without the crowds) Ngapali Beach best reached by flight. There is also the new area, between those beaches, of Gwa and Kanthaya on the coast up from Pathein.

      Guests to Myanmar often end their trip with a beach visit, and I think now Mergui archipelago offers the best happy ending, though it is expensive to fly from Yangon to Kawthaung.

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