Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar (Burma)

Sitting on a teakwood chair on the upper deck of the converted cargo boat, photographic location scout David van Driessche knew the ropes. “We are about to sail out of mobile reception range,” the Belgian told his partner back in Bangkok. It was now dawning on me as fast as the sun was setting on the horizon that the one-bar of signal on my phone was about to drop completely. We were off the grid, and almost off the map.

Off the grid and no WiFi
This trip exploring the Mergui Archipelago was into unknown territory for me. Would there be mobile coverage, electricity, wifi, or even air-con? I’d figured not. Yet, as the sunset below a layer of grey rain-leaden clouds and the world turned deep purple, I found some answers.

Below, on the main deck, our sleeping quarters were gazebos with rattan paneling and mahogany trim. After the diesel generator was turned off, nifty LED reading lights and cooling fans powered by the solar panels could be turned on.

We anchored for the evening, and even though we sat less than 10° north of the equator, sea breezes wafted through the partitioned quarters and I was lulled by the gentle rocking of the Andaman Sea. Around the dinner table that night there’d been talk from Bjorn Burchard, head of Moby Dick Tours, that in a few days’ time we might get some of the holy grail of 21st travellers: WiFi.

Mergui Archipelago – the least visited place on earth
Mergui Archipelago
(c) Google
Before the first rays of sun had illuminated the tops of the jungled Barwell Island and its neighbouring islets, the cheery crew helped me launch a sit-in kayak for a paddle on the calm waters around the 100 foot vessel, newly repainted in cream, green and red. I capped off the dawn jaunt by taking a quick dip in the deep waters, pleasantly-warm.

The Mergui Archipelago is one of the least-visited places on earth, and it is only recently that the region with its 800 or so islands has slowly opened up to visitors, who come searching for some of the best dive spots in Asia with rays and sharks, as well as the diversity of coral reefs which sit off many of the white powdery sand beaches.

Not only is it difficult to access, the area has been prohibitively expensive. A few of the islands’ bays are slated for luxury resort development, though only at the outer Boulder Island is there anything which could be regarded as appropriate eco-tourism.

Island Safaris, which runs relatively inexpensive 5 day/4 night island-hopping excursions, promote the “small is better” philosophy, undertaking slow travel which allows more time for beach time, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, hiking and even night fishing.

Exploring mangrove forests by kayak, or visiting villages where the indigenous Moken ‘sea gypsies’ reside or trade provide rare glimpses into places and peoples who have been left behind in the rush to modernity.