There is one major difference between the white-sand beaches of Phu Quoc island, the picture-perfect resorts in the Maldives, the infinity pools at high-end Phuket properties, and the new luxury resorts hidden away in Asia’s newest island destination, the Mergui Archipelago.
The difference is that there are literally no other people to be found. The tropical resort islands have soft white sands, crystal clear waters, and stunning sunsets, but the exclusivity and privacy of the secret getaways mean pioneering visitors can enjoy the tropical paradises without the crowds encountered throughout South East Asia. The only other people you might see are waiters, chefs, service staff or resort activity managers.
There’s no mobile phone coverage, yet, and patchy wi-fi means that guests can have a complete digital detox
It is hard to put a price on the value of solitude, quiet, and immersion in the natural world, so the handful of newly opened eco-resorts are offering a seldom-found but much-needed therapeutic experience. There’s no mobile phone coverage, yet, and patchy wi-fi means that guests can have a complete digital detox.
The Mergui Archipelago, in case you didn’t know, is located within the boundaries of Myanmar (formerly Burma), but more easily accessed through the Thai town of Ranong, just across the wide river estuary from Kawthaung in southern Myanmar, the gateway to the resorts.
Over the last year, half a dozen resorts have had soft openings, signalling a new era in the region’s development. Once vital in sea trade routes but with a past of smuggling and piracy, the island group scattered off the coast is now seen as Myanmar’s hidden jewel. The seasonal nature of the area, however, means the resorts are only open outside the rainy season, welcoming guests from October to May.
Dive operators were the first to venture back in among the 800 islands in the 1990s, but it is only with the opening up of Myanmar for foreign tourism that any development has happened on the largely uninhabited islands. Improved accessibility means it is possible to get to the islands within a day from almost anywhere in Asia. For example, from Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Phu Quoc, and Da Nang, there are around 80 flights a week to Bangkok’s Don Mueang, which connect to services to Ranong, costing as little as US$150 return. Visitors can also go through the hub of Phuket, which is five hours away from Ranong by car.
An easily obtained tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm) is required to enter Myanmar, though nationals of most other ASEAN nations do not require the US$50 visa. Most resorts have set departure dates and times (around midday to 1pm) for the speedboat transfers out to the remote islands, which lie 90-minutes to three hours away from Kawthaung. The long boat ride, sometimes punctuated by sightings of dolphins, is rewarded with arrival at an untouched world of sandy beaches, lush forest and well-designed barefoot luxury resorts.
While the resorts provide peaceful views of sand, sea and sky – some even have swimming pools – any island holiday can be tailor-made with a range of activities on offer, from snorkelling and diving, paddle-boarding and kayaking, through to nature hikes, birdwatching, and cultural visits. Visitors can learn about the sea-faring ethnic group the Moken, also known as sea gypsies, who have lived in the area for centuries foraging and collecting.
The waters around the islands teem with sea life, with coral gardens providing prime spots for snorkelling and diving. At the premier Wa Ale Island Resort, recently rated the top hotel in Myanmar and one of the best in Asia, an innovative conservation project is protecting nesting sea turtle eggs.
The Boulder Bay Eco Resort, powered by solar panels, has on-site marine biologists involved in research and education – with guests able to learn more about the fragile eco-system. There is a marine expert at Awei Pila too, who leads nature treks and visits to the nearby Moken village. The resorts are keen to preserve the diversity under the water, and operators such as Victoria Cliff at Nyaung Oo Phee has an agreement with local fishermen not to fish near its snorkelling spots, in return for paying a fair price for sustainably harvested produce.
Showcasing bohemian chic design, barefoot luxury and wildlife conservation, Wa Ale Island Resort (waaleresort.com) features natural-hued tented villas and fantasy jungle treehouses. Service at the resort is personal, the activities on offer will push your boundaries and give you an appetite for the fresh, delicious cuisine prepared by a safari chef using home-grown and harvested produce.
Perhaps the perfect island is found at the eco-friendly Boulder Bay Eco-Resort (boulderasia.com), where a balancing boulder sits on a rock among the tidal coral reef. New evidence suggests the island playground may have provided inspiration to the creator of Peter Pan’s Neverland. Visitors can find plenty of inspiration exploring the island’s hiking trails, with half a dozen bays, as well as a marine research facility staffed by marine biologists, dive instructors and educators. There is even an innovative bamboo-architecture yoga shala on one private beach.
There are 24 air-conditioned tent yurts set along a sandy beach at Awei Pila resort (aweipila.com) with its centrepiece curved infinity pool and dining area. An activity-focused resort with a relaxed island vibe, the menu includes underwater adventures from the PADI scuba diving centre with the island’s marine biologist, hiking through the jungle to call in on the nearby Moken settlement, or being dropped off a long, deserted beach for your own Robinson Crusoe experience.
One of the first resorts to open where the coral diversity and marine life are the main drawcards is Victoria Cliff Resort Nyaung Oo Phee (nyaungoopheeresort.com). There is a choice of half-a-dozen prime snorkelling sites nearby with a mix of soft and hard corals, including spectacular sea-fan, staghorn and harp corals, as well as clownfish, and purple-sheafed anemones. Popular with daytrippers, those who stay overnight in the beach villas and rooms get to experience a Myanmar dance performance and fire show.
The same local company also runs a mainland hotel, Victoria Cliff Hotel & Resorts Kawthaung (victoriacliff.com), ideal for before and after island trips, and famed for its dramatic sunsets. With swimming pools, a lake, and well-maintained gardens, the Kawthaung accommodation also arranges trips to the natural Maliwan hot springs.
The other good option close to Kawthaung and Ranong is the Grand Andaman Hotel (grandandamanisland.com), a casino hotel now more family-friendly focusing on dining, shopping and relaxation. The island resort, a short boat ride from Kawthuang, has direct boat transfers across to Ranong, and foreigners from Thailand can visit without a visa, just by paying US$10 cash for an area border pass.
As well as the island resorts, the archipelago can also be explored by boat, with charter boats available for dive trips, as well as cabins offered aboard scheduled trips during the season.
An old-fashioned yet delightful way of slow travel into the archipelago is with Island Safaris (islandsafarimergui.com), on the wooden cargo vessel, the Sea Gipsy. The junk has been converted to provide open-air gazebo berths. With departures twice a week, different itineraries take in sandy bays with no footprints, and provide an opportunity for snorkelling, swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding, or just lazing on the top deck.
For this ‘last island frontier’, there’s one more piece of advice, and that is to go sooner than later, so you can be among the first to set foot on the pristine beaches and uncharted islands.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning New Zealand travel writer, based in Asia. He is currently working on a coffee-table book about the Mergui Archipelago.
Featured photo by Julian Ray