Exploring the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar with Moby Dick Tours
Imagine coming across hundreds of deserted islands surrounded by the most beautiful white-sand beaches and crystal-clear turquoise water. This is exactly what the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar, a long stretch of islands which are almost unknown, looks like.
We recently set off on a five-day boating trip around some of the islands making up the Mergui Archipelago with Moby Dick tours, an experienced local tour operator managing Island Safari Mergui tour programs in the region.
Having traveled to several tropical island groups such as the Kei islands and the Banda islands in Indonesia, the Andaman islands in India, and the Maldives local islands, we were initially unsure as to whether we would be impressed by the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar.
We need not have worried – the wow factor kicked in almost immediately as we set off! The very first few hours in the Mergui Archipelago were enough to assure us that our trip would meet our expectations, and we went to bed on our first day at sea very much looking forward to the next day’s views and activities.
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Where and what is the Mergui Archipelago
The Mergui Archipelago is a group of over 800 islands located in the Thanintharyi region of southern Myanmar, many of which are still unexplored. The islands are isolated, and many are uninhabited, except for a few which are home to the Moken people or local nomadic sea gypsies.
The allure of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago islands in the Andaman Sea is their wonderful white-sand beaches, tropical vegetation and colorful marine life, most of which is undisturbed by human presence.
It is logistically only possible to visit several of the islands as part of a multi-day boat trip, although tours to the islands closest to the mainland do exist and can be taken from Kawthaung, Myeik or Dawei.
Why should you visit the Mergui Archipelago?
For Nikki and I, the Mergui Archipelago’s greatest draw was the fact that it is still one of the world’s relatively unexplored corners. We couldn’t find much information online about the region, and that alone created an allure we found difficult to resist!
When we got there, we found beautiful islands, some large and some small, but all undeveloped, gorgeous beaches and pristine waters. If you find the thought of this as exciting as we did, we urge you to go there as soon as possible, before the islands become more accessible and development starts setting in!
Traveling around the Mergui Archipelago
There are no ferries or public means of transport for traveling around the Mergui Archipelago. Tourists wanting to travel around the islands, can do so on the few liveaboard cruises operating out of the mainland, and even so, only with pre-arranged special permission.
We have become accustomed to island-hopping around various island groups by using public ferries as our means of transport and staying at guesthouses or homestays on the islands. This is not possible in the Mergui, because there is no public transport around the islands and no means of accommodation or facilities either, since most of the islands are not inhabited. Furthermore, permission to visit the islands in the Mergui Archipelago can only be obtained by a licensed tour operator.
This means that island hopping around the Mergui Archipelago is not really possible if you’re on a very restricted budget. Day tours to specific islands starting off from Kawthaung, Myeik and Dawei are possible, but permissions still need to be obtained from a tour operator. There’s also the possibility of taking a fishing boat to the islands closest to Myeik and it seems that there’s no need to apply for permission for this, however these islands are surrounded by mangroves and lack the white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters which makes the archipelago so enticing in the first place.
Why choose Moby Dick Tours?
There are only a few operators conducting Mergui Archipelago tours in the region and many are prohibitively expensive for budget-conscious travelers. After conducting some research, we came to the conclusion that Moby Dick Tours offered the most affordable and best value for money Mergui Archipelago tours.
All the initial correspondence with the Moby Dick Tours representative was timely and the information given was enough to help us make a well-informed decision about the tour. We initially wanted to join a 7D6N tour, but we found out that only 5D4N tours were running during the period we wanted to travel to the Mergui (January), and hence eventually opted for that.
The 5D4N tour runs from October through till May and costs $1110 per person including all food, accommodation and activities (more on that below). Luxury Mergui Archipelago tours run by other operators are available in the region but cost twice as much, whilst any other tour we checked out was more expensive than that provided by Moby Dick Tours.
We were pretty much convinced that joining an Island Safari tour on board the MV Sea Gipsy was our best shot at visiting the Mergui Archipelago on our budget, and we were ready to exchange the privacy of a cabin for a gazebo (see below for a description of the facilities on the MV Sea Gipsy), for a more affordable price. Although we were initially worried about not having “our own space” on the boat, this eventually turned out to be of no concern at all.
We seriously need not have worried about facilities because we couldn’t have been more comfortable, and we would happily choose the MV Sea Gipsy time and time again. The gazebos were immensely cozy, and sharing bathrooms on board was never a problem, up to the point that we did not miss having our own cabin at all!
What you can expect out of a boating experience around the Mergui Archipelago
Although so far, we have written a lot about why you should visit the Mergui Archipelago, we haven’t yet given a clear picture of what you can expect when visiting the islands. Here’s what a boating experience around the Mergui Archipelago is like.
Island Safari Tours offer pick up in Ranong, Thailand or in Kawthaung, Myanmar which is where the boat trip actually starts. We initially thought of going directly to Kawthaung, but realized that it would be much cheaper to fly to Ranong and get picked up from there.
A representative from Moby Dick tours picked us up from our hotel in Ranong on the date and time agreed upon by email, and took us straight to the jetty in Ranong, Thailand, where we would cross the border into Kawthaung, Myanmar.
We were first accompanied to the immigration desk to exit Thailand, and we were later ushered into a little boat, with some other people who we soon realized were the other guests on our same tour, on which we would cross the border (by sea). The company had arranged the transfer process so there were no hassles of trying to find out how to do this independently.
The boat made a stop at a police station on a little island (more like a rock) where our passports were checked and then we were taken straight to the MV Sea Gipsy without landing on Myanmar mainland at all. We had already applied for e-visas into Myanmar, so a company’s representative collected our passports and e-visa approval letters, took them to the immigration office on the mainland and got them back to us, stamped, within a few minutes. He also collected $100 per person to cover the royalty government fee for a 5D4N cruise in the Mergui Archipelago (it gets more expensive for longer cruises).
The single-entry tourist visa to Myanmar which we applied for online, is valid for a 28-day stay and costs $50. It needs to be used within 90 days of the date on the confirmation letter.
Introductions and Briefing
After having settled in on the boat, we were called on deck for introductions with the crew. There were six crew members on board, with each person having his own duties, which were performed excellently.
After the introductions came the briefing. We were told what the general cruising plan would be, and what we could expect to experience and observe on our trip, where we would be snorkeling and swimming, and the islands we would visit. We would also be briefed every day in the evening regarding the sights and activities of the following day.
A typical day at sea
During our 5D4N Mergui Archipelago tour, we spent three full days and two half days on the MV Sea Gipsy. A full breakfast would typically be served at around 8am, but I would wake up before that and enjoy coffee (which was always available) on deck. Much as I normally hate waking up early, I loved watching sunrise from the comfort of a deckchair as I sipped on coffee and took in the beauty around me, before everyone else decided to make an appearance.
After breakfast we would be taken to a remote island, empty beach or a snorkeling spot on the dinghy and we would spend the morning there, before going back to the Sea Gipsy for a lunch, which we were told would be ‘light’, but which always included three or four different dishes! The excellent chef made sure to cater for all the guests’ dietary requirements.
In the afternoon, we would set off to cruise by the different islands, at which time we would usually meet fishing boats along the way. Sometimes we would stop mid-sea for the chef to buy fresh fish for our dinner or next day’s lunch along the way! We would later stop for another dip in the Andaman sea, snorkeling or tanning on some shimmering white sand beach, before continuing along the route to that’s night’s stop. A snack of fries, nuts or crackers would be served in the afternoon.
Dinner would be served at around 7.30pm, usually after watching a fabulous sunset, and many of us would have a chat on deck over a beer or a glass of wine, before going down to our curtained gazebos.
We should point out that the marine life around the islands was not the best we’ve ever experienced. We did see quite a few fish, some colourful coral and massive starfish underwater, and we saw dolphins and flying fish from the boat too, but sadly, we also encountered lots of dead coral, probably as result of dynamite fishing and global warming.
The MV Sea Gipsy
The Sea Gipsy is a converted Burmese junkboat catering to those looking for snorkeling and adventure excursions or even romantic cruises.
Sleeping arrangements on the Sea Gipsy
Sleeping quarters on the MV Sea Gipsy consist of open-air gazebos separated by partitions and curtains, and there are three shared bathrooms (which were immaculately maintained by the Sea Gipsy’s fantastic crew throughout our stay).
We were initially scared of being bitten by mosquitos, or of feeling hot due to the lack of air conditioning during the night, but there were no mosquitos at all, and the fans and sea-breeze cooled us down just fine! We genuinely slept really well and woke-up feeling super well-rested!
Privacy was no issue either. Although there are no cabins, the gazebos are separated by thick curtains which can be tied up during the day, and there’s enough space in the gazebo to keep a small bag with everything you need during your trip. Your larger bag (if any) can stored on the boat itself. Ours was kept in an empty gazebo, but there are other storage areas if the gazebo is occupied.
Charging facilities are provided and although the electrical supply was not provided for 24 hours, it was sufficient. Two small fans which can operate on auxiliary power when the mains are off, cool up the gazebos sufficiently. There are lights in the gazebos too, and a cupboard which can be locked up. Towels, sheets and hangers are provided. We really did not miss having our own cabin; the gazebo did the job pretty well!
Food on the Sea Gipsy
The food on board the MV Sea Gipsy is mouth-watering and plentiful! Breakfast was usually a selection of eggs, omelets, toast, bacon, beans and salads, or pancakes with scrambled eggs, fresh corn and cooked veggies. Lunches and dinners consisted of soup, freshly caught seafood dishes, veggies, meat dishes (the pork and pumpkin curry was to die for) and rice.
Water, coffee, tea, cookies and fresh fruit were available at all times, whilst a snack was always served in the afternoon! There’s absolutely no way anybody could go hungry on board, and we never used any of the snacks we brought along! Beer and wine are also available but not included in the cruise package, so you would need to buy those on board.
Facilities on the Sea Gipsy
The MV Sea Gipsy fully caters to snorkelers, with masks and fins of many sizes, including Nikki’s huge size 46, as well as SUPs and kayaks. The dinghy was always ready to take us snorkeling or to explore hidden beaches around the many remote islands!
The Moken People of the Mergui Archipelago
The Moken people of the Mergui Archipelago, are often called sea gypsies due to their nomadic lifestyle, which can be experienced in other parts of Asia too.
The Moken people typically live off the sea, although they hunt wild boar and other animals on the islands during the monsoon season. Their bodies have been found to have become better adapted to diving and seeing underwater. Although many of the Moken people are nomadic, living on little wooden boats on the water, others live in shacks on the islands, hence the existence of Moken villages.
We had the pleasure of visiting one such village on our third day in the Mergui Archipelago. The village is really small, built around a small jetty, packed with fishing boats. People live in little shacks, some of which are built on stilts over the water and a couple of the shacks serve as small shops which sell cookies, bread and other packaged items.
One ‘pungent’ characteristic was the smell of fish throughout the village emanating from marine species in various stages of drying found hanging from lines, much like drying clothes, or in baskets on the rooftops. Dogs are thought to ‘see’ evil spirits, and many could be seen lazing around the village. On one side of the village, a small golden Buddhist monastery reminding us that we are indeed in Myanmar, despite the fact that most Moken are animist.
The Moken have their own specific language defined as an Austronesian one, which however is not written, hence their history is only passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Although none of the locals spoke English, they were extremely friendly, welcoming us with smiles and curious looks, although we felt we were intruding a little bit.
It seems that the number of Moken people is dwindling and their lifestyle diminishing, mostly due to industrial fishing and the fact that the islands are being recognized as having tourism potential. We sincerely hope that any development for tourism in the Mergui archipelago is done cautiously and in a sustainable manner, and with careful consideration to the native Moken people.
Connectivity in the Mergui Archipelago
Here’s one of the best (and for some worst) part of boating around the Mergui Archipelago. There’s no phone or internet connection around the islands, especially as you move further away from the mainland. We did have some connection on the first couple of hours of the trip when we were still close to shore, and at the end of the fourth day and the fifth day when were on our return leg and closing in to the mainland. Other than that, there was zero connectivity.
To us bloggers, this meant, that we could not get on with any blogging-related or social media work, which at that point in time was a blessing since we managed to get a much-needed digital detox. We didn’t enjoy the fact that we could not be notified of an emergency back home, although it is always recommended to provide Moby Dick Tours’ contact numbers to family, since the office staff are probably able to get in contact with the crew on board via radio, if need be.
All in all, I’d say that the lack of connectivity gave us an opportunity to rest and to enjoy the Mergui Archipelago and have a proper ‘holiday’ without focusing too much on social media and photo editing for a while!
For the few hours we had connectivity, both our Thai AIS sim card and Burmese MPT sim cards worked well.
Preparing for a Mergui Archipelago boating trip
There’s really not much preparation needed for going on a boating trip around the Mergui Archipelago on the MV Sea Gipsy. First of all, be sure to get a visa to Myanmar (if you are crossing from Ranong to Kawthaung, an e-visa is fine), and a visa to Thailand (as necessary) if coming from Ranong.
You need to confirm the trip a few weeks in advance, since the company needs to apply for your permit to visit the Mergui Archipelago, and you should carry a crisp new $100 note (royalty fee for the Mergui Archipelago) which you hand over to the crew when you arrive on board. They will pay the necessary fees on your behalf.
Be sure to carry all your medication with you. You can NOT buy medication on the Mergui Archipelago (except for perhaps some paracetamol at the Moken village) and if you’re not carrying your own medication, well, you won’t be taking any.
We carried some snacks in case we were not given enough food, but we never even looked at them! The food was plentiful, snacks were served too, whilst cookies and fruit were available at all times. There’s no need to carry masks and fins, unless you specifically want your own, as good quality ones are provided onboard. The Sea Gipsy is equipped with masks as well as fins of all sizes.
Packing tips for a Mergui Archipelago boating trip
You will want to carry a drybag for the dinghy journeys and perhaps a beach towel, although bathroom towels are provided. Here are some of the essentials you should definitely carry with you:
- A hat or a cap
- Polarized sunglasses
- A sarong for ladies
- A thin jacket In case it gets cold at night (though we never needed one)
- Your own toiletries
- Hiking shoes
Cruises are the only way of exploring the Mergui Archipelago properly, and with limited options available, Moby Dick Tours probably offer the best value tours on the Sea Gipsy! We were perfectly satisfied with all amenities aboard and only wished that our trip was longer! A big hug to the Sea Gypsy crew from us at Cheeky Passports!
We would like to thank Moby Dick Tours for sponsoring part of our trip in the Mergui Archipelago. Opinions expressed in this post are, as always, our own.