It’s fair to say that Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – remains a country stuck in a different, more gracious era. That it owes this quality in part to the isolation it suffered under a military regime whose grip has only recently begun to loosen is undeniable.
Nonetheless, it is slow, charmingly so, with few high-rise buildings, a plethora of exquisite pagodas and temples, saffron-robed monks and sarong-clad locals, who somehow manage to remain elegant through the hottest summers and spiciest suppers.
And, of course, it has the great arterial river, the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy), flowing past alluvial plains and emerald paddy fields, alongside which people tend the land with ploughs.
With the country moving towards democracy, tourists do now go to Myanmar, to the extent that it struggles with hotel provision and the Ayeyarwady now has quite a few cruising boats plying its waters.
But there’s a part of Burma that remains relatively unexplored, and where you won’t need a hotel either. It’s the astonishing Mergui Archipelago (800 exquisite islands in the ocean off the south of Burma) where, currently, only about 1,700 tourists visit each year, nearly all on luxury yachts.
“It is almost void of any tourism infrastructure,” says Herbert Mayrhauser of Burma Boating, a new company that sails to the region.
Mergui Archipelago: a fortuitous find
The Burma Boating team, formed this year by a team of yachting aficionados, found the islands by serendipity. “We sail a lot from Thailand for fun and decided to go to the Andaman Islands,” says Herbert. “Instead, we diverted and went towards Burma.”
There, after negotiating with the Burmese authorities, the team found the joys of the Mergui Archipelago. “A wonderful find,” says Herbert. “The sea was pristine, the beaches empty, the islands numerous.”
The beaches were white, footprint-free and lined with thick jungle. The clear water had untouched reefs, corals and dolphins. Gibbons chattered on the shores and eagles soared in the air. The only people sailing alongside the team were occasional friendly nomadic fishermen in dugout canoes.
Along with the islands themselves they, too, were a revelation. The fishermen sold them their daily catch, which they ate on the boat with their sundowners.
“They told us they’d never seen foreigners,” says Herbert “We became friendly with the kids, who took us to see a crocodile.”
The first yacht charters to Mergui
Back on dry land, Herbert and his colleagues discovered that not many people knew about the Mergui Archipelago, let alone where it was. They decided to start a yachting company to take guests there. To their delight, they found little in the way of organised cruises or yacht charters to the region.
“The other tourists in the region tend to be the early-adopter super-yacht crowd,” says Herbert. “A yacht that Abramovic used to own was here last spring.”
Partly, as with the rest of the country, the archipelago is still in transition. Its turnaround is even slower than the rest of Myanmar.
“The archipelago was only opened to foreigners in the late 1990s,” says Herbert. “You still need a permit. With such a sparse population, it must be one of the world’s most unspoilt destinations.
“We sail for days without seeing a single other yacht, let alone another person. The region is a virgin place for tourism.”
The company’s boat is the 85-feet long Meta IV, made from Thai teak. It was built in 1998 as a personal yacht and reconfigured last year as a luxury charter vessel. On board with the ten guests are an experienced European captain, a Thai chef and a crew member.
As well as nosing around the islands, guests alight from the boat from time to time, going on jungle hikes, lazing on island beaches, swimming, fishing and taking canoes into mangroves.
Which makes it sound remote. But as it turns out, the archipelago is relatively accessible, in a geographical sense. The best way to access it is to fly to Phuket in Thailand, do a short hop to the southern Burmese port of Kawthaung, then sail into the islands. It takes three to four hours from Phuket.
So with such access, will the archipelago remain pristine? “They need so much infrastructure that it’s unlikely to be a mass tourism trap in the near future,” says Herbert.
All the better for those who make the trip.
Exclusive offer: high50 members can get ten per cent off all bookings with Burma Boating made before 30 November 2013