The pungent smell of the fish market and the loud obnoxious sound of the chaotic longtail boats are very familiar. I have been here many times before. I am in Ranong, Thailand with my beautiful wife Katy getting ready to cross over to Kawthaung, the most southerly town in the country of Myanmar, formally known as Burma.
There are a few travel hardened foreigners and distinguishable expats waiting for the next boat crossing. They are here making visa runs or trying to visit the recently opened but difficult to access magical islands of the Mergui archipelago. As we leave bustling Thailand and head across the calm water to Myanmar in our open and ear-piercing shuttle boat I can’t help but reflect back to when I made the same crossing many years ago…
It was early in our survey season on the morning of Dec. 26th 2004; I was making the border crossing intending to meet up with an old and well-worn Indonesian fishing boat used to conduct dolphin surveys in the Mergui. We had just crossed over to the Myanmar side of the border when a large and out of place series of waves passed under our bow. I didn’t think much of it at the time, assuming it could be the wake of a large freighter, but as the waves approached the beach it was obvious that something was seriously a miss.
As the waves hit the beach a band of white water consumed the rocks well past the high tide and storm surge high points. Excited spontaneous chatter broke out from my fellow passengers drowning out the loud drone of the longtailed boat. I was the only foreigner on board and unfortunately my language skills are not the best so it was difficult to understand exactly what was happening. No one living today had ever seen anything quite like this, so when it came right down to it, no one really understood what was happening…
Sunrise Over The Mergui Archipelago Photographed On Red Monkey Island
It was my second season doing dolphin surveys in the beautiful and very remote Mergui Archipelago. We had special permission to be there and were lucky enough to be some of the first foreign visitors to the area since World War 2.
The Mergui archipelago is made of more then 800 virtually unexplored and pristine islands lying just off the western shore of the Malay Peninsula in the Andaman Sea. It is located within the Tanintharyi Region of Myanmar, one of the regions of most heavy conflict from the long standing Burmese Civil War (the world’s longest running civil war). This certainly has been a sad and tragic war but due to the long conflict it has left the Mergui very isolated and virtually untouched by western civilization for more then 50 years.
Beautiful White Sandy Beaches In The Mergui
These magnificent islands are some of the least explored and visited islands on the planet. Ringed with stunning untouched white sandy beaches and covered in dense unexplored jungles these islands are truly a kind of paradise.
Sea Gypsy Family
The local people are an ethnic minority called Moken, or Sea Gypsies. The shy and timid Moken are a sea-dwelling people that live a semi nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle based almost entirely on the sea. They live the majority of their lives quietly existing on small primitively made boats, fishing and gathering sea cucumbers.
They are one of the world’s last nomadic tribes seemingly unconcerned with the outside world and it’s material possessions. The Moken travel in family groups, often taking to the sea with one or two larger wooden boats towing small dugout canoes behind them like a mother duck with her ducklings. They are a reclusive people choosing to remain distant from the modern material world. The Moken are the smallest of the indigenous groups in Myanmar and are superb free divers, content living as one with the sea.
In recent years, the Mergui has gradually been opening up to diving and tourism. Because of its isolation and unique history the area is considered one of the best dives regions in the world. It is not uncommon to find ancient pottery, relics from WW2, and of coarse pristine coral reefs and abundant fish with mega fauna ranging from manta rays to whales. Unfortunately, dynamite fishing has been increasing in the area. The practice has affected a number of reefs and dive sites making the impacts of the destructive practice all the more visible, but on a whole these mostly uninhabited islands are just the way they were hundreds of years ago.
My first trip to the Mergui, in 2002, was an eye opening and extremely intense experience. In the few months that I was there, our cook was bitten by a cobra, we were held by the military, captured by pirates, dynamited by local fishermen while in the water, shot at, and I came down with a debilitating case of dengue fever. For a person who believes that the quality of life is based on the number of adventures and experiences one has over a lifetime, not number of toys or money one has, this was for me nirvana…
Tigerman – An Infamous Pirate In The Region
Eventually our Thai boat driver zig zagged around the sprawling mountainous web of debris and found a place to land on the shore of the dusty little town of Kawthaung. Our driver did a hurried, uncomfortable, touch and go to unload his 5 or 6 unsuspecting passengers into an area of mass confusion and chaos, which wasn’t completely outside the norm of this wild little boarder town.
While I worked my way to the immigration intending get stamped into Myanmar, I was still unclear as to what exactly was going on. As I was sitting there, in the dank run down little office, a sun hardened man wearing a traditional longyi excitedly came bursting through the dilapidated old door franticly waving his hands, talking fast, and seemingly very concerned and worried. Through broken interpretation from the immigration officer I was able to ascertain that “22 people and a motorbike had just been killed” on the newly built wooden bridge on the outskirts of town. In the relative protection of Kawthaung proper, damage was limited, but just around the corner and less then a mile away from the very near Victoria Pt., it was an entirely different matter.
Bridge Collapse After The Tsunami
After a lot of confusion and uncertainty, I caught our small survey boat and headed out into the Archipelago. The normally crystalline blue green water was now the color of grey potato soup, with a blanket of trees and floating debris bobbing endlessly on the surface. Like all the boats in the region at the time, the boat we were on was very primitive and didn’t have a radio, depth finder, navigational equipment or electronics of any kind. Communication in these waters was passed from one boat to another like jungle drums in the forest.
Lampi Island Prior To The Tsunami
Eerily and cautiously, with all the debris in the water, we slowly worked our way to some of the outer islands without another boat in sight. The small fishing villages that we were familiar with seem to have disappeared. The water was so murky that we couldn’t see the normally beautiful pristine barrier reefs so we stopped cautiously a ¼ mile offshore of one of the villages and I swam to shore. It looked as though a bomb had gone off. Everything was gone…
We anchored that moonless night in flat eerily calm seas still very confused as to what was actually happening. As we lay on the hard deck, staring at the incredibly bright and mesmerizing stars, our boat was suddenly picked up and violently thrown from one side to the other as if some giant mythical creature had angrily risen from the watery depth and was trying to shake the startled and frightened contents out of our sleepy little boat. After a minute or two of fierce side-to-side rocking it gradually slowed then finally came to a stop. Amazingly, our sturdy old boat didn’t capsize and no one had been tossed into the inky black water. We all felt very lucky but none of us slept a wink all night after that. We were to learn later that this series of waves was generated from the after shocks of the second largest earthquake ever recorded.
We spent the next 3 days without seeing another boat or living soul. On the 4th day we came across a small local fishing boat and crew that was hungry and desperately thirsty, having not had anything to drink for days. The fishermen told us that flooding saltwater had tainted all of the watering holes and wells that are normally found among these beautiful islands, threatening the lives of the Moken and fishermen that heavily rely on them.
We gave the fishermen what food and water we had and then worked our way back to town as quickly as our old boat could slowly go.
It wasn’t until I returned to Thailand that I finally learned what had happened. The largest tsunami in modern times had devastated the coastlines of SE Asia and the Andaman Sea. Reaching as far as the east coast of Africa, the tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people and left 1.7 million people homeless in 18 different countries. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake generated from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, released the energy equivalent of 23,000 Nagasaki-type atomic bombs.
Khao Lak, Thailand Just After The Tsunami
On New Years Day, with little knowledge of the actual devastation but with the best intentions at heart, we loaded up our 2 pickup trucks fully laden with food, water, and emergency supplies and headed to the coastal town of Khao Lak Thailand, 120 miles to the south. We didn’t know it at the time, but this small coastal community was located in the most heavily damaged part of Thailand with a death toll of over 4,000 and unofficial estimates topping well over 10,000 poor souls.
Khao Lak, Thailand Just After The Tsunami
Burning Of Coffins In Khao Lak, Thailand After The Tsunami
We navigated through the gauntlet of debris filled roads with sadden wide eyes and tried to help out any way we possibly could. Giving food, water, and supplies to those in need, assisting with body recovery and helping with the successful rescue and release of two Indo Pacific Humpback Dolphins which had become trapped in a large decomposing cesspool of a pond over a mile inland.
Rescue Of Indo Pacific Humpback Dolphins
Passing Out Food To Kids In Khao Lak, Thailand After The Tsunami
With the tragedy of this event weighing heavily on us and with our growing concerns for the isolated and out of touch Moken and fishermen in the Mergui, we contacted friends, family, and businesses to help raise funds for basic supplies and fishing gear. Knowing at that time the resources within the Myanmar Government were very limited, we anxiously waited for permission from officials to try to help and assist the all but lost and forgotten Moken…
Over a decade later, as my wife and I pull up to the lively waterfront town of Kawthaung, I couldn’t help but reflect back and admire the courage and fortitude of the hardy people of this region and all that they had been thorough in the ensuing years after the tsunami. With a pang of excitement and intrepid anticipation I also couldn’t help but wonder what we would find and how we’d be touched on this next journey in the wild and magical land of Mergui Archipelago.
Sunset Over The Mergui
More images from around Southeast Asia can be found in our photo gallery.