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DESTINATION: MYANMAR

Sailing Into Adventure on the Andaman Sea

They were 10 in a trimaran--and among the first Westerners ever to see these remote Southeast Asian islands

November 08, 1998|YVONNE MICHIE HORN | Horn is a freelance writer based in Kenwood, Calif. bluffs

The thought occurred that this might not be smart--sitting alone in a Zodiac on a narrow river deep in the jungle of an uninhabited island off the coast of Myanmar. The surrounding islands were said to shelter elephants, rhinoceros and tigers, pythons, cobras and kraits, one of the most deadly of snakes. And me, the sitting duck; I would be a tasty morsel, my screams muffled by walls of green jungle. Imagination ran rampant.

We were a group of eight, 10 counting Adam Frost, the dive master of the trimaran Wanderlust--which even now awaited our return in nearby blue-green waters--and Carl Brian-Brown, Wanderlust's skipper. We had puttered off in the trimaran's Zodiac to explore a river that cut deep into this island, one of an uncounted fling of, some say, 4,000 that make up the Mergui Archipelago. Now, with the river having become too narrow and shallow for the Zodiac to navigate, our group had jumped in to splash along on foot, with the goal of perhaps tracking the stream to its source. It was an exercise in slimy boulder-clambering and mangrove-root-swinging that I didn't relish. But given the possible alternative, I yelled, "Wait for me!"

Burma was rechristened Myanmar in 1989 by the military dictatorship that, with a coup d'etat, had sealed off the country to outside eyes in 1962. Once the richest nation in Southeast Asia, today it is one of the poorest and most cruelly restrictive in the world. Although visitors traveling with government-sponsored groups have been allowed entrance into this once golden land since 1973, the sudden appearance of glossy "Visit Myanmar" brochures in 1996 was downright stunning.

Absent from the "Visit Myanmar" invitation was the Mergui Archipelago, 10,000 square miles of mostly small islands, some little more than rocks jutting out of the Andaman Sea. The archipelago gets its name from the town of Mergui on the northern end of the string of islands.

During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Mergui was the arrival and departure point for caravans crossing a narrow strip of land then belonging to Siam (now Thailand). It was a harrowing route--rain-swollen gorges, treacherous rapids, mangrove swamps swarming with mosquitoes and leeches, and some of the most impenetrable tiger-filled forests in the world. Nevertheless it was the shortest route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

In 1760, Mergui town came under Burmese rule. The archipelago became a no man's land, wild and largely uninhabited. After World War II it was declared militarily sensitive by the Burmese government and became forbidden territory.

Enter South East Asia Live-aboard, owned and operated by the Frost family, who for 10 years had been conducting diving and snorkeling expeditions in Thai, Indonesian and Indian seas. Increasingly disenchanted with the proliferation of dive boats off the shores of vacation-trendy Phuket, the Frosts negotiated with Myanmar authorities and finally received permission to enter the little-visited archipelago, the first foreign commercial enterprise so approved. (At least two other outfitters have since been granted licenses, including Phuket-based Fantasea Divers and Dive Asia Pacific Co.) In January 1997, Liveaboards' yacht Gaea, one of four now owned by the company, sailed forth on an exploration cruise and reported back that the diving was beyond expectation.

Our group of eight, traveling in October 1997, marked expedition number 21 into the territory. We were a diverse assembly, representing the compass points of North America: Calgary to New Orleans, San Francisco to the Florida Keys. Amazingly, there was but one diver among us; the rest were content to snorkel. Our common reason for signing on, we discovered, was the desire to be among the first Westerners to touch this stretch of the world.

Our adventure began at the edge of the Pakchan, the wide river that separates Thailand from Myanmar. We'd arrived via minivan from Phuket, Thailand, at the port of Ranong, an undistinguished, sprawling Thai town from which we'd be ferried across the river. Making our way through a cacophony of humanity jostling to carry our bags, we crawled, jumped and teetered across a sea of longtail boats to the one that would ferry us to Wanderlust's anchorage at Kawthaung, Myanmar.

The glorified eggbeater of a motor revved to an earsplitting decibel, we entered the river, passing the docked, rusting hulks of fishing boats turned golden in the descending sun.

It was dark when we reached the Wanderlust, stepping directly on board since our feet could not touch the soil of Myanmar until Adam had delivered our passports to be scrutinized by the powers that be in Kawthaung. Armed with whiskey and cigarettes to smooth the way, Adam and Mojo, a Burmese "guide" appointed to sail with us to make certain we'd not stray, zoomed off in the Zodiac in the direction of the town lights. A giant golden, illuminated, reclining Buddha smiled benevolently down on us from a cliffside perch.

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