Myeik, Tanintharyi Region—With its pristine natural islands and Moken “sea gypsy” tribes—whose way of life is rapidly disappearing—the Mergui Archipelago has long held a special fascination as a travel destination for outsiders.
Myeik town itself is famous for its pearl shops, edible-nest swiftlet, fish, shrimp and crab farms, as well its British colonial-era structures. A walk around downtown and along Strand Road will let you admire the architecture and allow you to enjoy the local attractions.
Beyond Myeik lie the islands of the archipelago, which were long closed to outsiders, especially foreigners, but reopened about five years ago.
Since the tourism business in the region took off in 2014, travelers have been able to take package tours to some 20 islands out of more than 800 in the archipelago. You can take a day trip or stay overnight to enjoy the natural surroundings. Travelers can also observe the way of life of the local people.
The tourism industry provides hundreds of locals with employment as tour guides, travel agency staff and boat workers. Some 40 travel agencies are currently operating, according to U Khin Maung Nyo, the secretary of the Myeik District Tourism Association (MDTA).
Myeik’s tourism sector has also opened up opportunities for niche businesses like boat-makers and is providing skills training for locals to become tour guides. It has also seen the development of community-based and other forms of responsible tourism.
But as the industry develops, it faces the challenge of how to sustain growth without damaging the natural environment.
The marine life of the Mergui Archipelago region has long been under threat due to overfishing and blast fishing. These days, another challenge has emerged: plastic waste.
As part of efforts to protect the local ecosystem and preserve marine biodiversity, the MDTA has urged its members to follow a list of rules for maintaining a clean environment.
“We instruct staff and tour guides not to throw litter on the islands or into the sea, and to pick up litter from the islands whenever we are there,” said U Khin Maung Nyo.
This writer encountered plastic waste both on the islands and in the sea during a recent visit. On one occasion, the tour boat had to stop in the middle of the sea as plastic waste had gotten caught in the propeller; after it was removed, the trip continued.
“In December we started to use glass bottles for drinking water, instead of plastic ones, in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the sea,” explained U Myint Than, marketing manager of the Mergui Dolphins Travel and Tour company. His company introduced the idea of providing reusable bottles for drinking water and eco-friendly food packaging, and has encouraged other companies to follow suit.
Locals are trying to promote responsible tourism, while also being eager to move forward with building permanent bungalows and hotel resorts for travelers on the islands.
Yet, despite entering the business four years ago, they still have not obtained permission to do so, said U Aung San, assistant manager of Blue Ocean Star Resort and Travel Company.
Currently, only a few islands in the south of the archipelago, near Kawthaung Township in the deep south of Myanmar, have hotels and resorts.
U Aung San said the company he works for was permitted to run eco-tourism activities, camping, a restaurant and eco-friendly buildings on Marcus Island (also known as Lay Kyun, or Harris Island), but they are not yet allowed to build hotels or permanent buildings on it.
On day trips, the tour boats drop travelers off for a few hours on Lay Kyun, where they can enjoy snorkeling, kayaking, resting on the pristine white sands and exploring the island. It takes about one hour from the jetty in Myeik to reach this island by speedboat.
It is the only island on which foreigners are currently allowed to stay overnight, with government permission.
What I love about Lay Kyun is that all the facilities on the island are made from natural materials. This encourages travelers to practice eco-tourism. The restaurant on the island is clean and the local food is delicious. Moreover, all of its structures are made from environmentally friendly materials such as bamboo and timber.
To properly explore Myeik’s various islands and the local people’s way of life, you’ll need at least three days. The islands are about 15 minutes to two hours’ ride away by speedboat. There are two or three islands that can be reached for a day trip, which is enough to get a brief experience of the archipelago’s amazing natural scenery. Travelers can also take cruises to the islands, but locals prefer to take smaller boats on day trips.
There are several other islands where tour boats take visitors for snorkeling around the coral reef and seagrass areas, and to enjoy the waterfalls on islands where freshwater runs into the sea, and observe fish farms. Tours of pearl-producing operations on some islands can also be booked.
If you’re looking purely to relax and enjoy the beach, Smart Island is another option. It has two beaches; on one side is a beach with pure white sand, while the other has a stony shore. Locals enjoy camping on this island, but permission has not yet been granted for bathroom facilities to be built here. Tour agencies are pushing to secure permission.
Another island travelers should not miss is Drakes Island (or Daung Kyun). Tour operators can arrange a lunch of local dishes on the island at Done Nyaung Hmine village.
The village has ethnic Moken, Bamar and Karen residents and community-based tourism is practiced.
This area, too, has a white sandy beach, which is a good spot to relax on and meet Moken families (also known as Salone or “sea gypsies”). The village is home to some 70 Moken people. Tourists can meet and chat with them and learn a little bit about their way of life. It can be hard to meet the adult men, however, as they stay out at sea fishing for months.
Every boat that docks on the islands must pay 5,000 kyats to the island committees. The funds support Moken children’s education, health and vocational skills training, according to tour guide Ko Zay Yar Min.