We have just spent an amazing 10 days exploring the Mergui Archipelago by boat. This is an area of 800 islands with at most 10 small villages. It is the home of the Mokans, a sea gypsy culture of people who live mainly on their canoes, large and small.
From the tourist hub of Phuket we drove north four hours to the Thai border port of Ranong. From there we travelled 20 minutes in a long-tail boat to Kawthang (Victoria Point) on the Burmese side of the border where our charter boat was waiting. Kawthang had an “earlier times “ feel compared to its Thai neighbour – few cars, no modern boats, low-rise buildings – but it was lively with a very extensive market.
Our first stop on leaving Kawthang was Thay Yae Kyunn ( Barwell islands) a sheltered channel where there was a coming and going of Burmese fishing boats in all shapes and sizes. Long-tail boats, squid f boats with long bamboo polls hanging over the edges, hung with many lanterns that were lit at night to attract the squid. To me they looked like the pirates boats you see in old books. The color of the boats was dark brown or grey, with red, blue or green wide stripes – very Mad Max!
We visited 115 ( Frost Islands) a cluster of small islands with pure white sandy beaches and dense jungle flowing down to the water.
Kyunn Phi Lar ( Great Swinton) had a most idylic anchorage. The currents were strong and there were schools of fish jumping everywhere. The water was a little murky so the snorkelling not fantastic, but it was the food in the water that both attracted the fish and made it cloudy. We travelled to the north side of Great Swinton and found a 2 kilometre long beach with hundreds of hermit crabs. There were the occasional fishing boats, but otherwise it was deserted.
The next day we were trawling and caught a Mahi Mahi ( beautiful looking and delicious eating ) I learned that the quickest and most humane way to kill a large fish is to pour a tablespoon of Whisky or any spirit into the fishes gills. It dies instantly!
One of my favourite Islands was KyunnMee Gyi (Clara Island) It has many beautiful white sandy beaches and even some freshwater waterfalls. The water was crystal clear, 28 degrees warm and totally still. We saw turtles mating in the water and watched the enormous female laboriously climb the beach to lay her eggs.
We went to Kanzargyi, in the Lampi Island Group, and then to a Mokan village of Pu Nala. It is famous as a boat-building village. The people were super friendly and the children swarmed around, taking your hand and guiding you around. They paint lime on their faces and bodies, both as sun protection and also against the high humidity.
Our last anchorage was Nga Mann. There we found a Mokan boat with about ten small canoes clustering around it. The women were fishing and rowed standing up facing forward. Towards evening they all went to the main boat where two people were cooking on a charcoal cooker suspended over the water. After their meal, a number of the canoes left to fish again as the main boat disappeared over the horizon.
I was absolutely amazed All through the evening you could see these solitary canoes fishing, abandoned in the middle of nowhere!
Throughout our journey, we only encountered one foreign sailing boat. A part from the local fishermen, there was no one around. You really felt as if you were an explorer some 200 years ago.
The only negative is that the Thai fishermen over -fish the seas and also use dynamite. They also leave a trail of rubbish and plastic that washes up on the deserted beaches. What a pity!!
The market at Kawthang was a symphony of colours and smells.
Walking through the very narrow streets you were assaulted by the bustling of people, the calling out of the vendors. The heat and humidity were incredible, amplifying everything.
There was a large display of Betel nut leaves, all beautifully folded with, on the side, slaked lime powder and sliced dry areca nut. The local people chew these three ingredients together, sometime adding tobacco as well.