A profile of roaming sea gypsies The scenic islands, lush rain forest and diverse wildlife of Burma's vast Mergui Archipelago present a rare backdrop for diving, snorkelling, kayaking, beachcombing and forest walking. The Moken, a tiny group of mysterious sea nomads indigenous to the area, present another exotic element in the landscape.
Ever-changing constellations of islands recede into the distance ahead as we sail up the Burmese coast from Kawthaung, the southern-most town in Myanmar. Deserted white-sand beaches backed by prime rain forest line the shores, and mountain peaks on the larger islands beckon from many miles away. We've cruised most of the day without spotting another vessel.
Then we encounter a scene out of some Hollywood fantasy. Snugged in between a couple of uninhabited isles lie a congregation of exotic wooden boats, each raggedly festooned with lines and pennants and teeming with men, women, children and dogs. And there's more to come. Some miles off the nearest island, the next day, we spot a train of 14 dugout canoes full of women and girls in tow behind one of the same odd-looking wooden houseboats. A week later, off yet another island, we make way for a fleet of dugouts streaming back to a bepennanted mother boat with the afternoon's catch, where bare-breasted women have been diving from their canoes for a variety of marine organisms, including shellfish, crabs, shrimp and sea cucumbers. On the tidal flats in front of a temporary encampment, young boys are spearing stingrays with tridents longer than themselves. A few women and children dig sand worms along the waterline.
There's a dreamlike quality to cruising this archipelago. These scenes have the flavour of other times and other worlds. And 100 years ago the sense of mystery and wonder was much the same:
Of all that has happened amongst their islands since men first came to live and move amongst them, there is no record, and there never will be any now … Their main, and it would seem their earliest, human interest centres in the fast-dying colony of the Salon, which has made these islands its last refuge. When or whence they came, one can only guess; and whether they had any human predecessors it is difficult even to conjecture. But it is probable that they are an extremely ancient people, kindred of that aboriginal stock which peopled the mainland before the advent of the Htai.