More Mergui Cruising, April 1-10
|Please forgive the length of this travelog, which covers a more extended time period than usual.
We had high hopes for our nearly two weeks in the Mergui Archipelago, and we weren't disappointed. Our time was divided among diving, beaches & exploring, a bit of culture, just enjoying the scenery and isolation, and more diving. Distances between interesting spots were relatively short, so usually we didn't sail more than a couple of hours each day.
The diving was superb indeed. There were many days when we did two dives, and only a few when we didn't dive at all. The water clarity was truly astounding in some places, as was the incredible profusion of soft corals in every color. (We've been to other places professing to be soft-coral capitals of the diving universe, but this has got to be it; photo 2.) The fish life was plentiful and varied everywhere, along with other goodies varying from cuttlefish to banded sea snakes to nudibranchs. We saw some small rays (photo 3) and sharks, but none of the really big variety, perhaps because we kept our dives relatively shallow -- the kids need something to look forward to in their future diving careers.
Diving in the Mergui Archipelago isn't nearly as established as in Thailand, but a few liveaboard dive boats do visit regularly. Thanks to a Thailand diving guidebook that also covers the Mergui area, and Churchill's knowledge of where the dive boats go most often, we had more information about the dive sites than we had for the Andaman Islands. Also, now that we're gaining experience as a diving family, we feel comfortable visiting a wider range of sites.
For underwater photos and short videos we use our pocket land camera (a Canon SD700, nothing fancy) inside a waterproof housing. It's simple to carry and operate, gets good results, and has become quite the hot commodity -- Jennifer, Tim, and Emily vie for its use on each dive. (Thank goodness Alex prefers to enjoy the scenery with his own eyes.) Photos 1-5 are a sampler from our rather large aggregate underwater photo collection, with all three photographers represented.
Beaches and Exploring
There were an endless number of islands to explore, most of them untouched with dense rainforest, miles of dinghy-friendly mangrove channels, and numerous beaches (photos 6-8). The kids haven't lost their passion for shell-collecting, and finding "rarities" was a piece of cake with so few visitors to these islands -- there's no tourism whatsoever except those who visit by boat. We tried hiking a couple of times, but we didn't last all that long. There aren't any established trails, and although animal trails can be picked up now and again, hiking largely means pushing and climbing one's way through dense mangroves and jungle (photo 9).
The birdwatching was terrific (with numerous hornbills a particular treat), and we saw a handful of other land animals, but overall the wildlife wasn't as readily accessible as we were expecting. Apparently the number of local fishing boats has increased dramatically in the last 2-3 years due to relaxed regulations, and as a result the wildlife has become more difficult to spot. Animals are scared away by the noise (long-tail engines give our dive-tank compressor a run for its money), and there's some subsistence hunting and trapping on the part of the fishermen. A recent scuffle between a wild elephant and a fishing boat (whose occupants may or may not have provoked the attack, depending on who you ask) was the talk of the islands during our visit. Score: Elephant 1, Fishing Boat 0
As a break from reefs and beaches, we visited the one significant village in the Mergui Archipelago, Makyone Galet. The numerous fishing and Moken boats were a hive of activity (photo 10). It was interesting as always to observe rural village life in a new country, we picked up some fruit and vegetables, helped a shop owner with an English-language camera she'd received as a gift from a relative in Rangoon, and best of all spent some time at the village monastery (photos 11 and 12).
We saw no other sailboats during our entire time, and just two commercial dive/adventure boats. In the Andaman Islands we felt special because only 60 private yachts visit each year. Well, it turns out the Mergui Archipelago sees only 10 yachts per year! It's too far from Phuket for the typical 1-2 week sailboat charter, and for world cruisers the cost must be a barrier -- most long-term sailors are on a tight budget, and there's no denying that the fees to visit Myanmar by boat are stiff.
Weather and Health
It was sunny and hot most of the time, although we had a few late afternoon thundershowers to keep things fresh, and a real storm that left the boat pitching considerably overnight. The water temperature is up to 84 degrees, two degrees higher than when we started sailing, even though we're moving north (away from the equator). We're heading into one of the hotter times of year in Southeast Asia, and it shows.
Thankfully there's nothing whatsoever to report on the health or injury front. Our mobile pharmacy and first-aid station have gone untouched.
Surviving with just one of the two engines turned out to be easier than we anticipated. It slowed us down some when we were motoring (fortunately we had enough wind to sail at least part of the time), and maneuvering was a bit trickier, but there was no significant impact on our plans. No other boat problems have cropped up, and we certainly have gotten fond of Cyrene. Emily's already pestering us for a future Cyrene charter!
After the first few days we became accustomed to having Churchill around. We stopped feeling guilty about all the chores he insisted on doing and started to enjoy the constant service. We may be in for a shock when he's gone and the work is back in our hands. We also came to rely on him more and more for information about the islands -- behind his quiet manner it became evident that his knowledge is extensive and accurate.
After a hiatus that somehow went unnoticed, the kids have resumed doing a bit of schoolwork most days. They should be fine for the year even if they don't do much more once the sailing is finished.
Several travelogs ago we reported that the food on the boat has been much better than in the camper, and really quite good on an objective scale. We're still doing very well in that regard, with no complaints on anyone's part. Some new developments haven't hurt:
One day we stopped at a beach with a small waterfall. Fresh water is a precious commodity at sea, so this beach is a popular stop for fishermen. We were no different from them, filling our water jug (photo 14) and taking the opportunity to shower and rinse some clothes. Cyrene carries enough fresh water for about three weeks of extremely frugal use: we do everything possible using salt water, and try to limit ourselves to one or two quick fresh-water rinses a day. Water and electricity are the two things we need to be conscious of day in and day out, although thanks to solar panels that augment engine recharging, the electricity has been holding up nicely.
In the early afternoon of April 10 we returned to the border town of Kawthaung. We "serviced" the boat (garbage off; fuel and water on), enjoyed another excellent Burmese meal, did a bit of grocery shopping, met with our agent to exchange Churchill back for our passports (a surprisingly quick transaction), then bid goodbye to Myanmar.
Next: We'll spend a day in Ranong, Thailand, right across the channel from Kawthaung, where we're looking forward to two exciting events: (1) Internet. (2) The boat charter company has generously agreed to drive a working engine from Phuket to Ranong (about four hours by road -- remember automobiles can travel 10 times faster than sailboats). With the broken engine replaced, we'll feel comfortable heading back to Phuket via our offshore friends the Surin and Similan Islands. We'd originally planned to go back along the coast, but when faced with the choice between a couple of coastal town visits and no diving, versus islands with attractive anchorages and excellent diving, well, the decision wasn't a difficult one. We still have plenty of time; the boat isn't due back in Phuket until April 22.