Excursion to BURMA

Escaping the modern world on a boat trip through the Mergui Archipelago, where few foreigners have ventured.

July 08, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

As Paul, our dive guide, drifted over a head of coral, his body stiffened. Wheeling around wide-eyed, he put an open hand on top of his head like a fin -- the universal signal for "shark." Inside a coral crevice on the sandy bottom lay a pair of gray nurse sharks, the longer of which appeared to be more than 6 feet.

I was relieved. Nurse sharks are bottom feeders and don't attack. These were big ones, so I dived down for a better look. The hail of bubbles and flailing limbs proved too much for the timid fish. They wriggled about, kicking up clouds of sand while searching for a place to hide.

Paul surfaced and yelled across the water to the sailboat that we'd found sharks.

"This is supposed to be an incentive for us to get in?" asked Bea, who was sitting on deck and preferred her sharks behind glass.

By the time Paul returned below the surface, the sharks had disappeared beneath a coral ledge, but they would live on in our dinner conversa-tions aboard the Gaea, the 51-foot trimaran we called home for nearly a week.

It was our fourth day amid the empty islands of the Mergui Archipelago on the southern coast of Myanmar -- or Burma, as it is still widely known. In addition to the sharks, we'd seen some fishing boats, visited a village of sea gypsies and crossed paths with a Burmese naval vessel.

That was it. No other tourists -- and sometimes, when we scanned the horizon at dawn, no one at all.

In a world of six billion people, where you can phone home from the Great Wall or watch Jennifer Lopez videos on the Vietnamese coast, the search for authentic travel experiences has become increasingly difficult. Each year, people must go farther and farther to find places untouched by American pop culture and unfiltered by the tourism industry.

The myth of unspoiled lands has fueled the Western imagination for generations, spawning novels ranging from James Hilton's "Lost Horizon" to Alex Garland's "The Beach," which was set on an island in Thailand and made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The reality is that most of the best spots in Asia were "discovered" long ago.

Thailand's resort island of Phuket complements its beaches and limestone karst formations with go-karts, bungee-jumping and "Dino Park," a dinosaur-theme miniature golf park with an erupting volcano. These days, tour buses pull up to the ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, which were deserted a few years ago because of civil war and fear of land mines.

The Mergui is one of the last great places in the hemisphere to be spared from the cultural Cuisinart of globalization. The islands have remained largely unchanged because of self-imposed isolation by Burma's repressive military regime.

Cut off from the world for more than half a century, the Mergui comprises some 800 wooded, tropical islands covering about 10,000 square miles in the Andaman Sea, which lies just north of the Indian Ocean. The islands are filled with wildlife, including hornbills, sea eagles, heron, python, macaques, wild pigs and elephants. Other than the village of sea gypsies and fishermen, there are no other people.

Just opened to tourism

My wife, Julie, and I first heard about the Mergui a couple of years ago over dinner in Beijing. We were out with fellow journalists who raved about a sailboat trip they'd taken in Burma.

The voyage sounded wonderful: sea kayaking amid mangroves and caves as well as snorkeling and scuba diving on isolated reefs. What made the Mergui so attractive, though, was that few people had ever been there. The islands only opened to tourism in early 1997, when two brothers from Britain, Graham and Adam Frost, negotiated an agreement with the Burmese government to take passengers there.

Last April, with Julie expecting a baby in several months, we booked two bunks on the Gaea as a last hurrah of pre-parental travel and flew to Thailand, where the Frosts' company, South East Asia Liveaboards, is located.

We were nervous about spending so much time on a boat. The Gaea sleeps eight and we didn't know who else would be aboard. Our concerns dissolved the morning we arrived at the office and found out that no one else had booked the trip. We would have the boat to ourselves for six days.

The night before, we had had dinner in Phuket with a fellow correspondent, Miro Cernetig of the Globe and Mail in Toronto, and his wife, Bea, who happened to be in town. When we learned the next morning that the other cabins were empty, I called Miro and Bea and made my pitch: six days on the water in Burma kayaking, scuba diving and snorkeling. Because of the short notice, the company would offer them 40 percent off.

Bea, half asleep, handed the phone to Miro, who was stepping out of the shower.

"Call me in 10 minutes," he said.

When I called back, Miro said, "We're packed."

After a flurry of calls to change flights and hotel reservations, we set off in a van up the coast, leaving the heavy development of Phuket behind.

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