Over 800 beautiful, untouched islands create the Mergui, or in Burmese, Myeik, Archipelago. This area grants Myanmar (Burma) a breathtaking amount of diversity in flora and fauna that is extremely tough to find anywhere else in the world. It also contains most of Myanmar’s coral reef. It’s located in the Tanintharyi Region, in the southernmost part of Myanmar, and just north of Thailand’s Surin Islands.
The Mergui Archipelago covers approximately 36,000 sq. km (14,000 sq. miles).
The region has been off-limits to visitors since the late 1940s, with the archipelago only allowing tourists since 1997. Because of its late entrance to international tourism, diving is still in its infancy, with much of the waters still unexplored.
It doesn’t matter whether this is your first or 51st visit to Myanmar: you won’t fail to notice the energy, hope and possibilities for the future that hang in the air
The size of the Mergui islands ranges from ones with just a few palm trees to ones that cover hundreds of square kilometers. They tend to have a rugged limestone and granite topography: some islands even have caves and lagoons hidden throughout. The serene freshwater waterfalls and winding rivers that snake throughout the forest help the large variety of wildlife flourish. Above the high-tide line are dense bush and thick rainforest cover while along the coastline is a mixture of vast stretches of mangroves, stunning mile-long white sand beaches, rocky headlands, tidal creeks, and even some freshwater rivers.
Overall, the islands themselves are similar to the nearby Thai islands. The only difference between them is that the islands of the Mergui Archipelago have not been exploited for their beauty… yet. Below are some of our favorites.
Lampi Island (Lanbi Kyun)
Also known as Kyun Tan Shey or Sullivan Island, Lampi Island is the central hub of the Mergui Archipelago. The island is also Myanmar’s first national park, established in 1995. The Lampi Island Marine National Park is a protected area as well an ASEAN Heritage Park. It contains 50 documented globally threatened plant and animal species.
One of the most popular islands to visit, it’s a great example of what you can find in the rest of the archipelago with its rich biodiversity, mangroves, and coral reefs. With nine different areas of the island, it’ll take you a few days to explore all of it. It even has a river called, appropriately, Lampi River where visitors can kayak and see some of the land based animals and vegetation for themselves.
Nyuang Wee Island
This island is the home to some of the local Moken people. You are able to visit their villages, talk with them, and learn about their distinctive culture.
Phi Lar Island (Kyun Philar)
The British called it Great Swinton Island and it has been able to remain uninhabited despite its white beaches and shady palm trees. Around the island are also colorful coral reefs that are a great area for snorkeling.
This oddly named island has white sandy beaches and clear waters teeming with colorful sea life from sea urchins to tropical fish hiding around the hard coral, perfect for snorkeling. The island also has opportunities for kayaking and jungle trekking on the island.
Hlaing Gu Island (Cavern Island)
Named for the several large caverns along the water line on the southern end of the island, Cavern Island also gives visitors a chance to explore waterfalls on its western end. The island is also a fresh water source for the local Mokens and fishermen.
Cocks Comb Island
Cock Comb island is sure to catch your attention with its heart shaped inland natural pool in the center of the island, which you can only access by swimming under the rocks on its perimeter from the sea.
Maung Ma Kan Island Group/Maungmagan Kynn
This group of 30 beautiful islands off the coast of Dawei is currently not part of the Mergui Archipelago restricted area and can be accessed by anyone without a permit. Also known as Mid Miscos, these islands are covered in jungle with a rocky coastline and small beaches on the southeastern side.
Diving and Pearl Farms
The Mergui Archipelago is the perfect area to go on a guided adventure, sailing, eco, or diving tour. (Currently, any visit to the Mergui Archipelago must be with a special permit and through an approved guided tour. Dives are conducted only on live aboard cruises – there are no dive centers in any of the nearby cities.) The Archipelago’s scuba dive sites are considered to be among the best in the world. The waters offer reefs, drop-offs, caves, and even tunnels that cut through the underside of an island. The amount of fish and marine life is astounding. Divers are sure to run into sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, and even whale sharks.
Some of the most famous areas in the archipelago for diving are the Burma Banks, Black Rock, Western Rocky, and Shark Cave. These areas give divers opportunities to see sharks like the Silvertip, Whitetip, and Blacktip while navigating coral reefs and underwater canyons and cliffs. You can also see giant frogfish, seahorses, and harlequin shrimp.
This area is also famous for producing the highly valued South Sea pearls. The technology to successfully cultivate the South Sea pearls in waters of the Mergui Archipelago has created an impressive pearl industry. Before pearl farmers had to collect oysters from the sea, but now they can produce around 100,000 quality pearls each year. Tours are available to see these remarkable farms.
Sea Gypsies: The Moken (Salone) People
For hundreds of years, the only inhabitants in this region of Myanmar and Thailand have been the Moken or Salone (sometimes spelled Salon) people. Otherwise known as sea gypsies, these sea-faring people have a nomadic culture: they spend the dry season on boats and during the rainy season they stay on land.
Because of their intimate relationship with the sea, the Moken are extremely knowledgeable about navigating the unforgiving waters and how to hunt the aquatic life they need to survive. Masters of free diving, they have high visual acuity underwater and can hold their breath for up to six to seven minutes.
The fishing and boat construction techniques that they use today have been handed down for generations. There have also been reports that the Moken sensed the devastating tsunami in 2004 through a combination of observing animal behavior and following rules set by their ancestors.
This unique culture and people have even grabbed the attention of people like researcher Anna Gislen from the University of Lund in Sweden and even National Geographic.
In 1999, Gislen conducted an investigation into the amazing ability of the Moken children to see underwater. Gislen eventually published a study in 2003 that showed how well Moken children could see underwater compared to European children around the same age. However, these skills were not because of genetics and through some training, non-Moken children could adjust their eyes in the same ways as the Moken children could.
National Geographic created a documentary in 2004 on the nomadic Moken people entitled, “Burma’s Forbidden Islands”. The film by Klaus Reisinger and Frederique Lengaigne followed some of the Moken people as they face the threat of modern culture, tourism, and the government.
Travel and access to Mergui islands is getting better. You have now more options to choose from, where to stay and how to travel.
Visiting Northern part of Mergui Archipelago from Myeik is now possible on day trips by speedboats. There are no resorts on the islands up here yet but if you are interested in beach camping.
Best time to visit Mergui Islands Achipelago is from October to May when sea is more calm. During summer monsoon travelling between the islands can get rough and most boats stay away anchored to sheltered bays or have their annual maintenance in Thailand or Malaysia.
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