“It was at that cafe I was arrested for the third time,” says Shell, nodding his head towards a building on our right as we crawl through traffic in downtown Yangon. “I was in prison for 15 years, on and off,” he smiles, like it’s no big deal. I’m starting to rather like my taxi driver.
An ex-political prisoner, he and his former cellmates Bobo and Talky set up Golden Harp Taxi Service to heave travellers across Burma’s former capital. Their crime? Merely to have been deemed political activists by the country’s oppressive military rulers. Since elections in 2010, hundreds of political prisoners have been released as part of a reform programme as the country makes tentative steps towards democracy.
It’s a strange day — the streets of Yangon, the ex-political prisoner, and me — and at times I’m not sure how to respond to Shell, who was only released in 2012. He’s very matter-of-fact about his past. I want to ask, “What were the prisons like? Why have you got a swastika tattooed on your forearm? And do you think you’ll ever be sent back to prison?” But I’m aware this is pretty insensitive and the language barrier is an issue, so I nod and we chat about Manchester United and London and how hot it is compared to the UK.
I do learn, however, that he married last year and that the taxi service is something of a lifeline for other ex-political prisoners looking for work. Their earnings go towards a deposit for another taxi, to provide a fellow detainee with a job. Yet, he explains, with sadness, “there are many — hundreds — who are still in prison”.
We plough past careering taxis, monks snoozing in the afternoon glare, drifting scents of spicy samosas and pork buns, and raisin-skinned old ladies selling wooden jewellery on the roadside, before Shell pulls up at the city’s crowning glory, just before sunset: the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda. Within minutes of entering the ‘Golden Pagoda’ — said to be encased in five tonnes of the metal and to contain relics of Buddha himself — I spot a monk in his rusty orange robes discreetly taking photos of me. He’s followed by a gaggle of giggling teenage girls, snapping on their phones, laughing hysterically at the results. I smile awkwardly and move on, my bare feet — compulsory when visiting this 2,600-year-old wonder — narrowly avoiding puddles. I stop to take a couple of shots of burning incense when a young local lad — in the traditional skirt-like longyi — approaches and shows me how to ‘wash’ a Buddha sculpture with water, while locals offer up prayer flags and handfuls of flowers.
It’s strangely serene, despite the number of visitors, and I spend nearly two hours rooted to the spot, staring at Europeans with bumbags and bewildered stares; locals keen to impart knowledge — $1 for each nugget of information; and worshipers whispering prayers to Buddha, the scent of incense hanging heavily in the air.
To the coast
Yangon and Burma’s other inland curiosities — Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay — may be the places on everyone’s lips, ever since pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced she would welcome ‘responsible tourism’, but I’m off for a little adventure in the south, to the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago.
Scattered like seeds across some 250 miles of the Andaman Sea, this cluster of 800 largely uninhabited islands — protruding above the inky blue surface like the spikes of a dragon’s spine — have remained off the radar due to government-imposed travel restrictions. The archipelago was strictly off limits to tourists until 1996, when the first dive boats sailed into its waters. You can’t just show up and rock around the islands, from one beach party to the next — this isn’t the new Thailand, as I’d first suspected. Only certain tour boats with special permits are allowed into the area — and I’d booked a week aboard one such vessel.
Hopping off the pier in the southern town of Kawthaung, my South African captain for the week, Mike, bundles my bag and I into a motorised dingy and navigates us to the catamaran. He’s the type of bloke to glance at the sky as though clouds are clocks or signposts, and comes out with great little nuggets about the natural world that I know I’ll end up imitating to sound impressive.
“Welcome to Simile.” I look up and a tanned arm scoops me aboard. The arm belongs to Marie, a fellow Brit who’s spent years in the Canaries and Cape Verde, before landing this enviable gig as chef, alongside boyfriend, Mike, and charming guide Hein from Mandalay. I’m joined by eight other travellers, including Megan, an Aussie who’s spent the past few months hopping from Sardinia to Sri Lanka; octogenarians Babs and Alex, who tell me they refer to sunburnt Brits as ‘luminous poms’; Irish entrepreneur Mark; and financial whiz Jen, who’d recently relocated from the US to Singapore. It soon becomes clear that none of us know the slightest thing about sailing, apart from Canadian Alex — my cabin roomie — who’d spent a year working aboard boats in the Caribbean and Thailand.
But we’re in good hands — I look down at my milky white arms and then across to our bronzed skipper with his sun-bleached dreads, who’s clearly something of a sea dog. I feel like such a Brit abroad.
“You can do as much sailing as you want — or as little,” explains Mike. And after settling on deck, we pull anchor and launch into the archipelago, our bodies cooking in the midday heat, bidding farewell to civilisation for six nights.
Being both new to Burma and to sailing aboard a catamaran, it doesn’t take me long to realise I’m hooked. And it requires just one stupefying, jaw-dropping view — of an island with custard-yellow sand — to convince me I’m falling head over heels in love with this country. It’s the kind of place that makes you grin like an idiot for no apparent reason.
Lots of people fantasise about getting away from it all, and in this off-the-grid archipelago — barely brushed by the hand of modernity — we’re alone, save the odd fisherman aboard hand-built boats, with not a strand of phone signal or flicker of wi-fi.
It’s sunset. Mike docks us in a bay with just a couple of long tail boats — seeking squid — for company, their crooked lights, like bobbing fireflies, dancing in the moonlight. With a soundtrack of reggae and the reverberating whistles of the cicadas on shore, it’s hard to see how a trip into the waters of Burma could get much better.
By day two we’re all settled in and chatting like old chums. Any fears of boredom or being too close for comfort are sent packing — it turns out all decisions are good when you’re on Simile. Napping on deck? Why not. Game of cards? Of course. Lying on her nets beneath the stars, waxing euphoric with the help of beers and playlists? Ah, every night. And the hardest decision you’ll have to make is whether to dive into the cool blue before or after breakfast — feeling the sweet, soft waves wash over me is the best wake-up call I’ve ever encountered.
“Have you guys seen phosphorescence before?” we hear Mike yelp from beyond Simile‘s rails one evening and hop over to catch him riding the paddleboard, his path illuminated by green flecks, like electrical sparks being spat out of the water’s surface.
Neighbouring Thailand doesn’t have the monopoly on aquatic life — thrilling encounters with manta rays, whale sharks, humpbacks and turtles are all possible here. It’s also (harmless) jellyfish territory. Swimming beside these creatures is mesmerising, like some trippy interpretation of a gelatinous alien, their purplish, translucent heads drifting in isolation. During one snorkelling session, we hover over coral strands, spotting clown fish with inquisitive eyes dart out of sight and big-lipped silvery fellas staring haughtily at the gawping snorkellers above.
There’s one aspect of the trip I’m feeling uneasy about. It’s day five and we drop anchor beside Bo Cho Island, home to the Moken people. This nomadic ethnic group — the human soul of the archipelago — have roamed these waters for around 250 years, and according to one of their tales: ‘The Moken are born, live, and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea.’ They take what they need from the sea — expertly diving and beachcombing for fish and molluscs. Their world is beginning to fade, though.
In the 1990s, the military dictatorship ordered some Moken to settle on Bo Cho Island, where a gold pagoda was built, a crocodile was imprisoned in a concrete shed and a village sprang up, littered with broken glass and plastic. I feel awkward as I stroll down the sandy village path, camera in hand. The kids are loving it — excitedly laughing at the pictures I take of them while they throw themselves into cartwheels, scale branches with their bare feet, and yelp, “Hello, hello.” The adults are not quite as enthused, however. Not unfriendly, merely uninterested — a huddle of women, sheltering from the sun’s rays beneath a stilted home, play cards and smoke pungent cigars; laddish types play snooker in the rudimentary billiard hall; thirty-somethings stretch out besides higgledy-piggledy shops selling dried puffer fish, Thai rum, peculiar-shaped fruits and bottles of Coke.
I can’t help feeling this is some kind of tourist attraction, and the attraction never invited us. The Moken are, by all accounts, fiercely private individuals, usually returning to live on land only during the monsoon season. My hope is they are left to drift from land to sea and back again when they choose.
The following day, Mike moors us at Great Swinton Island, its white-sand beach ebbed by soft waves, like a billowing blanket of turquoise silk. I dive off the boat and pull myself on to the paddleboard I’d been eyeing up — slowly straightening to a standing position, my knees quickly buckle beneath me and I topple straight into the cool blue. I quickly get the hang of it, though, and paddle away from Simile, marvelling at the island, backed by thick green jungle where not a footprint marks the sand. Until we kayak out to its shores later that evening, that is, as some of the boys collect firewood for our evening bonfire and beach barbecue of freshly caught fish. Beneath a cracking blanket of star-smeared skies, I perch on a log beside the fire, my feet burrowing into the velvety sand, my hand clutching a glass of wine. I take myself away from the group for a few minutes, lying in the sand, eyes fixed to the constellations, the sublime hissing of the waves filling my ears. I begin grinning like an idiot again.
Days slip by in an amalgamation of sunbathing, swimming, superb coconut curries and staring into the depths. Standing at the front of the boat, surrounded by a seething blue monster that has no regard for your life is pretty sobering for a city dweller. Not one foreigner comes into our midst until the end of the trip when we dock at Kho Yinn Khwa Island — home to the only resort in the archipelago.
Rather than wallow in the water, I take a walk instead, up to the highest point of the island. Up and over twisting roots, brushing past swaying vines and along paths bordered by thick jungle, the sound of cicadas’ wings growing louder as I near the peak. Splashing bottled water onto my forehead, insects nibbling my ankles, it’s not long before I’m using all four limbs to haul myself up the rocky incline to the summit.
Catching my breath and perched on a rock-bound seat — where the sky meets the sea, the jungle tumbles to sweeps of sand, and the glow of the sun’s rays intensifies as the clock strikes five — I’m feeling torn. The trip has been incredible, but what scares me is the potential swarm of investors, ready to smear the beaches with resorts, spas and casinos. What I’ve discovered is a stunning yet fragile part of the world — where mother nature’s highs are stratospheric — that, up until now, has thankfully slipped off the tourism map. Only time will tell whether its future, and the Moken’s, will be protected.