Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago has been open to visitors for quite a while. However, thanks to strict tourism control, most of the islands are still in pristine condition. Only a few have accommodation for tourists, and on each of those islands, there is only one operator that won the concession to run the service, the Bangkok Post writes.
A dessert vendor in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost town, asked me in Thai if I was a Thai.
“Thammai phut Thai dai,” I expressed wonder at her abilities to speak my language. She smiled and replied that she had spent six years in Ranong.
Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised. There are so many Myanmar nationals working in Thailand. And Ranong, where I crossed the border from, is one of the cities with a large number of Myanmar workers.
Exploring Kawthaung on foot while waiting for a staff member from the Awei Pila Resort who was coming to greet me as I got off the transborder boat, I met a few more amicable locals who spoke Thai to me. In Bangkok, I must admit, their accent might sound a little funny but here on this side of the border, it made me feel warmly welcome.
Soon after lunch, I walked back to the pier to meet the resort’s greeter. He led me and other guests to the speedboat that would take us to Pila Island where the resort is located.
While better-known islands of the Mergui Archipelago, such as Nyaung Oo Phee, Cock’s Comb and Cockburn, are not so far from Ranong, Pila is located further north. Even with the powerful speedboat, it took us two hours to get there.
But the long boat ride was worth it. Pila Island and this part of the Mergui Archipelago reminded me of Mu Ko Surin, the group of islands off Phangnga’s Kuraburi just south of Ranong. It was like I had travelled 30 years back in time before mass tourism invaded.
Thanks to Mu Ko Surin’s status as a marine National Park, much of the natural environment on the islands are still in decent condition. But with very few tourists, Pila is virtually undisturbed. From the beach where the exclusive resort is located, I looked out to the sea, and all the way to the horizon. Except for the resort’s own vessels, I saw no other boat. For Thai islands sharing the Andaman Sea, this is a rare sight.
At the resort, I met a guide who spoke fluent Thai, a Thai spa manager and four Thai guests from Ranong. For my new Ranong friends, holidaying in the Mergui Archipelago is easy. It’s pretty simple for a Bangkokian like me, too. I just needed to take a short flight from the capital.
Crossing the border from Ranong to Kawthaung is a lot simpler than it seems. After a quick initial check of your travel document at the immigration booth located right at the Saphan Pla pier, you can take one of these long-tail boats to the checkpoint near the open sea and on to Myanmar’s southernmost town. On the way, your boat will pass Koh Sarani, an islet with a golden statue of Guanyin Chinese deity. It serves as a military checkpoint.
Situated at the southern tip of Myanmar, the border town of Kawthaung is home to friendly people of diverse ethnicities and cultures, from Bamar, Mon and Thai to Malay and Indian, among others. Quite a few of the locals can communicate in Thai; some have crossed to Ranong many times. Roaming the town’s streets and market and visiting some places of worship, can make a charming and worthwhile experience.
On Pila Island, there are two communities of Moken, the gypsies of the Andaman Sea. As in Thailand, most of the Moken here no longer lead a nomadic life. They have settled on land. However, fishing continues to be a major part of their livelihood. So are their traditional dugouts, called kabang.
From Awei Pila Resort, I joined a trekking trip to these villages on the other side of the island. These seafarers now keep a lot of dogs. But that, of course, is not the only change that is happening in the communities. Concerns are being raised about the increase in gambling and alcohol consumption.
Trying local food is a kind of adventure in itself. In Kawthaung, I dropped by a few shops and stalls. As far as food is concerned, the restaurant where I had rice topped with two dishes (pretty much like the Thai khao gaeng-style shops) was my favourite. The place was located in a lane off the main road marked on Google Maps as Penguin. By the way, my lunch plus a litre bottle of water cost me only 30 baht.
Meanwhile, Ranong itself is blessed with various attractions, among the most well-known are the Phu Khao Ya (Grassy Hill), the Raksa Warin Hot Springs and Ngao Waterfall of its namesake national park. The first also serves as a popular picnic spot for townspeople, especially during this season when children can enjoy flying kites. To be honest, this is an activity I haven’t seen for years. All of these places are just a short drive from the city.
These days many cities in Thailand have walking streets. Ranong is no exception. In Muang district, there are two, one in the downtown area that is held every Saturday and the other in tambon Ngao every Sunday.
Thais can use ID cards to apply for a temporary border pass, which is good for seven days, and many times cheaper than using a passport and visa. Tourists of other nationalities require a visa, which can be applied for in advance at evisa.moip.gov.mm.
A 25-minute long-tail boat ride between Ranong and Kawthaung costs 50 baht per person. Each boat can carry up to 10 passengers. Life vests are provided.
Unlike in Thailand, tourists are not free to island hop in the Mergui Archipelago, you need to join a tour group organised by an agency with the right to access your chosen destination. To go to Pila Island, the all-inclusive packages of Awei Pila, which is part of the Myanmar-based Memories Group, begins at Ranong airport and ends there as well. Check out memoriesgroup.com.
You can use Thai baht in Kawthaung, but not Thai time. Myanmar is 30 minutes behind.
A local internet SIM card in Kawthaung costs around 50 baht. Don’t expect them to work when you are far offshore or on remote islands, though.
Daily airline services to Ranong are available at Don Mueang Airport. The flight takes about an hour and 20 minutes.