Hidden in plain sight off the coast of Myanmar, this cluster of islands is Asia’s last marine frontier.
In the powder-blue waters off Pila Island, I’m mobbed by jack mackerels and baby snapper, ogled by an eagle ray and flashed by a lionfish, fins flaring like an exotic dancer. The ocean floor is crusted with linckia sea stars in startling ultramarine and table corals larger than my outstretched arms. Above the surface, the Andaman Sea is strewn with idyllic karst islands of blinding crescent sands and jungled peaks. It’s all a far cry from the bustling cities and golden stupas of mainland Myanmar.
Few of the 800-plus islands in the Mergui (or Myeik) Archipelago off Myanmar’s far south-west coast are inhabited – aside from macaques, clouded leopards and pangolins. Despite having similar sigh-inspiring qualities to the Maldives or the Caribbean, most isles remain untouched.
But easier access – a streamlined visa process, direct flights from Thailand’s Phuket to the Myanmar port of Kawthaung and the opening of two groundbreaking resorts – suggests the archipelago is about to have its time in the sun.
Kawthaung is the gateway to the Mergui’s handful of habitable islands. Speedboats depart the rickety dock and zip across the sea – past the Grand Andaman casino resort catering to Thai and Chinese gamblers – to Wa Ale in Lampi Marine National Park. This Western-style resort was opened last season by American timber magnate Christopher Kingsley and his wife, Farina, after a two-year (hard) labour of love.
Their 27-person property is solar-powered and built almost entirely from recycled timbers, including driftwood tables in the breezy dining pavilion above Turtle Beach (so named for the loggerheads and olive ridleys that nest in its milky sands). British-born chef Ray Wyatt makes his own breads and butter, pizza and granola, plus a brilliant sesame-laced salad of white tree fungus and fried shallot.
Wa Ale’s activity centre organises dives to coveted sites such as Black Rock and North Twin, with their whale sharks and manta rays; kayak excursions to isolated mangrove forests that are home to rare hornbills; and hikes into the rainforest, where mouse deer bark in alarm. But the real luxury of Wa Ale is the setting. Not a single tree was removed during construction of its 11 tented beach villas and three tree houses. The lush environment is flawless and remains protected through the resort’s minimal-impact philosophy.
Awei Pila on Pila Island, less than an hour away by speedboat, is the other major resort to debut, its 24 air-conditioned yurts anchored along one of the archipelago’s most beautiful beachfronts. Picture a turquoise bay mottled with coral, a band of the whitest sand and wild jungle beyond. Owned by the Memories Group, it is a far more conventional resort than Wa Ale and ticks all the boxes for tropical island pleasure-seekers, from waterfront dining on regional and Western cuisine to a house reef, spa and sunset bar.
The highlight of my stay? A hike across the island to visit two villages on the other side. One a fishing settlement where women comb the shore for shellfish; the other belonging to the Moken, a nomadic tribe known for spending much of their lives at sea on simple kabang (houseboats). The village gives them a safe harbour during monsoon season (May to September), when most resorts in the Mergui close.
It’s estimated that only a few thousand Moken people are left. To meet some of them and understand a little of their lives is a rare privilege – much like visiting the islands of the Mergui Archipelago in these early days of their discovery.