Mergui Archipelago – Home to a Nomadic Seafaring People

Mergui ArchipelagoThe islands that make up the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago in the Andaman Sea are mostly uninhabited. Some are made up of towerlike limestone formations pockmarked with caves and covered with tropical forests inland. The underwater topography, whether explored by snorkeling or diving, is equally striking, with alien-looking cuttlefish navigating around large, fragile corals. The people who do live here are known as Sea Gypsies to English speakers and as the Moken among themselves. They continue to live a traditional lifestyle, moving in flotillas to trade fish, mollusks, sea snails, and whatever other bounty can be foraged from the sea. The Mokens’ boats, called kabangs, are made from a single tree and when lashed together, these houseboats often become something of a small floating village.

This archipelago of 14,000 square miles remains relatively unexplored— as evidenced, in part, by the fact that British surveyors have recorded a total of 200 to 800 islands here, while locals put the number closer to 4,000. The main islands are accessible from Kawthaung on the mainland but there’s no regular transport to the outer islands.

Closed to travelers until 1997, the islands’ accommodations remain limited. One of the only hotels is the beachfront, bungalow-style Myanmar Andaman Resort on Fork (Mcleod) Island, which can arrange for every imaginable land or water excursion in the area. Two of the more noteworthy islands are Lon Khuet, where bird’s nests—a key ingredient in a soup considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine—are farmed in huge caverns, and the large and rugged Lampi Kyun, which features a mountainous interior, home to a wide variety of wildlife, including flying lemurs, crocodiles, sea otters, countless bird species, and the