Boating in Burma

Undiscovered and unexpected, the Mergui Archipelago

Another glass of champagne? A swim? A siesta? It’s mid-afternoon sometime on day four (or is it five?) of our boating trip in the Mergui Archipelago of Southern Myanmar, and such schedule concerns are our only worry in the world. With just enough breeze in the sails to caress our 26m luxury yacht forward, the only tangible sounds to be heard are the flap of the sail, the water rippling over the bow and the occasional Brahminy Kite watching us from above.

We haven’t heard a mobile phone squawk since the reception dropped out just hours after leaving port on day one.  The only other people around are the local Moken, a transient population of fishermen, and us for a week. There is nothing to do but detach, relax, unwind. This is paradise, only recently found.

Since 2013, Burma Boating has been running chartered yachting trips into this preserved corner of the Earth.  They have hosted many A-list celebrities and royals from Thailand, Burma, Europe and beyond. The region had been off limits for political and geographical reasons until the adventurous founders of the company ventured into the waters and appeased the local immigration grunts, opening up this golden landscape for the first time. Land travel in the region remains impossible, and development is still yet to consume the natural wonder without even a basic functioning hotel in sight. Since boat access is the only option, why not make it a luxury yacht such as the Meta IV for the occasion.

Our journey began in Bangkok, but you can get to the Khawthaung pier, the southern-most border point of Burma, from Phuket (4 hours’ drive) or Yangon (90 minutes’ flight).  An easy crossing from Ranong in Thailand via long tail boat facilitates the international hop.

An ornate jewel in the shabby fishing border town is the graceful lines of resident luxury vessel Meta IV, a bespoke craft made completely of Thai teak. It’s longer than the Santa Maria, the boat that Columbus discovered the Americas in. The love for the vessel by onboard Austrian captain Herbert is apparent in every detail of the sleek craft that easily accommodated our group of six passengers and four crew. Each of the four private bunks has its own electric toilet, shower, storage and privacy – no mean feat on an isolated vessel far away from the sources of luxury it affords its guests so gracefully.

The schedule, like everything else in the pocket of paradise, is at the whim of the breeze. However there are countless perfect and untouched sandy beaches dotted on the 800-plus of islands of the archipelago, many of which remain unnamed.  A highlight of our bespoke schedule took us to “115”, a small island yet to garner even a nickname since being penciled onto the map by the British, who ruled Myanmar (then Burma) from 1824-1948.

The eastern side of 115 is a protected harbor – a dream discovery for a Hollywood location scout – lined by two sandy beaches perfect for a late afternoon or early morning stroll and swim. The place evokes the best of cinematic paradise – part Dr. No, part South Pacific. Our onboard guide and deckhand Aung Kyaw, or AK, knows the area like the back of his hand and put us on spot to appreciate the sunset near an atmospheric cave full of diving swallows and bats.

In the morning we putt across the bay to another yet-to-be-named island of enchantment. This one, however, has been flagged by the enigmatic figure of Tay Za. The self-pronounced “richest man in Burma” staked his claim on the island years ago, beginning construction on a resort that is still yet to be realized in what becomes a tax break since it is uncompleted. The unrealized ghost resort symptomatic of the tumultuously steep path to wealth the country is experiencing as money pours in over the borders, and highlights the fact that with the impending change comes urgency to see the region as it exists now – in its fullest pristine glory.

While the nightly vintage champagne sunset ritual was courtesy of us, the onboard chef takes care of the other half of the palate. There isn’t a store in sight, however the waters below can provide as much seafood as you could bear, in all its inclinations, as it does to the nearby hungry tourist regions of Thailand. Chef Wa (Thai) would send a scout to any passing fishing boats just before dinnertime. Once contact is made, a friendly exchange might be made of a few cans of beer from our side in return for fists full of whatever they have in the hull below. Blue crab, lobster, prawn, tuna, barracuda, mahi mahi, giant trevally, Spanish mackerel, snapper – some of it hours new – by the handful in what must be the best seafood market of the region.

For the naturally inclined, the preserved habitat is home to countless avian offerings. Kingfisher, swallow, sea egret, hornbill, Brahminy Kite, red and sea eagles all weave across the horizon, adding a carnival-like atmosphere to the light show that ends each day. We are a visitor in their playground, but for birdwatchers, the deck of the Meta IV at dusk with a glass of Moët in hand might be the most glamorous way to appreciate the spectacle.

After six days of endless indulgence, it was time to reconnect with the mainland, the mobile network, the world.  Did it still exist? We approached Khawthaung port again, but with a very different mindset. Maybe I’ll leave my phone off for just another hour.

Burma Boating

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