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Into a Lost World - The mergui arch

August 1, 2000

Into a Lost World - The mergui archipelago, closed to tourists until 1997, 
is one of the
last untouched areas on earth left to explore; Action-Asia coming to the 
Discovery Channel;

Nordbye, Masha

     As we enter the new millennium, few regions of our planet remain as 
unexplored Edens. But off the
coast of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, lies one such place--an 
extensive archipelago of over
eight hundred uninhabited islands and islets scattered throughout the 
Andaman Sea. For over half a
century the country has been isolated from the rest of the world by its 
political regime; and it was only in
the last few years that the Mergui Archipelago, an area encompassing ten 
thousand square miles, was
opened to outsiders. Here visitors have the unique opportunity to explore 
one of the last great pristine
environments left on earth.

During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, merchants, pirates, and 
adventurers undertook arduous
trips through the Strait of Malacca to navigate between the Indian Ocean 
and the South China Sea. As
trade grew between India, Siam (now Thailand), and China, ships figured a 
way to cut transport time in
half by taking a more northerly route to the Isthmus of Kra (the narrow 
slice of land that connected Siam
and Malaysia) and then transporting their cargo overland by elephant. By 
this time, the great kingdom of
Siam had become a major trading junction and its southern city of Mergui a 
prosperous port and
meeting point for the multitude of Asian caravans.

But even during Mergui's heyday the islands in the archipelago remained 
uninhabited, never being
deemed fit for settlement or farming. Adding further to the islands' 
isolation, the British, who became the
dominant sea power in the area, transferred their commercial centers 
farther south along the Malay
peninsula by the nineteenth century. Because of these shifts and the advent 
of steamships and other
faster methods of transportation, the once flourishing Mergui eventually 
collapsed into complete

In 1997, after three years of lengthy negotiations, South East Asia 
Liveaboards (SEAL), based in
Thailand, finally received permission from the Myanmar government to escort 
tourists into the Mergui
Archipelago. Even today the area is considered so remote (it cannot be 
found on most world maps) that
the only existing charts are those drawn by the British shortly after World 
War II (the British ruled
Burma from 1862 to 1948). By venturing into this lost realm, one has the 
remarkable opportunity to visit
a world of ages past (where piracy still exists) and to experience one of 
the few places whose
ecosystem remains virtually unspoiled since the beginning of time.

The adventure begins

It was my good fortune to be sent here for the filming of a TV pilot called 
Action Asia for the Discovery
Channel. Our group consisted of two Australian camera crew and two 
on-camera hosts. The two
hosts-- Fred, a Calvin Klein model from Canada, and Paveena, an almond-eyed 
beauty whose parents
came from Thailand--are from Hong Kong. My job would be to direct the show, 
both on land and

We began our voyage in Phuket, a popular resort town on the southern coast 
of Thailand filled with
hundreds of tanning tourists, bargain shops, and restaurants. Having seen 
many billboards written in the
indecipherable Thai alphabet, I couldn't help but smile when I caught sight 
of a travel office sign posted
in English: Welcome to the Krabi Happy Tour!

At an office near our hotel, we met up with our guide for the trip, Graham 
Frost, a gregarious Australian
who runs the SEAL program. After picking up our diving gear, we started our 
adventure by driving four
hours to the Thai border town of Ranong, passing by miles of gorgeous ocean 
scenery and rubber
plantations where a thick, milky liquid slowly oozed into small metal 
buckets tied to the tapped trunks.
By early afternoon we reached the port, which lies on the southeastern 
coast of the fjord that separates
Myanmar from Thailand.

There we hired out long-tail boats, the slender wooden vessels that have 
been used to crisscross these
waters for centuries. But now, instead of using paddles, the local drivers 
use engine-driven open-air
propellers to navigate their way back and forth along the Panchan River. 
The waterway flows around a
kaleidoscope of sights: Red-robed monks, holding yellow umbrellas over 
their bare-shaven heads as
they ride in dugout canoes; merchant cargo ships unloading boxes laden with 
fresh fruit; and rickety
wooden beach houses, propped up by stilts, surrounded by green hills dotted 
with glimmering golden
statues of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Our slight, dark-skinned driver looked 
to be of Indian descent
(his smile revealed two remaining teeth, between which he fitted a 
hand-rolled cigarette).

After a half-hour ride, we reached Kawthong, the gateway to the 
archipelago. Upon the muddy banks
stood the local customs house, an old wooden hut painted white and blue, 
over which flew a tattered
national flag. A few uniformed men stood around it, old rifles slung over 
their shoulders. The Myanmar
government is notorious for its disregard of human rights and its 
closed-door policy toward tourists, but
here we felt no unease. We had already received permission to enter, so we 
handed over our papers,
pictures, and passports and proceeded on our way.

Rounding a small bend in the river, we reached our diving boat, the Gaea, a 
fifty-one-foot trimaran that
would be our home, day and night, over the next seven days. It was there 
that we met up with our crew:
a rugged, sun-bleached-blond captain from Australia, a brightly tattooed 
Thai cook named Mee, and
two swarthy helpers from Myanmar who spoke good English. As dusk enveloped 
the landscape, we all
gathered on deck to watch our first orange-red sunset of the trip.

That night everyone slept soundly as the Gaea sailed to its first 
destination in the Andaman Sea. We
were lying atop a gigantic water bed with a million stars twinkling over a 
jet-black sea. Suddenly I was
jolted awake by alarmed voices on deck. The captain explained that a whale 
had just surfaced right in
front of the bow and that, with a quick turn of the wheel, he had steered 
clear of a head-on collision.
For the first time, it hit me that we were not in the modern world anymore. 
Entirely alone, far from the
nearest village, we had no one to signal for help.

Home to the moken

I returned to bed only to be reawakened a few hours later by the clanking 
sounds of our anchor being
cast and the strong smell of coffee brewing. Mingalaba (Burmese for "Good 
morning") was exchanged
between the crew members. I climbed topside and took in the great expanse 
of sunlit wilderness before
me. An emerald-green sea danced in and out of scores of small islands 
covered by lush mangrove
forests and white coral beaches. We later kayaked out to one of these 
uninhabited shores, and I
imagined myself to be the first human ever to leave footprints in the sand.

The first animal footprints we came upon were, remarkably, those of a 
tiger. The thick jungle, impossible
to penetrate without a machete, offers the perfect habitat to some of the 
last wild cats, rhinoceroses, and
elephants to be found in Southeast Asia. Elephants and Sumatran rhinos have 
been sighted swimming
between the islands (elephants can swim up to twenty miles at a time). With 
a vision to preserve the
wide variety of wildlife of these island habitats, the government has 
already designated the largest of the
islands, Lampi (the size of Singapore), as the archipelago's first national 

The area is also home to an indigenous people called the Moken, better 
known as sea gypsies. It is
believed that these seafaring nomads wandered into the area centuries 
earlier to escape the brutal piracy
in Malaysian waters (they speak an old Malay dialect). Today entire 
generations of one family live
completely self-contained on primitive wooden boats. Surprisingly, they do 
not fish with nets, hooks, or
lines, preferring instead to collect mollusks, fish, and sea urchins left 
behind on beaches during low tide.
They also dry seaweed and sea cucumbers, which they trade for rice, diesel 
fuel, or opium, the latter
being mixed with dry banana leaves and smoked in water pipes. It is only 
during the heavy monsoon
season (June through September) that the sea gypsies venture to live on 
land, where they supplement
their seafood diet with a few subsistence crops.

Today only about three thousand sea gypsies still wander the archipelago. 
Recently the government set
up permanent facilities on one of the islands (the only one inhabited) to 
provide medical care and
schooling for those families who wish to take advantage of the modern 
world. Most Moken, however,
remain quite traditional and refuse to adopt new ways. The sea gypsy 
religion is animist--on land they
put up spirit poles, ceremonial flags, and effigies, complete with hats and 
cigarettes, that represent their
ancestors. As with any primitive culture, the question arises as to how 
best to assimilate them into the
modern world without destroying their centuries-old traditions. With so few 
Moken left, I can't help but
wonder whether we may be the last generation to witness their culture intact.

Before continuing on our way, we boarded a sea gypsy junk and made our own 
trade: three bags of rice
for three of the largest lobsters I've ever laid eyes on (and each side 
thought it had gotten the better
deal!). This would be part of our evening's feast, and our Thai chef 
skillfully began the preparations. But
meanwhile it was time to head north for Great Swinton Island, the site of 
our first dive.

Underwater fantasy

We geared up in tight-fitting wet suits, heavy tanks, and full face masks 
(which had communication
devices to allow us to speak underwater) and merrily jumped, flippers 
flapping, into the 80-degree
water. Andy Cornish, a Hong Kong expert in the biodiversity of reef fish, 
was to be our guide in this
extraordinary environment. As he acknowledged: "Because this area has been 
closed off for so long, no
study has ever been done on the types of fish inhabiting the reefs and 
coral beds. So it's a great
opportunity to find out what is actually here."

We slowly descended to about forty feet below the surface. At first, Fred 
had a problem equalizing his
ears, as his diving buddy, Paveena, hovered nearby. I heard Fred say, "I've 
made only about six dives in
my entire life. Paveena has made about a hundred--so I will be sticking to 
her like glue!" As flailing Fred
slowly maneuvered his gear into cohesive balance, we all glided around the 
impressive reefs rife with red
and orange corals and hardy sponges. (Because the area really gets pounded 
during the monsoon
season, nothing too fragile can survive.) The ecosystem here is driven by 
plankton, taken in and out by
the tides; and when stimulated, the bioluminescent types give off a 
wonderful glowing light.

Eclectic groups of pelagic fish (those who live in the open ocean) darted 
in and out of the rocky
outcroppings: giant grouper, powder-blue surgeon fish, lion fish (whose 
spines are very poisonous),
black- spotted sting rays, and bearded scorpion fish completely camouflaged 
against the rocks.

"Uni, uni, uni," shrieked Paveena, who had almost brushed up against a 
spiny sea urchin. "Let's try
some. They taste better raw!"

As I daintily danced through this fantastic undersea world, I felt like 
Alice in Wonderland swimming
through the Looking Glass. I gazed with awe upon living gardens of sea 
anemones, displaying rare
miniature shrimp who spend their entire life in the anemones' interiors; 
the shrimp clean the anemone
and, in turn, get protection. Ledges were filled with lurking lobsters and 
three different varieties of moray
eels, whose mouths opened wide as we stared eye to eye.

"When they open their mouths wide like that," Andy informed us, "the eels 
are pumping water over their
gills." He pointed out other species with names right out of the latest rap 
lyrics: colored nudibranchiates,
checkerboard wrasse, and juvenile harlequin sweetlips alongside damsels, 
dog-faced puffers, and sea
whips--all hip hopping in banners around us.

The currents and surges moved around an impressionistic palette of hard and 
soft corals: Large table
corals were speckled by purple plume worms, yellow brain, and brownish stag 
and elk corals, as well
as huge, Gauguin-esque gorgonian cluster corals that spread out like 
fossilized birch trees. Amid all this,
I sighted my favorite--a group of squidlike cuttlefish--swimming one behind 
the other in a swing dance
line formation.

Soon it was time to surface: After forty-five minutes, we had run out of air.

Back on deck, when she realized we still hadn't seen what we came for, 
Paveena exclaimed, "I can't
even imagine adding sharks to what I just saw. Don't think I can handle that!"

That night we partook of a sumptuous lobster feast that would inadvertently 
fatten us up for the next
day's dive to see sharks, a dive that weighed heavily on our minds.

The shark encounter

In the morning we dropped anchor by Big Rock, a notorious predator 
location. "A very high
concentration of sharks are in these waters," Graham informed us. "Up to 
seven varieties have been
reported here during a single dive. These can include gray reef, bull, 
hammerhead, silver-tipped, whale,
leopard, and nurse."

"My pulse rate has definitely accelerated," chipped in Fred.

Andy, knowledgeable about sharks, explained to us that they had evolved 
little in the last 150 million
years, and that they were a real force in driving natural selection. Sharks 
had known no other predator
till man. In much of the water around Asia, the shark population has 
already been killed off to supply the
illegal shark fin (soup and medicine) industry. "You'll rarely sight sharks 
around Hong Kong anymore,"
he remarked, "so this is a fantastic opportunity to observe sharks in their 
natural environment."

Graham mapped out our next underwater scenario. "There's no real reason to 
be seriously scared.
Sharks are just very inquisitive. Since we'll be invading their patch, the 
sharks want to come and check
us out. We'll not appear like food to them--just big, strange, 
bubble-blowing blobs."

Paveena still wanted to know how sharks act when threatened.

"If you see their pectoral fins down along their sides and their back 
arched erratically," he answered,
"you should clear out of their way. Always stay together and give off good 

Now more than ever, Fred wanted to keep close to Paveena.

Several years ago Graham discovered this diving site, which he named "In 
Thru the Out Door." As he
explained, "On the way there, the current will push us around till we come 
into a gully in the middle of
the rock. As you swim underneath it, you will enter the cave, which is 
filled with many small caverns.
The dive is called 'In Thru the Out Door' because we go in the backdoor as 
the sharks swim out!"

Not only were we to encounter sharks, but we would also have to enter a 
deep, dark cave, a first for
most of us. We all received large torches (diving flashlights), since 
visibility would be low. On the way
toward the gully, Fred sighted a sea snake. Andy warned that they were 
highly poisonous and
recommended we stay away. Then we entered the abyss of the cave, and 
nothing could have prepared
me for what happened next. Imagine swimming into an eerie, dark void that 
enveloped each diver like a
moist, pulsating womb. Our meager lights cast only shadows upon silhouettes 
of unrecognized creatures,
and then, out of nowhere, hundreds upon hundreds of small formations swam 
through the beams.

"Look at all those fish," exclaimed Fred.

"Those are all baby (juvenile) barracuda," interjected Andy.

Andy explained that one female barracuda can lay up to a million eggs in 
her lifetime. Barracuda are
nocturnal, so during the day they school in large numbers (especially 
inside caves) for added protection.

At the moment, I couldn't concentrate on another word the professor said. 
All I could think about was
how not to feel scared or claustrophobic. When a diver is frightened, he 
can hyperventilate, which in
turn screws up breathing; and here, encased in a big, solid chunk of rock 
seventy feet under the sea,
there was no chance to quickly surface. "Don't worry, be happy," I heard a 
voice echo through my ears.

But these barracuda felt like mythological figures guarding the cave's 
entrance, and who knew what
lurked farther inside. And then "Ulysses" in his purple flippers jetted on 
by me. It was the fearless
Graham, who proceeded, head first, into a murky cavern. I recalled the 
story of the Sirens. "Come,
come." Graham's hypnotic voice lured me in. So down I went, and the entire 
wall moved beneath me. It
was two massive nurse sharks that had spotted our alien group.

All of a sudden, the current began sucking me out the other side of the 
cave. In the midst of this chaotic
churning, I caught Paveena's voice, "Oh my God! Shark, shark, shark!" It 
was time for our close
encounter of the third kind. Four gray reef sharks darted near the exit 
hole from which I had just
popped out.

"Must take a fair amount of food to keep those chaps going," observed Andy.

Somehow we made it back to the boat with all our limbs intact and our 
spirits soaring. After making it
through such an incredible adventure, we confidently concluded that, 
indeed, the only thing to fear in life
was fear itself. For millennia mankind had been frightened of the vastness 
of the seas that cover 70
percent of our world. It has only been during the last fifty years and the 
invention of the Aqua-Lung that
we have begun to unlock the mysteries of the ocean depths. And our own 
exploration proved that the
bountiful waters and landscapes of the Mergui Archipelago, teeming with 
treasures, offer unlimited
possibilities for discovery.n

For more information

Additional Reading:To arrange diving and land trips in the Mergui 
Archipelago contact:

South East Asia Liveaboards

at Patong Beach in Thailand

E-mail: info www.sealiveaboards.com

Tel: 011-66-76-340406 or 340932

Fax: 011-66-76-340586

Masha Nordbye is a travel writer and documentary TV director who has 
traveled through more than
eighty countries. Stay tuned for Action- Asia, coming soon to the Discovery