The Virgin Islands of Burma/Myanmar
Burma has opened up, yes – but there is a far-flung coast that is still untouched. A year ago I was sitting on the worn teak floor of an old monastery prayer room up in Burma's Shan Hills. There was Max, an Englishman who had lived in the country for many years and who had just asked me to name my special places in the world. I mentioned an oasis in the Egyptian desert and an island I had seen on the Mekong River, down by the Lao/Cambodian border. Paradise.
'Just one island, eh?' Max shrugged and then sat closer, conspiratorially, and told me about the Mergui Archipelago.
We unfolded a map and I followed his finger over the page, up the Thai coast, north of Phuket, up beyond Ranong, across the border into Burma, and then out into the Andaman Sea. Islands were marked, but there were few place names. This was the Mergui. 'Eight hundred islands – maybe more. Fantastic beaches. And the Moken, sea gypsies: the only people who live there.'
The Mergui – or Myeik – is a collection of islands, some miles long, others no more than jagged rocks. All of them are covered with jungle, many fringed with white-sand beaches and none of them have names you will have heard of. But you will soon, for this is the stuff of legend: an entire archipelago in the process of being 'discovered'.
Kawthaung, where we started, is about as unprepossessing as a beginning can be. A smattering of day-trippers over from Thailand were hanging about, waiting to renew their tourist visas. We were soon out of dock, down the Pakchan River and out to sea. It was there that I learned why it is often called 'the deep blue' – it was suddenly deep and so blue it was almost black.
I had imagined the Mergui to be something like the Maldives, but in such depths there are no atolls. The islands look like a shower of rock shot out of the seabed towards the sky. There was always one of them in sight. On the map, they form three vague columns strung like a garland over many miles: the inner ones closest to the coast; a vast scattering in the middle ground; and the outer isles, many of which are still out of bounds due to military considerations.
The beach. The word does not quite conjure the perfection of the place, of sand so fine it felt like flour between my toes. Small crabs scuttled away from my footprints, and then ran back. At the end of the sand there were not just trees and plants, but jungle: thick, rich, self-sustaining and apparently untouched. Orange flowers on one tree reminded me that there are also supposed to be tigers on some of these islands. Swimming back to the boat for lunch through the clearest water, I pondered the joyous question of how many miles it was to the nearest town, to industry, to a hotel and an internet connection.