As I dive overboard and into the warm, milky blue waters, a thought crosses my mind. Is this the third or fourth near-pristine beach our boat has cast anchor off today? I continue to ponder this question as I strap a mask and snorkel to my head, dip my face underwater and gaze in pleasure at the wrasse and butterfly fish darting between boulders and coral heads.
I have a large map of the world on my office wall. It must be three metres long and more than a metre wide. I can spend hours staring at it, tracing imaginary journeys and daydreaming of places I might one day go. It’s a physical map, so all the mountains and glaciers seem to leap off the paper; the jungles are deep-green smudges laced with blue rivers; the sandy-gold deserts seem to radiate heat; and the oceans are filled with plateaus and deepwater trenches. For years, whenever I looked at the map, my eyes would always end up being drawn to the warm blue hues of the Andaman Sea and a speckling of islands that my map marked as the Myeik Archipelago (also known by the old name of the Mergui Archipelago).
A part of Myanmar, the 800 or so islands and islets of this archipelago had always intrigued me. There was little real information available on them, although I was able to find enough snippets to work out that the islands were mainly the domain of the Moken (also known as the Salone) sea gypsies who spend a life that, on paper at least, sounds rather envious as they sail with the tides, currents and winds from fishing ground to fishing ground, island idyll to island idyll – although the reality is probably very different.
I discovered that many of the islands – some of which are huge, others of which are mere tropical dots – had barely been explored by outsiders, and I heard how they were rumoured to be home to some of the finest diving and most beautiful beaches in South East Asia. They sounded divine, but then I discovered the catch. Myanmar, at the time I did my original research into the islands, was still rotting under the fist of a decades-old, paranoid military dictatorship, and by and large, the Myeik Islands were out of bounds to foreigners (with the exception of people on one of a couple of live-aboard diving boats operating out of Thailand, as well as visitors to one small island close to the mainland that was dominated by a huge casino complex and a golf course – of all things).
In 2013, with a new government in charge and less paranoia and fear in the air, Myanmar suddenly started to swing open the doors to the Myeik Archipelago (as well as much of the rest of the country’s deep south). And the opportunity was finally there to realise my long-held map-staring ambition to visit these islands.
I opt to travel over land, slowly, down the coast from Yangon to Myeik. On the way, I jostle with the pilgrim masses at Kyaiktiyo – a giant boulder, also known as the Golden Rock, that’s smothered in gold leaf and balanced on the edge of a sheer precipice by, so it’s said, a single strand of the Buddha’s hair. Around the small town of Hpa-An, I explore limestone caves stuffed full of Buddha images and statues; in Mawlamyine, I follow in the footsteps of Kipling by climbing the hills above town to stand, in his words, “by the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea”.
I head farther south, on a road that winds like a web in and out of the hills, past the small, lakeside town of Ye, until I get to Dawei, where I pause for a few days to investigate the peninsula that runs south of the town – rumour had told me that it’s home to beaches every bit the equal of those I hope to find in the Myeik Archipelago.
I hire a small motorbike in Dawei, and with no real idea of where I’m heading, I zigzag along dusty dirt roads. Some of these lead to quiet farming villages where water buffalo and chickens block the route, while others simply dissolve away into mangrove forests. But as I discover, if I choose the right track, I end up scrunching barefoot across beaches of polished sand – some busy with local tourists floating about in rubber rings and gorging on seafood, others seemingly untrodden by anything but seabirds for days on end. But as delicious as the Dawei area is, it’s time to continue south to see if my ultimate goal, the Myeik Islands, live up to expectations.
Myeik town is squeezed between an island-spotted channel and busy port on one side and a steep-sided hill topped with a glinting golden Buddhist stupa on the other. It feels a little like the whole town is breathing in to try to fit itself into that narrow gap between ocean and hill. In the humid heat of the day, the streets throng with buzzing, hooting mopeds and cars, but in the early evening, the central streets get taken over by a night food market, and the town sizzles with frying, bubbling and barbecuing seafood, sticky sweet treats, boiled chicken feet, tiny marble-coloured hard-boiled quail eggs, the unappetising innards of cows and more.
As memorable as the food is, I’m here for the islands, and I waste no time in setting out to find a boat. I thought that with the area having only recently opened to tourists, I might spend a lot of time down on the docks trying to explain to boatmen that I wanted to spend a day or so just lazily bobbing about between islands. It turns out that I’m not the first to harbour such thoughts, and the boatmen are so used to this request that there are now daily organised boat tours to a variety of different islands touted through every hotel and travel agency in town. All I had to do was pick which tour was right for me. And that’s how I end up spending a happy couple of days snorkelling with parrot fish, boating between forest-dressed islands and munching seafood lunches in little shoreside fishing villages.
As the sun starts to go down and the boatman call out to us, I pull the mask and snorkel off my face and clamber back onto the boat, ready to head home. When you dream about visiting a place for as many years as I had, the reality, when it finally comes, can sometimes be a let-down. In Myeik, though, expectations are met. After all, anywhere where a visitor’s deepest concern is the number of beaches visited that day has to be a place for which it’s worth following the map.