Escape - The Mergui Archipelago with Johnny Rayner

 

Many dream of exploring the islands and surrounding seas of a virtually untouched tropical archipelago, but few make it their reality. One of those few is our friend Johnny Rayner, who recently sent us some photos from a trip to the Andaman Sea’s Mergui islands, in the northeastern corner of the Indian Ocean. The idyllic islands and gin-blue waters in Johnny’s photographs are unknown to many and we were keen to find out more about the area, so caught up with him upon his return.

 

 

The Mergui Archipelago lies off the southwest coast of Myanmar and is made up of 500 or so small virgin tropical islands. The main jumping-off point in Myanmar is Kawthaung, which is literally the southern most point of the country. You can see Thailand across the river.

 

 

It’s a seldom-visited area in a country that not many people visit, and was the perfect place to get away from it all.  That’s what excited me about it. I read about the area in a travel book and then hoovered up whatever other information I could find online. I believe that a New York Times journalist went there a few years ago. The idea of a week on an old Burmese Junk boat with small crew, just nine other guests and no internet or phone signal sounded like an epic way to end what was a very busy year!


 
 

Burma only recently opened up properly to tourism following years of military rule.  The south felt totally untouched. I got to spend a little time in a town called Myeik with a lovely Burmese family I had met on the Sea Gypsy. The father, Saul, was a director at the Marine Department. I was shown all around town, had the best food of my trip cooked at the Marine Department itself, and a tour around the harbour. I barely saw a single other western face making mine a very popular photo opportunity with the locals!

 

 

To tour the islands I chose Moby Dick adventures and the Sea Gypsy, an old but well looked after Burmese junk boat. It had open-air gazebos suitable for two to sleep under, a cold-water shower and full local crew, which I thought was important. What was even better was that they were all local to the area so were very knowledgeable and bloody lovely blokes. 

 

The Sea Gypsy sets off from Kawthaung and heads north. It was six hours with a swim stop halfway, but all us guests onboard were so tired we all fell asleep immediately! The boat has several stand-up paddleboards, a couple of sea kayaks and snorkeling gear for all. We spent the week island hopping across the archipelago, seeing what are deemed as the highlights of what is a truly stunning area.

 


 

Each morning I’d wake up with just a curtain between me and the sun rising over the ocean. It was perfect. Take my camera up on deck make a coffee and watch the eagles and kites fishing as the sun rose. Then get on a board or swim to the nearest island for a little exercise before everyone was up and breakfast was served. It was a dream.


 

The Mergui Archipelago is the home of the Moken “Sea Gypsies”, a people whose lives are spent on the water (they learn to swim before they can walk) but whose traditional way of life is fast disappearing. 

 

We had the opportunity to visit two Moken villages during the trip. The first was around midday and it was quiet with a few villagers around but most of the men out fishing. With their colourful dresses, faces decoratively painted with their local sun protection and radiant smiles, the women are striking. We got to visit a shop set up for tourists with wonderful trinkets made from recycled ring pulls: bracelets, keyrings and the like, all cleverly interconnected as if by magic (if you look closely you can see how it's done). I thought they were wonderful. 


 
We visited the second village on Jar Lann island at an important time in their Buddhist calendar and during the opening of a new pagoda. Hundreds and hundreds of villagers and mainlanders had come by boat to visit for the several day long festival. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen, and the other 6 guests and I happened to be the only westerners on the island. We were greeted like celebrities with many villagers wanting photos with us, which was great as it meant that we got to have photos with them too! We were warmly welcomed by the villagers into their festivities and even got to briefly sit with a very highly respected Buddhist monk, which was a feeling hard to describe in words.  One of the monks who was a key part of the large ceremony became our guide and waved us off in our boat at the end of the day.
 

 

 

 

The sea life I saw whilst snorkeling was incredible. The waters in the southern part of the archipelago are crystal clear and are home to a huge variety of tropical fish. I saw shoals of angel fish, clown fish, different types of squid, turtles, puffer fish, huge starfish, barracuda and stunning varieties of coral. Sadly the area is apparently over-fished by locals, but there is still an abundance of visible life. Dolphins are often spotted but we didn't get to see them. I believe that whale sharks can be seen there at certain times of the year too. Diving would have been wonderful, but I was very happy with the trip I chose.


 ******

 

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