The Forgotten Archipelago

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January 11th 2007
Published: January 13th 2007
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The Perfect Hammock TreeThe Perfect Hammock TreeThe Perfect Hammock Tree

We did a circular dive around this rock, but what we really wanted to do was climb it and take a nap under that tree. Now that would be a good photo!
For the first time in my life I feel I have been to the edge of the earth. I sailed in forgotten waters off the coast of a mostly forgotten country, was rescued by squid fishing gypsies, walked on dense uninhabited islands and virgin stretches of sand, dove lush reefs as well as devastated reefs, swam into nurse shark caves, and even encountered the Myanmar Navy, all in 6 short days in late November.

My adventure began November 21st when I flew a puddle jumper from Yangon to Kawthoung, an island bordering Thailand on the Myanmar side. We touched down 3 times in that journey and only once did we have a smooth landing. Have you ever landed front wheel first in a mid size passenger jet? If you have you probably haven't lived to tell about it. All you need to know is it is a totally unnatural feeling especially as you feel the jetliner fishtailing slightly more than slightly. Which is to say, too much. At the end of my Myanmar travels, I touched down atleast 9 times. And I think I already mentioned that I had one good landing. I'll leave my analysis of the
Calm WaterCalm WaterCalm Water

Even the weather forgot about this place. The ocean was like glass most days. Truly incredible and even a little ominous. "The calm before the storm?" Not this time.
available pilot talent pool for another time. But obviously it's none too deep.

Anyways, upon arrival in Kawthoung I am met by local tourist officials and promptly put in a $25 a night hotel. For those that aren't too familiar with accomodation costs in Myanmar, this is extortion. When I told them it was out of my budget, they said too bad. It was this or the $45 a night option B. Other hotels weren't licensed for foreigners I was told. Now I have to say, it isn't my policy to stay in government hotels as I prefer they get as little of my money as possible, but I was stuck. The room was spacious, with cherry red carpet and red bedspreads and mint green walls. I felt like I was sleeping inside a Christmas mint. How delightfully tacky. No matter, I was more concerned with the next 6 days I would be spending on the open ocean. I'm not much of a water person and I get motion sickness when I read in the car. So let's just say I wasn't feeling confident when the night before we set sail, a rain, thunder and lightning storm came rolling in. Sweeeeet.

The next morning after an unsuccessful hunt for sea sickness pills, I purchased a bag of ginger root (supposed to help) and boarded "The Sea Horse." (Actually they did have sea sickness pills but my research showed they were 40 year old technology not suitable for diving, and such downers that they advised I take it with an upper, some sort of steroid. I'll take my chances with the ginger.) Now this boat wasn't exactly what was in the brochure. It looked significantly smaller, no kayaks strapped aboard for island excursions, only one bunk room for 6 people versus private rooms as expected, and actually did resemble a horse, atleast as far as dive boats go. Well, you can't let a little thing like a sketchy looking boat stop you from going into the remote Mergui Archipelago, so I grabbed a banana and tried to focus on my inner ear equilibrium.

Our first day showed no signs of the prior night's storm, and we set off in flat waters under a hot sun. Things were looking up. We went over the dive itinerary and it was scheduled that we would dive 19 times
Mo MoneyMo MoneyMo Money

Mo Problems
in 6 days. For an inexperienced diver like myself this seemed like A LOT! I grabbed another banana. Two hours into the trip we started our first dive. The horn would sound and off the stern filed one German dive instructor, one Russian, one American, then another 3 Russians. It was quite militaristic and we performed it with great efficiency by the 6th day. Upon pick up after each dive the boat would immediately set off to the next destination. This was a tight schedule and when we weren't diving, we were motoring. And when we weren't motoring we were eating dinner and sleeping. As it turned out, no time for kayaks anyways.

The dive sites themselves ranged from full of color and life to the absolutely desolate. How was it that such a remote part of the world wasn't teeming with life? Well as it turned out, Myanmar opened their waters to international fishermen some years ago, and boats from Indonesia and elsewhere dessimated the local waters. There was no one around to regulate any rules that may have existed. The government likely collected its license fees and that was that. There is little to suggest that all the local people who depended on this bounty received anything positive from this opening of fish trade. Today there are few fishing boats, all of which seemed to belong to the Sea Gypsies, or Moken people. For 3 days we motored between the archipelago and the once famous Burma Banks (now desolate) and saw no land, nor a single soul. It was then that I started noticing how much time the crew was spending on the engine each day. If we lost our motor here, we would be lucky to eventually hit India, if anything. Sure we had a cell phone, but who do you call in a situation like that? The Coast Guard? I am pretty confident there is no such thing.

We soon found out who you rely on when your motor does quit on you. We also found out what the value of cold Thai beer was to the hard working gypsies. We learned these lessons on our final morning when we awoke to a choking motor. Hmmm, somehow we drained all the juice of the 8 batteries we had on board overnight. I'm going to guess these were some old batteries. The crew
Our sashimi salesmanOur sashimi salesmanOur sashimi salesman

This sailor is wearing the traditional make up/sun protection that just about everyone in Myanmar wears. The patterns and application techniques vary widely, but not the color or simple ingredient, wood. We bought a fresh mackarel? for 3 cold beers for dinner.
tied a rope to some part of the engine and we all tug-o-warred with the engine to no avail. I've never heard of someone starting a large engine like it was a lawn mower but I suppose the principal is the same.

Anyways, after an hour or so we tourists swam to a nearby island (thank god there was one)to get started on our new Robinson Crusoe lives. I finally had the opportunity to put in practice the famous question "if you could only take 3 things with you to a deserted island what would you bring." I took a wetsuit, mask/snorkel (two birds one stone) and a pair of flippers. I would have taken more but I needed that much just to get to the island through jelly fish infested waters. I was confident we could survive at least 7 days on the island but I reasessed that to two or three when I realized there were no coconut trees. No coconuts! No bananas! This wasn't a very convenient island to be abandoned on. Not to mention there were no FedEx packages or volley balls in sight. On the bright side we did have one girl with
Myanmar Beer Ad CampaignMyanmar Beer Ad CampaignMyanmar Beer Ad Campaign

Is this a great ad campaign shot or what? Pretty girl, blue water, lush jungle...ahhhhh, and a refreshing beer to wash it down.
us to start our new civilization. But then again I was up against 3 Russians which made odds close to 'nyet.' So we just sat on the beach mostly and watched our captain and one crew member try to drive a deflating (sinking) inflatable out to the horizon where a gypsy boat was starting its day. After another hour or so the captain managed not to kill himself and was on his way back aboard a very old wooden squid fishing boat. We learned it was a squid fishing boat because it had large booms with various sized and colored light bulbs strung along that hung over the sides of the boat. At night they turned on the juice and would dazzle the little ink squirters up the surface and scoop up in their big nets. The irridescent little creatures then become our tasty calamari.

Their help was rewarded with 12 cold beers and a few smokes. Meanwhile we swam back to the boat to take pictures of our brave rescuers in their tattered t-shirts and shorts. These fellas had learned how to live on this ocean for 9 months of the year and I doubt they got
Beach and a BeerBeach and a BeerBeach and a Beer

A Russian and his Thai beer enjoying the solitude of lonely beach.
too concerned if they ever ran out of batteries.

Anyways, I forget where I'm going and you're getting bored, so I'll finish this blog with my impressions of the Myanmar Navy and you can get back to work. On our return (after being rescued) we were summoned by a Navy ship. The captain told us to put away our cameras as any pictures of government property is punishable by prison time. So we put away our fancy digital cameras and were ready to take out our wallets, thinking we were getting a shake down. In the end they just requested we take to shore some fella in business clothes carrying a briefcase. But what I couldn't take pictures of would've filled an entire blog. As we saddled up to this Chinese made communications ship, we got a very intimate look at the status of Myanmar's war machine. On deck were around 30 sailors. Perhaps only 5 of these men had uniform shirts, maybe one had matching pants (the same one had the only gun, an AK47 perhaps.) All the other sailors stood around aimlessly or sat around a folding card table, empty of any contents. They wore tattered clothes
Working hard or hardly workingWorking hard or hardly workingWorking hard or hardly working

The gypsie boats were very colorful with their plastic buoys, bright flags, and multiple generations of paint. This fella is taking a nap while the others are hauling up lines.
that literally were held on by strings of thread, exposing their dark shoulders to the harsh sun. In addition, the clothes were marred with dirt and grease, the sign of hard worked men. As we came near their hungry eyes scanned us over rather vacantly. One fella in particular seemed to have these piercing, tiger like eyes, that were starving, desperate, and more than a little crazy. I was happy to see the fella with the gun smile when he saw all our eyes on his AK47. And I was even happier to leave that ship behind and return to land. The final leg gave me ample time to reflect on the trip. It was then that I really felt I was in a forgotten corner of the world. I could jump off the roof of this boat and no one would see me, know one would know until it was too late, and no one would ever know what happened. In this part of the world it would be all too easy to just disappear. And for many people in this country, the world's 5th most oppressive*, disappearing is all too common an occurrence. But out in this corner,
Squid fisherman collection of lightsSquid fisherman collection of lightsSquid fisherman collection of lights

From the boat of our rescuers, the odd collection of light bulbs in various shapes and colors. The differences are purely circumstance and convenience of acquiring.
not many people notice.

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


A safe distanceA safe distance
A safe distance

When we were far enough away I brought out the camera, full zoom, and snapped the dark outline of the Navy ship. Not much you can decipher from here, but what an image it was up close!
Seedy Hotel RoomSeedy Hotel Room
Seedy Hotel Room

I threw around some clothes to really play up the seediness of the "Christmas Mint" theme already in effect.
Gov't Hotel, KawthoungGov't Hotel, Kawthoung
Gov't Hotel, Kawthoung

Every night several girls would sing in Burmese against a cheesy glowing back drop. The owner would reward individuals with a feather boa mid song, which would be reused the next night, and so on in perpetuity. Creepy place when it was empty, which it always was.
Back Alley ActionBack Alley Action
Back Alley Action

Spin a top, see where it lands: fish, shrimp, flower or ray. Notice the large wads of cash these fellas have. The largest stack probably isn't more than a $150 US, but that's quite a lot here. Very friendly gentlemen though. The only request, no faces in the photos.

13th January 2007

Astonished to know about this unknown civilization. What else should I call it? You took the risk and we gained. Thanks. I mean sincere thanks to you. Pinaki Lahiri from Calcutta
13th January 2007

Father Neu- Thanks for sharing such vivid stories and intriguing pictures. It sounds like you gota real taste of Burma, something very few people can claim. If you find yourself back in Rangoon, look up Kim and Jim Penland at the US mission. They are good friends from Seoul; people whom you would thoroughly enjoy. Keep the pictures and stories coming. I live vicariously through your adventures while confined to a desk full of work in DC. Safe travels, Ryan
13th January 2007

Adventurous shit eh??
Great write!! Good to see there still is some opportunity for intrepid exploration. Lead on mate.
15th January 2007

"Everyone has a purpose in life... a unique gift or special talent to give others. And when we blend this unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exhultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals."- excerpt from Law of Dharma
7th February 2007

Awesome blog!!!
That was awesome writing, very descriptive, and it takes some guts to travel to places like that, but in the end, I'm sure it was worth the experience and it was quite an's great that there are people like you who are willing to do that...see what hasn't been seen, do what hasn't been done, et cetera. by the way, the robinson crusoe part with the volleyball and fedex packages was absolutely hilarious, as to the allusion to the movie cast away...keep writing
6th July 2013

Thank you Father Neo for An amazing blog, detailed info and great photos. I will be backpacking to Burma for 15 days on 20th July and now after reading your blog very inspired to explore the Megui Archipelago. I need a bit of help from you..did you pre arrange for the dive tour in Yangon, how much cost and apart from your fantastic marooned adventure is it worth will be my first attempt at diving as well..was it scary? Sorry might sound dumb but I am very excited and nervous Thanks Svetlana
29th September 2014

diving Mergui
Although this reply comes very late to your inquiry, I'll share in case others stumble here and have similar Qs. I definitely DO NOT suggest diving here if you are not experienced. There is no time for learning as my tour was dive-intensive and we were always motoring. Current dives, night dives (optional), etc. It's not a relaxing one day dive and cocktails experience. More like 3 dives and cocktails :). I arranged my trip before arriving in Burma but paid in Yangon. I then traveled south to meet the boat which comes from Thailand. The boat was not as advertised (much more basic) so I got hustled a bit but I rolled with it apprehensively. The dives were not exactly pretty as Burma doesn't seem to protect their oceans from Int'l fishing boats and you'll see many dead coral reefs covered in netting and broken pots everywhere (dynamiting for fish.) It was educational but sad because one imagines it would be prisitine. I would head to Borneo next time. Research the ocean within an ocean off their coast. Sounds magical.

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