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Into a Lost World - The mergui archipelago, closed to tourists until 1997, is one of the last untouched areas on earth left to explore.

As we enter the new millennium, few regions of our planet remain as unexplored Edens. But off the coast of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, lies one such place--an extensive archipelago of over eight hundred uninhabited islands and islets scattered throughout the Andaman Sea. For over half a century the country has been isolated from the rest of the world by its political regime; and it was only in the last few years that the Mergui Archipelago, an area encompassing ten thousand square miles, was opened to outsiders. Here visitors have the unique opportunity to explore one of the last great pristine environments left on earth.

During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, merchants, pirates, and adventurers undertook arduous trips through the Strait of Malacca to navigate between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. As trade grew between India, Siam (now Thailand), and China, ships figured a way to cut transport time in half by taking a more northerly route to the Isthmus of Kra (the narrow slice of land that connected Siam and Malaysia) and then transporting their cargo overland by elephant. By this time, the great kingdom of Siam had become a major trading junction and its southern city of Mergui a prosperous port and meeting point for the multitude of Asian caravans.

But even during Mergui's heyday the islands in the archipelago remained uninhabited, never being deemed fit for settlement or farming. Adding further to the islands' isolation, the British, who became the dominant sea power in the area, transferred their commercial centers farther south along the Malay peninsula by the nineteenth century. Because of these shifts and the advent of steamships and other faster methods of transportation, the once flourishing Mergui eventually collapsed into complete obscurity.

In 1997, after three years of lengthy negotiations, South East Asia Liveaboards (SEAL), based in Thailand, finally received permission from the Myanmar government to escort tourists into the Mergui Archipelago. Even today the area is considered so remote (it cannot be found on most world maps) that the only existing charts are those drawn by the British shortly after World War II (the British ruled Burma from 1862 to 1948). By venturing into this lost realm, one has the remarkable opportunity to visit a world of ages past (where piracy still exists) and to experience one of the few places whose ecosystem remains virtually unspoiled since the beginning of time.

The adventure begins

It was my good fortune to be sent here for the filming of a TV pilot called Action Asia for the Discovery Channel. Our group consisted of two Australian camera crew and two on-camera hosts. The two hosts-- Fred, a Calvin Klein model from Canada, and Paveena, an almond-eyed beauty whose parents came from Thailand--are from Hong Kong. My job would be to direct the show, both on land and underwater.

We began our voyage in Phuket, a popular resort town on the southern coast of Thailand filled with hundreds of tanning tourists, bargain shops, and restaurants. Having seen many billboards written in the indecipherable Thai alphabet, I couldn't help but smile when I caught sight of a travel office sign posted in English: Welcome to the Krabi Happy Tour!

At an office near our hotel, we met up with our guide for the trip, Graham Frost, a gregarious Australian who runs the SEAL program. After picking up our diving gear, we started our adventure by driving four hours to the Thai border town of Ranong, passing by miles of gorgeous ocean scenery and rubber plantations where a thick, milky liquid slowly oozed into small metal buckets tied to the tapped trunks. By early afternoon we reached the port, which lies on the southeastern coast of the fjord that separates Myanmar from Thailand.

There we hired out long-tail boats, the slender wooden vessels that have been used to crisscross these waters for centuries. But now, instead of using paddles, the local drivers use engine-driven open-air propellers to navigate their way back and forth along the Panchan River. The waterway flows around a kaleidoscope of sights: Red-robed monks, holding yellow umbrellas over their bare-shaven heads as they ride in dugout canoes; merchant cargo ships unloading boxes laden with fresh fruit; and rickety wooden beach houses, propped up by stilts, surrounded by green hills dotted with glimmering golden statues of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Our slight, dark-skinned driver looked to be of Indian descent (his smile revealed two remaining teeth, between which he fitted a hand-rolled cigarette).

After a half-hour ride, we reached Kawthong, the gateway to the archipelago. Upon the muddy banks stood the local customs house, an old wooden hut painted white and blue, over which flew a tattered national flag. A few uniformed men stood around it, old rifles slung over their shoulders. The Myanmar government is notorious for its disregard of human rights and its closed-door policy toward tourists, but here we felt no unease. We had already received permission to enter, so we handed over our papers, pictures, and passports and proceeded on our way.

Rounding a small bend in the river, we reached our diving boat, the Gaea, a fifty-one-foot trimaran that would be our home, day and night, over the next seven days. It was there that we met up with our crew: a rugged, sun-bleached-blond captain from Australia, a brightly tattooed Thai cook named Mee, and two swarthy helpers from Myanmar who spoke good English. As dusk enveloped the landscape, we all gathered on deck to watch our first orange-red sunset of the trip.

That night everyone slept soundly as the Gaea sailed to its first destination in the Andaman Sea. We were lying atop a gigantic water bed with a million stars twinkling over a jet-black sea. Suddenly I was jolted awake by alarmed voices on deck. The captain explained that a whale had just surfaced right in front of the bow and that, with a quick turn of the wheel, he had steered clear of a head-on collision. For the first time, it hit me that we were not in the modern world anymore. Entirely alone, far from the nearest village, we had no one to signal for help.

Home to the moken

I returned to bed only to be reawakened a few hours later by the clanking sounds of our anchor being cast and the strong smell of coffee brewing. Mingalaba (Burmese for "Good morning") was exchanged between the crew members. I climbed topside and took in the great expanse of sunlit wilderness before me. An emerald-green sea danced in and out of scores of small islands covered by lush mangrove forests and white coral beaches. We later kayaked out to one of these uninhabited shores, and I imagined myself to be the first human ever to leave footprints in the sand.

The first animal footprints we came upon were, remarkably, those of a tiger. The thick jungle, impossible to penetrate without a machete, offers the perfect habitat to some of the last wild cats, rhinoceroses, and elephants to be found in Southeast Asia. Elephants and Sumatran rhinos have been sighted swimming between the islands (elephants can swim up to twenty miles at a time). With a vision to preserve the wide variety of wildlife of these island habitats, the government has already designated the largest of the islands, Lampi (the size of Singapore), as the archipelago's first national park.

The area is also home to an indigenous people called the Moken, better known as sea gypsies. It is believed that these seafaring nomads wandered into the area centuries earlier to escape the brutal piracy in Malaysian waters (they speak an old Malay dialect). Today entire generations of one family live completely self-contained on primitive wooden boats. Surprisingly, they do not fish with nets, hooks, or lines, preferring instead to collect mollusks, fish, and sea urchins left behind on beaches during low tide. They also dry seaweed and sea cucumbers, which they trade for rice, diesel fuel, or opium, the latter being mixed with dry banana leaves and smoked in water pipes. It is only during the heavy monsoon season (June through September) that the sea gypsies venture to live on land, where they supplement their seafood diet with a few subsistence crops.

Today only about three thousand sea gypsies still wander the archipelago. Recently the government set up permanent facilities on one of the islands (the only one inhabited) to provide medical care and schooling for those families who wish to take advantage of the modern world. Most Moken, however, remain quite traditional and refuse to adopt new ways. The sea gypsy religion is animist--on land they put up spirit poles, ceremonial flags, and effigies, complete with hats and cigarettes, that represent their ancestors. As with any primitive culture, the question arises as to how best to assimilate them into the modern world without destroying their centuries-old traditions. With so few Moken left, I can't help but wonder whether we may be the last generation to witness their culture intact.

Before continuing on our way, we boarded a sea gypsy junk and made our own trade: three bags of rice for three of the largest lobsters I've ever laid eyes on (and each side thought it had gotten the better deal!). This would be part of our evening's feast, and our Thai chef skillfully began the preparations. But meanwhile it was time to head north for Great Swinton Island, the site of our first dive.

Underwater fantasy

We geared up in tight-fitting wet suits, heavy tanks, and full face masks (which had communication devices to allow us to speak underwater) and merrily jumped, flippers flapping, into the 80-degree water. Andy Cornish, a Hong Kong expert in the biodiversity of reef fish, was to be our guide in this extraordinary environment. As he acknowledged: "Because this area has been closed off for so long, no study has ever been done on the types of fish inhabiting the reefs and coral beds. So it's a great opportunity to find out what is actually here."

We slowly descended to about forty feet below the surface. At first, Fred had a problem equalizing his ears, as his diving buddy, Paveena, hovered nearby. I heard Fred say, "I've made only about six dives in my entire life. Paveena has made about a hundred--so I will be sticking to her like glue!" As flailing Fred slowly maneuvered his gear into cohesive balance, we all glided around the impressive reefs rife with red and orange corals and hardy sponges. (Because the area really gets pounded during the monsoon season, nothing too fragile can survive.) The ecosystem here is driven by plankton, taken in and out by the tides; and when stimulated, the bioluminescent types give off a wonderful glowing light.

Eclectic groups of pelagic fish (those who live in the open ocean) darted in and out of the rocky outcroppings: giant grouper, powder-blue surgeon fish, lion fish (whose spines are very poisonous), black- spotted sting rays, and bearded scorpion fish completely camouflaged against the rocks.

"Uni, uni, uni," shrieked Paveena, who had almost brushed up against a spiny sea urchin. "Let's try some. They taste better raw!"

As I daintily danced through this fantastic undersea world, I felt like Alice in Wonderland swimming through the Looking Glass. I gazed with awe upon living gardens of sea anemones, displaying rare miniature shrimp who spend their entire life in the anemones' interiors; the shrimp clean the anemone and, in turn, get protection. Ledges were filled with lurking lobsters and three different varieties of moray eels, whose mouths opened wide as we stared eye to eye.

"When they open their mouths wide like that," Andy informed us, "the eels are pumping water over their gills." He pointed out other species with names right out of the latest rap lyrics: colored nudibranchiates, checkerboard wrasse, and juvenile harlequin sweetlips alongside damsels, dog-faced puffers, and sea whips--all hip hopping in banners around us.

The currents and surges moved around an impressionistic palette of hard and soft corals: Large table corals were speckled by purple plume worms, yellow brain, and brownish stag and elk corals, as well as huge, Gauguin-esque gorgonian cluster corals that spread out like fossilized birch trees. Amid all this, I sighted my favorite--a group of squidlike cuttlefish--swimming one behind the other in a swing dance line formation.

Soon it was time to surface: After forty-five minutes, we had run out of air.

Back on deck, when she realized we still hadn't seen what we came for, Paveena exclaimed, "I can't even imagine adding sharks to what I just saw. Don't think I can handle that!"

That night we partook of a sumptuous lobster feast that would inadvertently fatten us up for the next day's dive to see sharks, a dive that weighed heavily on our minds.

The shark encounter

In the morning we dropped anchor by Big Rock, a notorious predator location. "A very high concentration of sharks are in these waters," Graham informed us. "Up to seven varieties have been reported here during a single dive. These can include gray reef, bull, hammerhead, silver-tipped, whale, leopard, and nurse."

"My pulse rate has definitely accelerated," chipped in Fred.

Andy, knowledgeable about sharks, explained to us that they had evolved little in the last 150 million years, and that they were a real force in driving natural selection. Sharks had known no other predator till man. In much of the water around Asia, the shark population has already been killed off to supply the illegal shark fin (soup and medicine) industry. "You'll rarely sight sharks around Hong Kong anymore," he remarked, "so this is a fantastic opportunity to observe sharks in their natural environment."

Graham mapped out our next underwater scenario. "There's no real reason to be seriously scared. Sharks are just very inquisitive. Since we'll be invading their patch, the sharks want to come and check us out. We'll not appear like food to them--just big, strange, bubble-blowing blobs."

Paveena still wanted to know how sharks act when threatened.

"If you see their pectoral fins down along their sides and their back arched erratically," he answered, "you should clear out of their way. Always stay together and give off good vibrations!"

Now more than ever, Fred wanted to keep close to Paveena.

Several years ago Graham discovered this diving site, which he named "In Thru the Out Door." As he explained, "On the way there, the current will push us around till we come into a gully in the middle of the rock. As you swim underneath it, you will enter the cave, which is filled with many small caverns. The dive is called 'In Thru the Out Door' because we go in the backdoor as the sharks swim out!"

Not only were we to encounter sharks, but we would also have to enter a deep, dark cave, a first for most of us. We all received large torches (diving flashlights), since visibility would be low. On the way toward the gully, Fred sighted a sea snake. Andy warned that they were highly poisonous and recommended we stay away. Then we entered the abyss of the cave, and nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. Imagine swimming into an eerie, dark void that enveloped each diver like a moist, pulsating womb. Our meager lights cast only shadows upon silhouettes of unrecognized creatures, and then, out of nowhere, hundreds upon hundreds of small formations swam through the beams.

"Look at all those fish," exclaimed Fred.

"Those are all baby (juvenile) barracuda," interjected Andy.

Andy explained that one female barracuda can lay up to a million eggs in her lifetime. Barracuda are nocturnal, so during the day they school in large numbers (especially inside caves) for added protection.

At the moment, I couldn't concentrate on another word the professor said. All I could think about was how not to feel scared or claustrophobic. When a diver is frightened, he can hyperventilate, which in turn screws up breathing; and here, encased in a big, solid chunk of rock seventy feet under the sea, there was no chance to quickly surface. "Don't worry, be happy," I heard a voice echo through my ears.

But these barracuda felt like mythological figures guarding the cave's entrance, and who knew what lurked farther inside. And then "Ulysses" in his purple flippers jetted on by me. It was the fearless Graham, who proceeded, head first, into a murky cavern. I recalled the story of the Sirens. "Come, come." Graham's hypnotic voice lured me in. So down I went, and the entire wall moved beneath me. It was two massive nurse sharks that had spotted our alien group.

All of a sudden, the current began sucking me out the other side of the cave. In the midst of this chaotic churning, I caught Paveena's voice, "Oh my God! Shark, shark, shark!" It was time for our close encounter of the third kind. Four gray reef sharks darted near the exit hole from which I had just popped out.

"Must take a fair amount of food to keep those chaps going," observed Andy.

Somehow we made it back to the boat with all our limbs intact and our spirits soaring. After making it through such an incredible adventure, we confidently concluded that, indeed, the only thing to fear in life was fear itself. For millennia mankind had been frightened of the vastness of the seas that cover 70 percent of our world. It has only been during the last fifty years and the invention of the Aqua-Lung that we have begun to unlock the mysteries of the ocean depths. And our own exploration proved that the bountiful waters and landscapes of the Mergui Archipelago, teeming with treasures, offer unlimited possibilities for discovery.n

For more information

Additional Reading:To arrange diving and land trips in the Mergui Archipelago contact:

South East Asia Liveaboards

at Patong Beach in Thailand

E-mail: info www.sealiveaboards.com

Tel: 011-66-76-340406 or 340932

Fax: 011-66-76-340586

Masha Nordbye is a travel writer and documentary TV director who has traveled through more than eighty countries. Stay tuned for Action- Asia, coming soon to the Discovery Channel.
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Title Annotation:www.sealiveaboards.com; Action-Asia coming to the Discovery Channel
Author:Nordbye, Masha
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Words:3033
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