Where the Indian Ocean rolls toward Myanmar’s southwestern coast, a lacework of 800 islands rises, fringed with shimmering beaches of no footprints.
Here in the islands of the Mergui archipelago, hornbills break a primeval silence as they flutter through soaring jungle canopy. Pythons slumber on the gnarled roots of eerie mangrove forests. Only rarely will you spot the people who live here: the Moken, shy, peaceful nomads of the sea.
The Mergui archipelago has been called the “Lost World,” but outsiders have found it — first fishermen, poachers and loggers, and now developers and high-end tourists. The people losing this world are the Moken, who have lived off the land and the sea for centuries.
The islands are thought to harbor some of the world’s most important marine biodiversity and are a lodestone for those eager to experience one of Asia’s last tourism frontiers before, as many fear, it succumbs to the ravages that have befallen many once-pristine seascapes.
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As the world closes in, the long-exploited Moken are rapidly diminishing in numbers and losing the occupations that sustained them for generations. Though they are known as “sea gypsies,” very few still live the nomadic life, and only some aging men can fashion the “kabang,” houseboats on which the Moken once spent much of every year.
Their island settlements are awash with trash and empty liquor bottles, signs of the alcoholism that has consumed many Moken lives. They eventually may share the same fate as some of their cousins in neighboring Thailand who have become exotic photo opportunities near highly developed tourist areas.
“Before it was easy to earn money, to find products of the sea. You could easily fill a bucket with fish. But now many Burmese are pursuing the same livelihoods,” said Aung San, resting under the trees of Island 115 with some 20 Moken men, women and children. “The life of the Moken is becoming harder and harder. So many Moken men are dying.”
The former military rulers of long-isolated Myanmar kept the archipelago off-limits to foreign visitors until 1996. A nominally civilian government took over in 2011, but tourism remains relatively low. Some 2,000 tourists visited last year — that’s about 2.5 per island.
One hotel so far
To date only one hotel exists, the Myanmar Andaman Resort on a bay on McLeod Island. But a grab-the-best-island race is being run among Burmese and foreign developers, with a dozen concessions already granted. A long jetty and two helicopter pads have been built and nine bungalows are under construction on the stunning but rather unwelcomely named Chin Kite Kyunn — Mosquito Bite Island. It is leased by Tay Za, believed to be Myanmar’s richest tycoon.
The website of one development company, Singapore’s Zochwell Group, advertises the island it hopes to develop as “The Next Phuket.” Zochwell is negotiating a lease to build a marina, casino, hotels and a golf course.
Visitors, almost all traveling aboard yachts or dive boats, invariably fall under Mergui’s spell.
“There was no infrastructure, no towns, no streets, nothing. a maritime Shangri-La. Nobody in our group had seen anything like it. We were absolutely enchanted,” said Christoph Schwanitz, editor of a China business magazine who came a year ago and now is part owner of Meta IV, a $1 million yacht offering cruises.
Last September, a super-yacht carried a Russian couple to a “unique Robinson Crusoe setting” together with harps, xylophones and chanting Buddhist monks imported for a deserted-island wedding.
Myanmar’s minister of hotels and tourism, Htay Aung, said the islands will be promoted, but that protecting the environment and “minimizing unethical practices” are top priorities.
For the time being, however, the region remains a free-for-all, with no overall management plan for tourism or the environment. Nor is there a known blueprint for the precarious future of the Moken, whom French anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff describes as “the soul of the archipelago.”
For centuries they roamed the islands, worshipping spirits and reciting long epics of a mythical past. They collected mollusks, crabs and sea cucumbers, speared fish, hunted and dived deep to find valuable pearl oysters.
Today, most have been moved into settlements by the government or driven to find work on the mainland, where they labor on mines and farms.
About 2,000 Moken are believed to inhabit the archipelago, significantly reduced through migration, intermarriage with Burmese and deaths of males from rampant alcohol and drug abuse.
Though tourism is just getting started here, industry has already taken a heavy toll, including dynamite fishing, illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
Adrian Zdrada, marketing manager for the Myanmar Andaman Resort, said the government could create “sustained tourism, like on the Galapagos. … But it’s a dream that will never happen. They will just sell and lease as many islands as they can. It will be a Thailand scenario. It will be another Phuket.”
Phuket and other Thai islands adjoining the Mergui archipelago to the south were once similar to the Lost World. Today, Phuket’s beaches are packed with tourists, luxury high-rise hotels and jerry-built beer bars draped with prostitutes.
The answer in Myanmar may be eco-tourism, but even that is problematic, at least for the Moken.
Khin Maung Htwe, who has worked with anthropologists, said reorienting the largely illiterate Moken from their deeply rooted lifestyles and occupations to being nature guides or hotel staff would prove difficult.
“We just want to do what we are doing. We don’t have the knowledge or motivation to do any other work,” said Moken fisherman Aung San. “We live here. We don’t want to go anywhere else.”