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Phuket -Patong - Similans - Surin - Thailand
Kawthong - Mergui Archipelago - Myanmar Burma in Asia
Discovering the Mergui Archipelago - Myanmar or Burma - By Lesley Hamilton
Phuket, Similans, Surin and Kawthaung
There were three of us onboard, Mark, Myself and Peter. We were to cruise up the west coast of Phuket, towards the Similan Islands, a northern open passage to the Surins, and then cruising a northeasterly track back to the mainland where Burma and Thailand meet at the Pakchan River. This involved three long passages, two of which we completed over night to avoid sailing in the heat of the day and in order to depart and arrive in good light.
After a short sail we moored overnight at Nai Harn beach before the first full day of sailing. Setting off in a good breeze we passed Patong Bay before the wind began its afternoon drop. Within another hour or so it slacked off so much we had to add the engine. We motor-sailed to the north end of Bang Tao Bay and found an anchorage just in the lee of the last headland for many miles. Thursday morning, up well before sunrise for the 45 mile crossing to the Similans. There was a half moon and the Big Dipper off the starboard bow helping us steer along with the compass. We sailed well in a good breeze but it would be several hours before the islands would come into view.
The Similans are a group of several islands in three clusters controlled by the Thailand Marine National Park. Anchoring is not allowed to protect the reefs from damage and mooring buoys the park provides must be used. We arrive at the southern cluster in time for a snorkel and look around before dinner. We use the only mooring buoy available and anchor in very calm conditions. Later that night the wind increased a bit and the mooring buoy broke at a little after midnight on Friday the thirteenth forcing us to leave for the middle group of islands. We needed a lazy day and spent it snorkeling the middle islands and then cruising up to the northern islands. The Similans are renowned for the diving reefs, and dozens of dive boats bring hundreds of people to these otherwise remote little islands. On the main island, the park headquarters provides tents, toilet and shower facilities. There are also a couple of hiking trails for nature walks and climbs up to the tops of the rocks overlooking the harbour.
We left just before midnight for the second long passage, to the Surin Islands to the north. Although we had good wind it was fine on the bow so we motor sailed. Dozing between the watches we theoretically had four hours sleep each.
We got to the Surins by late morning, found a mooring ball, ate another famous “soup” lunch, snoozed in the heat of the day, and took a look around by dinghy. (Mark makes great soups for lunch; chock full of fresh veggies, meat, and noodles, potatoes or rice). The Surins are also a Thai Marine National Park with a small park headquarters. There were much fewer tourists and dive boats here giving much more of a tropical paradise feel. After dinner we decided that we should leave that evening and it would have been nice to spend an extra day or two exploring.
By 9 p.m. we were headed for Kawthaung in Burma. This was a long haul pretty much into wind. We did a couple of very long tacks but were forced to motor sail most of the way, for the seas and currents were slowing our progress to a crawl. We really did want to get there in 12-16 hours, not 24-36 hours! Once again we did our two hour watches through the night.
By early afternoon we were in the wide mouth of the river where we did some sailing exercises including tacking, gybing, and man-overboard which are all important elements of sailing and safety.
As with most things in life, sailing is an activity that takes lots of practice to get the hang of it. For me, the feel of the wind in the sheet and the pull of the tiller is nearly second nature, as I was sailing dinghies by myself at age seven but I can see how helpful these exercises are. After watching and listening to Mark’s teaching style, I have learned a lot, not only about sailing, but about helping people learn by working things out for themselves.
After the exercises, we had lunch and then continued north up the Pakchan River sailing into Kawthung harbour almost as the sun was setting. It was a magical sight in the early evening light looking at the gold spires rising from the temples above the towns building and on the hillsides. A gold and red pagoda towering over the water front and a large reclining Buddha overlooked us in the harbour. The sea wall along the main road had a floating jetty with large ferry boats that never seemed to leave. Longtails used the stone steps in the seawall to pass people and items to the street above. The street had a bustle of life through out the daylight hours and was lined with small shops looking out to the water. Up the small finger of the river that formed the harbour was the fishing village with two and three story structures suspended out over the water. Hundreds of the smaller longtails and numerous larger fishing trawlers are tied together at many of these buildings. Throughout the day, there is a constant stream of boats coming and going between the village, the main street, and the river to the open sea or to Ranong. The noisy putt-putt of the longtails sounding like a swarm of hornets. The small island opposite the town had several small temples along the shore and a monastery at the top. Throughout the day longtails would ferry monks back and forth between the island and the town.
I spent more time navigating, setting course for the long passages and plotting our progress. Throughout the week I felt as though I was able to be relied on to handle the anchor, the sails, and so on. I also took care of a variety of miscellaneous chores and it was a very rewarding experience to feel that I had settled well into the ways of this vessel as to be competent and useful. Apparently, sitting around for weeks on end is not my idea of an ideal vacation.
Cruising the Mergui Archipelago
This week began high energy as the four new passengers arrived at Meniscus in a longtail from Ranong, the Thai city on the other side of the Pakchan River from Kawthaung, Myanmar.
Chris, on his third trip with Mark, was full of laughter and ready for a good time, along with his mate, Paul, who was making his second trip on Meniscus. Alison and Dave, married less than a year, were aboard for their first time as novice sailors.
After a quick settle in we went ashore so complete visa formalities with Nyi Nyi at his “office” at the “Mark” restaurant, drank some beer and introduced the the new arrivals to Sambar, a snack of shredded dried seasoned lamb grilled with onions that goes well with beer. Now “officially” checked in, we strolled up to the fishing village in daylight to see many families gathered outside their homes and shops, to stare at us, smile and call out hello. We went to the little bar-café with children following us delightedly as saw their digital pictures on the LCD displays. We also walked the few extra meters to the pier’s end to see the fishing boats along the road which turned into a pier high over the water a few hundred meters before it ended. After a few drinks, we went back to the main street in town and ate a fabulous meal at the Moby Dick restaurant, where Mark had already made arrangements. Lots of food, drink and laughter, and then back to the boat.
It was hot night but sitting up here at 7 a.m. it is quite cool, with a stiff breeze and in the shadow of the island behind which the sun is slowly rising. Everyone was up and stirring by 8.00. Mark picked up the required guide, JoJo, at the pier by 8:30 and we were headed out the harbor by 9.00.
Our first day of motor sailing on a light breeze took us about 20 miles to a island in the southern end of the Mergui Archipelago, a string of hundreds (thousands?) of islands off the southwest coast of Myanmar where we will cruise all week. Most of the islands are uninhabited, and we only saw one other yacht, and only the occasional fishing boat. The small island we anchored off had a lovely beach with shallows that stretched out to a reef. We snorkeled along the sandy bottom until we got to the drop off and a long ledge of coral marked the edge between shallows and very deep water. This coral is the best I have seen in years. Dozens of varieties in large shapes, colorful and very healthy, abundantly fill this wall. Tropical fish of every variety are teeming amongst the heads and leaves of coral. Even anemones and clown fish could be found. I also began to notice numerous types of clams, oysters and scallops that are part of the coral itself. Like a thick ribbon within a rock, these shells can open and close ever so slightly within their coral enclosures.
Later, we took the dinghy ashore for a look around. The island, like the others of the Archipelago, is densely covered in jungle. Coconut palms, which come with humans, are not evident. I attempt to walk into the jungle, and go about 30 feet before stopping. My flip flops are not good jungle footwear. I sit on a huge root of a tree to listen to the sounds, hoping something interesting will emerge. The others have gone further up the beach, so it is not long before all human sound is gone. Numerous birds flit about, some song in the air. Things crept beneath the thick layer of leaves around me, causing a rustling movement. But I cannot see if it is insect, reptile or mammal. In the shade, a cool breeze filters through and it is quite pleasant until a couple of mozzies find me, encouraging me to return to the beach.
On Monday we head for the large island of Lampi, with a short swimming break off the Cat & Kitten islands. Further north, after zigzagging through numerous islands and current eddies, we anchor off yet another lovely island.
After breakfast as we prepare to leave, a large family of monkeys are seen making their way across the beach. They are too far away to see clearly or to photograph. This morning, a light wind gives enough opportunity to work on the sailing exercises of tacking and man overboard. With so many of us, it takes a while for each to have a turn. We then continue northward until we get to the island of the Sea Gypsy fishing village. This is the same village that had a large festival over a week ago to which many tourists, local and foreign, came. The boat is anchored in a very strong tidal current and we go ashore. Our guide, Jo Jo, has to prove to the official that we have the permits to be there. Alison and I must wear a shirt and long sarong to not offend local custom.
There are numerous individual shacks built on stilts at the water’s edge. The mid-afternoon sun is strong, and most people are in the shade under their shacks resting, talking, or playing cards. A few children play in the water. There are also several rows of newer looking shacks with connecting piers extending well out over the water, made for guests of the festival. Those and other facilities for the festival on a hill overlooking the beach were built by the army and voluntary labour. There are also several little shops with soft drinks, beer, snacks, and some fishing provisions. We wander along the beach stopping to take pictures (there’s a satellite dish!). Snacks are purchased. In the middle of the beach is a cluster of shops and a crowd is gathered. There is a film crew, apparently making a tourism film. The people are friendly and curious, as not many tourists, especially non-Asians come around. At one end of the village is a small monastery and temple. Being a fishing village, there are several boats of different sizes, as well as many in disrepair.
After a couple of hours, we return to Meniscus and motor to an anchorage around the corner of the next island, Lampi, at the mouth of a river. We take a dinghy ride up the river, which is full of sandbars and numerous smaller waterways. The shores are either the sand of the exposed sandbars or the interlaced roots of towering mangroves. These mangroves rival the height of many hardwoods. In the hills behind the mangrove swampy areas, the jungle is dense. “Jurassic Park” is the descriptive phrase that comes to mind. We drag the dinghy onto a sandbar and wander around. We see footprints of monkeys and wild boar as well as small mud-skipping fish, a variety of sand and swimming crabs, a few birds. A few swimming crabs are caught, after one got a significant hold of Mark’s hand. JoJo cooks the crabs for a tasty appetizer.
Tuesday night has more of a breeze and I am able to sleep with cooler, moving air. Wednesday morning, we return up river with a rising tide. The water is now very clear with the incoming water. We are able to go much further up stream than the night before but do not spot any of the snakes, or crocs, or monkeys which are probably there. Alison and I opt to swim the quarter of a mile from the beach at the mouth of the river to the boat through the beautiful turquoise waters. We head westward and find a pleasant set of islands that has the feel of a lagoon. It is more protected from wind and current, so the water is clearer. But there isn’t enough light with the setting sun to explore.
Thursday morning, we are up early and go to 3 rock pinnacles five miles west that is reportedly great for diving. We have to search for an anchorage and finally settle on ridge rising from 30 meters to 3 meters. Mark used the dinghy to drop Alison and Dave closer to the larger rock for their 40 minute dive, followed by Chris and Paul. A sailboat we had moored near to in Kawthaung harbor came by and JoJo took a couple of tanks over for a refill, as we were hopeful to return to the first reef we found on Sunday.
JoJo returned and the various items properly stored, while the other vessel sailed away. Paul, who had let out extra chain, got the job on the manual windlass. With more than 20 meters of chain still out, it became apparent that the chain was stuck on the rock ledge. First Chris and then Dave got in with snorkel gear to try and guide the boat with Mark on the helm into a position that could free the chain. After several minutes in vain, Mark got in as well while I took the helm. After moving the boat left and right, forward and back, there was still no success. Mark came back and put on a tank.
He was down for a few minutes before surfacing with a new plan. He and Dave would go back down with a bag of tools. Two pieces of rock lay close together forming a narrow crack. Somehow the chain had worked itself down the narrow crack between the two rocks as if it had been threaded through the hole. However, there is an anchor at one end and a boat at the other, and no way to get it back up the way it had gone down. Mark and Dave would detach the anchor from the chain at 25 meters and attach it to a lifting bag, send it to the surface for JoJo to retrieve from the dinghy. Then they would pull the free end of the chain through the hole.
I stayed at the helm to keep us from drifting into the rocks or the other fishing boats once the boat was freed. Paul and Alison helped with the anchor when JoJo brought it to the boat, securing it behind the transom for later lifting with extra hands. Chris cranked the loosened chain aboard. JoJo brought Mark and Dave back to the now free boat and we were able to slowly leave the area, putting things back to order. It took about two hours to work out this problem. How fortuitous it was that the other boat had been there to refill the tanks. Working under water in the current, both tanks were nearly depleted again. Everyone was relieved but tired. Mark, with concerns for his boat, the safety of the passengers, a difficult situation, a two-day old head cold and a neck strain from the anchor, still had to finish making lunch! Luckily, the soup was nearly ready. I worked out a course for the next three hours, to get us to a good anchorage for the night. Chris and I kept watch with the autopilot doing the work, while the others napped and rested.
Our anchorage that night was near some fishing boats so Mark and JoJo took two bottles of Myanmar rum in the dinghy and traded them for lots of fresh fish. A late dinner of baked fish, potatoes and salad, with fresh pineapple for dessert was devoured in short order. Sleep would come easily.
Chris and Paul are booked on the 3 pm flight on Saturday. We could return to Kawthaung early Saturday morning, but the preference is to return Friday night. Especially since stores of food and water are nearly finished. We have over 40 miles to go! By 7:30, the anchor is off the mud bottom, the main sail hoisted, and Alison working out the course for the day. The first few miles winds between islands, before a straight course opens up. Tea and coffee is consumed early, but the Spanish omelet came along later. We did get a short swim break at the first fabulous coral reef (yeah! I wash my hair in clear water before getting to the dirty town harbor). A fish, rice and salad lunch is served in transit. ETA to Kawthaung is 6 p.m.
The story Continues by Mark Holroyd
Chris Paul and Lesley leave us and are replaced by Declan and Christine. We complete the change round and re provisioning in record time and leave Kawthaung to anchor off a small island close by. In the morning we take a trip ashore to visit a Dolphin Sanctuary where and we were able see and touch three of these magnificent creatures. They are caught for research purposes, the ones we saw had been there for approximately 9 months and will be re released back into the wild. The project is established to identify the various species in the area and to compare local species with others in different areas. They have identified rare species living here in large schools. We all particularly enjoyed this visit and returned later to see them again.
We continued on into Hastings harbour anchoring near a naval base. Explorations ashore took us across a narrow isthmus through dense jungle onto superb white sandy beaches on the western side. There were three sets of foot prints, one human and two turtles with obvious signs of egg laying. The next morning we were a trifle too lazy and the navy were soon chasing us away. Doing sailing exercises on the way we made for the western shores passing a small pilot whale which surfaced close enough to look at us but obviously didn't want to stop and play. More exploration amongst the mangroves, watched a wild boar charge off into the bush, snorkeled along the beach and talked to some fishermen's families living on the beach.
We headed north along the string of western islands stopping to explore and snorkel. Trading cokes for 4 good sized Trevalies from another group of fishermen we BBQ the fish on the beach and eat it while watching the sun set and the stars turn on one by one like tiny neons.
Another dive on another pinnacle was considered very good with lots of good sized fished teeming around it.
This week flew by and all too soon was time to head back for a final visit to the Dolphin sanctuary before returning to Kawthaung.
Overall it was an excellent trip with the most un spoilt and uninhabited islands that I have seen so far on my travels. The local people were very friendly and although extremely poor in money terms seemed to be happy and reasonably well fed. A dinghy ride up a river introduced me to a particularly viscous species of crab which does n't let go and lots of other flora and fauna including sea eagles, hornbills, herons and although we didn't see them there was evidence of wild boar and monkeys. Diving and snorkeling on reef and isolated pinnacles was very rewarding with a schools of good sized fish, not afraid of us, as we swam amongst them.
A visit to the Sea Gypsy Village
A dinghy ride up a river, catching crabs, lots of bird life and signs of monkeys and wild boar
Visits to fisherman's camps onshore
Going onboard a trawler to trade rum for fish
Walks through the jungle
Deserted sandy beaches, beautiful soft sand, several turtle tracks and their nests, baby turtles
Visit to a dolphin sanctuary where we were able to get close to and touch 3 bottle nosed dolphins
Reef snorkeling on fringing coral reef with abundant fish.
Diving on exposed rock pinnacles in open ocean
Sailing close to a pilot whale
Myanmar is obviously a poor country but the people are very happy and friendly. The politics is another complicated matter and as usual there are different points of view. However, I cannot see how boycotting the country will help the people here so come and find out for yourself.
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Yacht Charters, Sailing Holidays, Sailing, Cruising and RYA Courses
Phuket -Patong - Similans - Surin - Thailand
Kawthong - Mergui Archipelago - Myanmar Burma in Asia