Oligarchs and sea gypsies

Mike, our skipper, is seething.  We've sailed four days to his favourite bay in the 800 or so islands of the Myeik (or Mergui) archipelago and a Russian oligarch with a 250 foot megayacht has taken our parking place.


OK, apparently you don’t “park” a boat, you anchor it.  I confess that I’m not much of a sailor.  But I’ve repressed my phobia in order to be one of the first on a week’s sailing trip to these unexplored islands at Burma’s southern tip.  Not far south of here are Phuket’s busy beaches and bars.  Here, the vast, spectacular bay is otherwise empty.


The border crossing from Thailand is a busy one but almost all the westerners here are only visiting Burma for administrative purposes.  This is a convenient point for Phuket residents to refresh their Thai visas by leaving the country for a few minutes.  From Ranong, Thailand, it’s a boat ride across the estuary to Kawthoung, Burma, known as Victoria Point in the days of the Empire.  We’re sailors now, so we stock up on Myanmar Rum (priced about right at less than £1 for a big bottle), and set off northward into rarely sailed waters.


You haven’t seen anything yet”, says Captain Mike as the sail comes down and we drop anchor just off the perfect white sandy beach of an island with no name on his charts.  A new wooden jetty protrudes into the clear Andaman Sea like a sore thumb, a man-made structure out of place on this pristine island.  A hammock swings at its far end and the hot planks afford aerial views of needlefish and sea urchins.  Look a little closer and the reason for the jetty becomes clear.  A low-rise resort is being built in the forest just back from the beach: the second resort in the archipelago, with many more expected to follow.


We have snorkelling equipment on the boat but there is no reef, at least here.  Scattered on the beach are fragments of dead coral, the result of dynamite fishing – bombs used to stun or kill fish to make them easy to catch.  We don’t hear any of that this week but a lot of damage has already been done and the 2004 tsunami can’t have helped.


The second day is a longer one, but a frisky wind allows both sails to be deployed and we make good progress, covering 22 miles.  I mean nautical miles.  I’d been promised that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger to help with the sailing and happily that wasn’t an overstatement. 

Our boat, Simile, is a 53 foot catamaran, stable enough that my seasickness pills stayed in the packet all week.  The front deck has a scattering of beanbags to relax on.  It's an all too easy way to keep lookout for dolphins: today we saw a pod of a dozen or more.  At the back (stern?) is a big, covered seating area where we eat and escape the sun.  There’s much less space below deck and I spend most nights in a hammock strung from the mast.  The stars are bright, but only when we are away from the fishing boats, their floodlights kept on full beam all night to lure in squid.


Mike’s partner Marie is our chef and slaves away in a sauna of a kitchen, sorry - galley, keeping us well fed.  Mike casts a fishing line from the back of the moving boat and snorkels around with a spear gun when we stop.  He’s disappointed with his catches this week but the quality of fresh snapper and tuna more than makes up for any lack of quantity.  The boat has a freezer with chicken and pork as back-up, so we never go hungry. 

A giant fridge serves as an honesty bar, with chilled Thai beer and soft drinks at fair prices, and there’s a desalination machine for free drinking water.  There are indoor and outdoor showers but we’re encouraged to save fresh water.  The sea is so warm that I shave in it (with biodegradable soap, of course) and a quick spray of fresh water after a swim at least stops us seadogs from smelling too salty.


Our only interaction with locals is on Bo Cho island.  Here we were promised “sea gypsies”, or Mawken (literally "sea-drowned", apparently) as they prefer to be known.  They have no written language and no one seems sure of their history.  The best guess is that they were driven from the mainland and then from the islands by rival tribes.  They used to live on traditional boats, kabangs – about seven to a boat according to a British Empire census - never venturing onto land except to trade fish or oysters for rice, or if the cyclone season forced them to shelter there.  Their first interactions with outsiders gave them their first experiences of - in ascending order of devastation - coughs and colds, alcohol, opium and smallpox.  They’re now dying out through dilution, by intermarriage with Burmese settlers. 


Our Burmese helper, Hein, tells us that there are 850 people living on Bo Cho.  This includes a lot of assimilated Burmese fisherfolk and no one round here lives permanently on a boat these days.  There’s a Buddhist temple on the hill overlooking the bay.  School is out for a public holiday and dozens of excited children follow us around and use us as “jungle gyms”.  I suppose this island was untouched not so long ago.  It still feels remote but now some of the kids sport Manchester City strips.  Others wear Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts, another item of clothing that wasn't seen in Burma until very recently.  Anxious to divest ourselves of the most boisterous boys, we distract them with the Gangnam Style video on a smartphone.  The oldest boy starts dancing along: they have satellite TV and he already knows that one.


While the boys fight on the beach, and the manky dogs that are a Burmese speciality keep out of their way, the thanaka (sandalwood paste)-cheeked girls coyly agree to be photographed.  It’s a hot day and the adults are taking a siesta, repairing nets, or have gone fishing.  For a village beach there’s not much litter but a lot of pretty shells.  The kids give us cone shells as parting gifts.  Back on the boat, one of them starts crossing the table.  Mike identifies a poisonous hermit crab and we throw them all overboard.  Nice try, kids!


Leaving this anomalous excitement behind, we head north to Lampi, the largest island, where we drop anchor (I’m catching on now) in a long bay.  As I walk along the beach, thousands of tiny, previously invisible crabs cartwheel away and bury themselves.  We’re advised not to go into the forest, not that it looks accessible without a machete anyway, but some of us see monkeys on its edge.  In the sand, we all see giant paw prints that Hein assures us are also simian but that look to me like those of a much bigger mammal.  It’s certainly true that elephants and tigers used to live on these islands.  The Mawken would leave their fiercest dogs on uninhabited islands to fend for themselves and later collect the survivors, now well-trained pariahs, and use them for hunting.  All I see are dozens of beached jellyfish and beautiful (this time empty) seashells of all shapes and sizes.

The bay that we’re fighting over with the Russian oligarch belongs to Swinton Island.  A resort is planned here too but work hasn’t yet started.  Signs affixed to trees declare that a company called Andawar owns the island and written permission is needed to visit.  Oops, too late!  But, an oligarch and his family aside, there is no one here and we make ourselves at home while we can.  There are hundreds of shells pock-marking the pure white beach.  On closer inspection, all of them are moving: more hermit crabs.  I pass the oligarch while walking along the empty beach.  I say hello and salute (nautical, I thought).  He blanks me.  Money can’t buy you charm.  Or solitude.

At dusk, sand flies move in and we retreat to Simile, returning after dark for a beach barbecue under the stars.  The Russian’s giant yacht, downwind from the smoke of our campfire, repositions itself further down the bay.  That raises Mike’s spirits.  Heading back to Simile, he points out the magical phosphorescence illuminating the dinghy's wake.

The first Burmese island resort, on McLeod Island, breaks us gently back into the modern world.  Foreign mobile phones don't work in Burma, so we’ve been incommunicado all week.  Here they have wifi and the first hour in the bar is passed electronically.   Before a proper shower - albeit alfresco on the beach - and cocktail hour, a few of us climb the island's peak.  It’s a very steep climb involving ropes that must be no fun at all in the wet.  But it's been dry and sunny all week and we’ve seen the archipelago at its best.


For my part, I didn’t really mind sharing a beautiful bay with an oligarch’s family and no one else.  If someone with all the money in the world thinks that it’s is a good place to pass his valuable time then I’m probably not going far wrong by being there too.  As for Mike and Marie, when the cyclone season puts the Burma sailing trips on hold, they'll be on the other side of the Malay peninsula in Thailand, dodging the flotillas and pleasure cruisers in peak tourist season there.  After this, that will take quite some getting used to.

© Nicholas White 2014