Kawthaung and Mergui Archipelago, March 29-31

In the early morning of March 29 we moved Cyrene across the channel from Thailand to Myanmar. The arrival was quite exciting -- even viewed from the boat the border town of Kawthaung (photo 1) looked different to us, and bringing an independent sailboat into Myanmar is truly a frontier adventure. Similar to our arrival in India, Alex dinghied ashore to fetch our agent together with the immigration officials (actually just one official this time). Unlike India, everything was fairly straightforward and quick: after the fees were paid, checking in took a matter of 20 minutes. Once again the kids did an admirable job befriending the immigration officer (photo 2).

We surrendered our passports and in return acquired the mandatory "guide" who would accompany us for the duration of our time in Myanmar. While the guide can do some actual guiding on request, the expectation is that we set the itinerary and he just makes sure we stay within regulations. We'd also heard that guides may be willing to help out with tasks around the boat.

Naturally we were quite nervous about what our guide would be like. "Churchill" (the closest English name to his Burmese one; photo 3) is young, thoughtful, neat, and quiet. He's been guiding for six years with an average of two trips a month in the high season. In the off season he's chipping away at a law degree. Over the years he's been assigned to vessels varying from small sailboats like ours, to sport-fishing expeditions, to 30-person liveaboard dive charters, to super-yachts of the rich and famous. He has a decent command of English -- basic communication is successful more often than not.

If there's anything we could fault Churchill for so far, it's trying to be too helpful. From the start it was evident that he very much wants to help out in any way possible, while by now we're pretty set in our ways. After a couple of days we reached a good equilibrium: We conceded the dishwashing to Churchill (a salt-water chore nobody has ever been especially fond of) and we put him in charge of fishing -- he can't be worse at it than us. He also helps with our dive gear, which dramatically speeds up the rigmarole of getting in and out of the water. (While we're diving, instead of relaxing he insists on coiling lines and scrubbing the decks.) Most useful of all, however, is his six years of Mergui boating experience -- given the minimal published information about this huge area, Churchill's first-hand knowledge of where we can safely sail and anchor, and where the best spots are for island visits, snorkeling, and diving, is invaluable.

We spent several hours exploring Kawthaung before setting sail for the islands of the Mergui Archipelago. In town we developed quite an entourage: Churchill stuck with us, as did the friend he enlisted to help procure water and fuel, along with two schoolgirls who latched on at the start and didn't bid goodbye (requesting a "small tip") until we stepped onto our dinghy at the pier.

Myanmar does feel different. Although it's a vast simplification based on other places we've been, the appearance and demeanor of the people, and the general feel of the town, seem to bridge Thailand and India. One surprising difference is just how well many people speak English, perhaps a holdover from British colonization. When the 13 and 14 year old schoolgirls learned that Emily, who towered over them, is only 11, they exclaimed "Oh my god!", a teenage-girl phrase that apparently transcends international borders. (
One of the girls is pictured in photo 4; note her traditional face paint and the young boys' dyed hair.)

In Kawthaung we soon gravitated to the craft shops where the kids made numerous purchases with their accumulating souvenir allowance, well aware it was their one shopping spree in Myanmar. We also visited a lovely temple perched above town (photo 5, and the vantage point for find-Cyrene photo 6), browsed the local market, and had a superb lunch.
We've always sought out Burmese food at home, so having the real thing was quite a treat. Even dining didn't perturb our entourage, who sat with us sipping sodas and chatting with the waiters.

Finally we set sail for the islands. We were fortunate to share our very first anchorage with a group of Moken sea gypsies (photo 7). We'd heard quite a bit about these nomadic people who live in extended families on a single boat, don't keep track of time (e.g., they don't know their own ages), and have no word for "goodbye." Regardless of how different their lifestyle is, they got a good chuckle when Tim found a large conch shell on the beach with a hole perfect for blowing it like a trumpet -- which he did for a remarkably long and loud time.

The islands themselves are truly a remote paradise. There are more than 800 of them, nearly all uninhabited. They have steep hills covered in virgin rainforest, beautiful white-sand beaches, and most importantly for us, terrific coral reefs. The diving so far has been excellent, and we haven't yet reached what are thought to be the best diving areas. Look to the next travelog for detailed island reports and underwater photos.

We were hoping for no more major problems with the boat (who wouldn't?), but no such luck. For several days one of our two engines had been sounding odd -- odder and odder over time. We checked everything we could, but we couldn't pinpoint anything wrong and the engine seemed to be functioning as normal. More experienced sailors probably would have heeded the warning signs more diligently. One day the engine propeller literally disappeared, taking half of the propeller shaft with it. We're certainly fortunate Cyrene is a dual-engine boat. However, with one engine out the boat is more difficult to maneuver, and we certainly can't motor as fast when there's not enough wind for sailing. More importantly, if the other engine fails for any reason, we're in deep doo-doo. The broken engine can't be repaired until we return to Kawthaung, and possibly not until we're all the way back in Phuket. Our fingers are crossed that we'll manage to hobble along without significant alterations to our plans.

From reading and talking with other cruisers, and based on our own past experience, our steady stream of boat problems is still well within the normal range. (Even on short trips we've had bigger problems, notably the boat that took on water constantly and whose failing electricity rendered the bilge pump useless. We hand-bailed every few hours for the entire charter.) Many sailors refer to long-term cruising as repairing one's boat in exotic locations, punctuated by an occasional bit of sailing.

Next: Ten more days cruising the Mergui Archipelago's beautiful and remote islands

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