Tourism only arrived on the Mergui, or Myeik, Archipelago in 1997. Negotiations between the Rupublic of the Union of Myanmar and the country's various tour operators came to a close with a deal that they could finally access one of the biggest marine life reserves in the world. Whilst legally accessible, the islands have remained a hidden paradise which only the most intrepid, and financially sound, of Myanmar's visitors choose to explore.
"The type of traveller who enjoys Mergui is someone who values being the first one in a region, the adventure of exploration and the idea that every day you have the chance to discover something totally new," Nikko Karki, director of Indonesia-based Indo Yachts, told CNN in an interview.
"The islands you Google won't show up. No one has written anything about them. The photos you take will be original. If you dive, you'll be exploring a new underwater world. It's unlikely you'll see another boat the entire time you're there."
The only way to visit these islands is by hiring a yacht. Sebastien Gallardo, cruise director of Dunia Baru, an Indonesian ironwood yacht, also says they are the most environmentally friendly way to reach the islands. "Yachts are the ideal means for visiting isolated areas," he told CNN. "The yachts leave no traces of pollution behind and obviously make no changes to the island landscapes."
Despite opening up to visitors, parts of the archipelago are yet to be explored by anyone other than their native inhabitants, the Moken. Known also as Sea Gypsies, their nomadic lifestyle sees them moving regularly from island to island in kabangs, handmade boats which remain their only form of transport.
Originally from the south of China, they are thought to have arrived in the area around 4,000 years ago and have since been exploited by everyone from the British to the Japanese, forced to change their traditional way of life to work in mines and factories. More recent attempts by the Thai and Burmese government to confine them to national parks as a tourist attraction were revealed by National Geographic in the early 2000s.
Though the archipelago remains pristine and entirely undeveloped, save for the yachts which sail in every now and then, the Moken way of life is steadily being restricted. Fishing bans are leaving them hungry and moves by resort developers to claim ownership of certain islands are restricting their movement.
Many have already been forced to abandon the islands and instead integrate into life in Thailand and the Burmese mainland. How long they'll survive is not sure, though it could be a matter of years once mass tourism moves in. For now everything depends on the Burmese government and its management of the zone, but little help seems to be coming from them so far.
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