The untouched Mergui Archipelago in the south of Myanmar contains 800 almost inhabitant islands and another 3000 islets.
Tourism started only in 1997 with very small numbers live aboard boats from Thailand. It has grown steadily then. From August 2015 on things changed and day trips into the Archipelago where allowed, as permission processes eased up and the tourism increased. In 2016/2017 about 2000 foreign tourists visited the Mergui Island on live aboard cruises. Many more where day trip tourists with the majority have been Thai Nationals arriving from the border town of Ranong for an island day trip. In 2017/2018 the domestic tourism kicked in and as Burmese Nationals don’t need permission for day trips, there were plenty leaving from the ports of Myeik and Kawthaung.
Most of the islands are named after the British occupiers in the late 19 century, but the Burmese fishermen had already given them names after landmarks. For example Kyal Laik Island (Lloyds Island) could be into star turtle island as they must have been living in the jungle on the island.
Tourists who want to visit the islands on live aboard cruises will need to pay a Mergui Archipelago Fee. The fee is depending on the length of the stay and the size of the boat and starts from 3 Days for 80 USD up to 300 USD on a luxury sailing boat.
Overnight Island camping stays can be arranged by travel agencies, but are in a grey area for permissions. On this trips there are exemptions on the Mergui Fee.
For day trips there is no need to pay a Mergui fee , however some islands, which harvesting bird nests are taking an entrance fee, which is included in your day trip fare, for example Cocks Comb Island (May 18).
Accommodation on the islands is still limited, but with at least two exciting high end hotels (Awei Pila and Wa Ale Resort) scheduled to open in October 2018 others will might. Currently there are no midrange or even budget options planned.
The map below could give you a better overview what can you do in the Archipelago, but things are changing quickly and new ones might come up.
How to get there:
It might make sense first to divide the 400 Kilometer (250 Miles) stretch of islands from Mali Kyun to Christie Island into a Northern and Southern Part. Entering for the Northern part could start from Myeik and the Southern Part can be entered from Kawthaung.
Please note that access from Bokpyin (half way between Myeik and Kawthaung) is still prohibited (May 18).
Myeik or Mergui, a lively town with around 300.000 people offers a wide range of hotels (high end is coming soon) and plenty of great seafood restaurants. Myeik has no beach at all. Flights from Yangon and Kawthaung are daily (except there is no flight on Thursdays from Kawthaung). Overland travel from Yangon is possible, but should be planned with a few stops in between (e.g. Hpa An and Dawei).
Kawthaung or Victoria Point is much smaller than Myeik and offers two upper market hotels. The restaurant options are limited. This might be due to the nature that the live aboard cruises would depart according to the flight schedule from Yangon. Furthermore Ranong offers nowadays a wide variety of accommodation options. You can enter Myanmar with an E - Visa, which takes less than 24 hours to apply. https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/, but be aware that you will need to set your cruise at least a week or better two upfront. Ranong (Thailand) can be reached easily from Bangkok by flight and by car from Phuket. Kawthaung is also lacking beaches, but the 10 Mile Beach can be visited on high tide for swimming.
Please note: There are no more fast boat ferries between Dawei – Myeik – Kawthaung. The overland route between Myeik and Kawthaung is open. The sealed, but windy road will take around 9-11 hours to Myeik through various sceneries. Actually half of it is palm oil plantations; the other half is nice green scenery and villages.
Problems: The department of fisheries has regulations in place for net sizes and fishing practices. However they don’t have the man power to control these. There are reports of huge trawlers catching everything from the tiniest little shrimp and even taking out the coral. Middle aged fishermen said back in the days they had more than enough tiger prawns to eat. Nowadays they can’t effort them. Despite that dynamite fishing is forbidden, there is still a small number of black sheeps, which blast coral reefs for fish. Shark, Dolphin, Turtles and Manta Rays are also endangered and should not be catch, but hardly any enforcements take place. To tackle these obstacles it needs time and education, but the department of fisheries is working on it and hopefully they manage to get things under control. More income from tourism could help drawing money in the area and push back the illegal fishing practices.
The Sea Gypsies: The so called Moken used to live out on the sea in their tiny boats and hunt and gather what the ocean offered them. They stayed only on land during the rainy seasons. With the forced settlement and civilization arriving things changed dramatically for the people who could free dive up to 80 meters and adjust their iris to have clearer underwater visions. The tourism world likes to highlight that today you can meet the sea gypsies, but technically speaking you won’t. Unfortunately they lost most of traditions and only a very few speak their language nowadays. Cross marriages made them more Burmese than anything else. We should be a bit more aware, when visiting the village and respect their privacy, when going around with our cameras and smart phones or even better hirer an actor who jumps with a spear into the sea and charge for photographs.
We believe it is still a good thing to visit a fishing community to buy some things at their shops or to eat in the restaurant. Most of the domestic tourism likes to donate food to the poor also to the Sea Gypsies, which is a great thing, but the diet is a bit too sweet and salty at the end. It takes quiet some effort to suggest donations to their need.
Tips: Bring your own refill bottle and ask your operator before departure if they have refill options. Check on others if they throw any garbage into the nature even cigarettes and inform your guide accordingly. Encourage people or inform you guide not to take any shells or stones from the island, because you kids might want to come visit later on.