Sunshine & Culture on a Mergui Archipelago Tour | Review
Sitting in our apartment I am lucky enough to have incredible views out over the ocean. After 2 months of living in Myeik, however, that’s about as close to the water as I had gotten. Most travellers coming to Myeik are here as to join a Mergui Archipelago tour. While I can see the islands of the archipelago in the distance it wasn’t until I was invited to join a tour with Mergui Dolphin that I got to explore them for myself.
Since moving to Myanmar we have been busy with getting settled and have done a very poor job of exploring. It was nice to finally get out and see some of my new country, as I have previously only explored Yangon. In this post, I will give you an honest review of their Mergui Archipelago tour to Smart and Done Island. Find out how to plan your trip to the southern part of Myanmar and about the archipelago.
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About the Mergui Archipelago
The Mergui Archipelago is southern Myanmar’s chain of islands. There are over 800 islands located in the archipelago many of which have been completely untouched by tourism and foreigners. If you are trying to create a mental image of where this is, picture Thailand and the skinny tail that comes from the southwest. On the western side between Bangkok and Phuket where is where you will find the Mergui archipelago. Alternatively, check the map below.
While Thailand’s islands are busy and overrun with tourists, here you will share the islands with the local Moken villages – also known as Sea Gypsies. All of the islands are very different. The closest to the mainland are surrounded by dense mangrove forests. While the further from the mainland the more the islands turn to white-sand beaches and tropical rainforest.
The name Mergui comes from the former name of Myeik. Like is common with many names in Myanmar many have been changed to remove the names given to them during the British colonisation. This is the same for the name change from Burma to Myanmar.
Mergui island map
Mergui Archipelago travel
Access to Myeik and the islands were closed to foreigners until recent years. While the area is now open the government still puts heavy regulations and requires permits for foreigners heading to the islands. These permits also come at a cost. I am not sure exactly what the cost is for a tourism company to obtain a permit. Although this is why prices to the islands are not considered cheap for Asian standards.
I myself was shocked to hear that a day trip to the islands, regardless of which company you choose will set you back around $80 USD.
How to get to the Myanmar islands
There are two gateway locations for exploring the islands. The first is Myeik at the northern end of the archipelago. The second is Kaw Thoung at the southern end which borders Ranong in Thailand. The islands closest to the Thai/Myanmar border are busier and get many day trip visitors coming from other areas of southern Thailand. While the northern islands see more domestic tourism.
Getting to Myeik is very easy with daily flights from Yangon with Air KBZ and Myanmar National Airlines. Compare prices of flights.
The trip I joined was the Done Waterfall – Done Nyaung Mine Village – Smart Island one. Find out more about the trip and the itinerary on the Mergui Dolphin website.
Departure for the islands
The day starts between 7:00 and 7:30 am when you are picked up at your hotel and brought to the boat dock. As customs has to clear permits of passengers each day, departure time varies between 8:00 and 8:30 am.
The speedboat we were on for the day was comfortable with the 14 guests, myself and 3 crew members. There is a large shaded undercover area and the open front cushioned bow section. I chose to sit up the front in the sun and lathered up on sunscreen. Although it would have been hot, when the boat was underway the temperature was perfect. I was the only western tourist on the boat with a large extended family from central Myanmar. They took me under their wing and they made the day a lot of fun.
After a relaxing hour of cruising on the calm seas, past the mangroves and into increasingly clearer waters we arrived at the Done waterfall (silent ‘e’ – pronounced Don). We pulled up next to a couple of local fishing boats that they were refilling their water tanks and unloaded. After climbing some strategically placed ladders we were led to natural viewing areas and spots to splash in the water coming off the falls.
After around 5 minutes the other tour groups started to arrive. Once the other boats arrived there were a lot of people trying to take photos and climb up the side of the waterfall and we were lucky to have arrived first. We spent half an hour here before loading back into the boat and headed to the local Moken village.
The Done waterfall was very picturesque. I preferred the view from the sea and didn’t think it necessary to climb up it. Although the local tourists seemed to love that part. Unfortunately, all the boats head here at the same time as it is only accessible during certain tides.
Arriving at the Moken village
The Moken village was on the same island as the waterfall and took around 20 minutes to reach. As you come in towards the island you envision living life like the Sea Gypsies with their homes perched high above the sand on stilts. The island is covered in dense vegetation and the shoreline full of coconut trees making it look very tropical.
We docked the boats in the ocean and climbed off the end getting a little wet in the process. None of us seemed to mind as it was nice to cool off a little. The domestic tourists were instructed to buy snacks for the village children in the local store and soon after we were walking towards the villagers’ homes.
The main path was parallel to the ocean and obviously had been set up for the tourists coming from Myeik. There was shaded seating on the beachside and kitchens on the other. After a short walk, we arrived at the waiting village children who snatched the food out of everyone’s hands. I actually found the entire process really terrible. I didn’t like seeing the tourists take photos while in return the kids were introduced to this unhealthy diet.
On the positive side, it was nice to get the opportunity to walk through their village and our guide happily answered all the questions. We walked past homes on stilts and areas for drying fish and preparing betel nut – the red stuff you will notice the locals chewing and spitting.
Our delicious lunch
Lunch was a beautiful fresh seafood buffet. The villages were finishing preparing it as we arrived and it definitely made our stomachs grumble as we passed. Although the lunch spread looked delicious, the family invited me to dine with them. They had packed traditional Myanmar dishes from their area. I had gladly accepted the invite although wished my stomach was big enough to try the local seafood meal also.
The whole meal period was very relaxed with lots of laughter. I bought a coconut for 1,000 kyat (.70c US) and after drinking the liquid had it cut open to enjoy the flesh.
Off to Smart Island
Once we were back on the boat, it was another half an hour to reach Smart Island. The boat dropped us off at one end of the beach. This end was shaded and didn’t have the crowds that came from the other boats. This side of Smart Island was a rocky beach with clear water. It felt wonderful to finally jump into the water and go swimming.
Everyone was happy swimming around in the protected waters without any waves or currents. When everyone had cooled down and taken photos we walked as a group to the other side of the island. The island narrows in the centre and is just a short 5-10 minute walk from one side to the next.
The other side of Smart Island had a white sandy beach and unique rock formations standing up from the sand. The main formation was a few stories high and very narrow with a walkway underneath. It was definitely cool. There was less shade on this side, but I managed to find an area to put my towel. In total, we spent around 2.5 hours on Smart Island swimming and lazying around.
The last stop before heading back was to go snorkelling. Just around the bend from the beach we anchored the boat and donned our snorkel gear. Although it was a short snorkel trip, I was pleasantly surprised with the site and found the coral to be very healthy. There were also lots of anemone and clownfish species.
Heading back to Myeik
It was an hour and a half to get back to Myeik and everyone was much quieter on the return than they were heading out to the islands. Just before we arrived at the Myeik dock, we took one final stop at the reclining Buddha that you can see from Myeik foreshore.
I hadn’t packed appropriate clothing and didn’t feel comfortable going into the area with my shorts. However, the family insisted I went with them and found me a sarong to wrap around my waist. The whole day was a true indication of the kindness of the Myanmar people.
The tour ended at 5:30 pm once we had pulled up at the dock. There was a shuttle waiting to take everyone back to their hotels.
Thoughts on the Myeik islands tour
Overall, the day was a lot of fun. I loved the combination of nature, culture and food on the tour. Although it was busy. Everyone of the tour companies in Myeik head to the same place at the same time. Around 6-8 boatloads of people are at Smart Island together. So although there are many untouched islands in the archipelago this isn’t something you see.
Although there are ways to get away from the crowds. Mergui Dolphin is a good company to go with because they actively try to avoid the crowds. Whether by leaving first, so their guest can get a few minutes to themselves or basing themselves at the far end of the beaches.
If you really want more of a private beach day, I recommend going on the Marcus Island trip instead. I have done this tour also and will write a review on it soon.
Would I do the trip again? Absolutely. It was nice being out on the water and seeing a few of the islands.
Mergui Archipelago Weather
The southern Myanmar area has a wet and dry season. Tour companies run between the months of September/October to April to fit in with the best weather. There will be periods of rain between September and November at the tail end of the wet season. Although it may not rain all day, the downpour is tropical in nature. Meaning very heavy!
Rain is quite unusual between December and April and as this is the winter season also has the mildest temperatures. Which is still hot to most of the world. Average day time temperatures have a high of 32 degrees between December and February and increase to 34 for March and April.
There was a period in early December, where nightfall was dropping down to the high teens and it was absolutely bliss to be able to wear a light sweater at night. Unfortunately, that only lasted about a week.
Mergui Archipelago diving & snorkelling
The majority of the trips out of Myeik run the same tours. They will include snorkelling, but not as the sole focus. There is a scuba diving company that runs out of Myeik, as I have seen the instructor around. However, I have been trying to find any information online about him and keep coming up with a blank.
There are many more diving tours from the southern Mergui archipelago islands. You will also find many liveaboard boats dedicated to diving trips. Compare liveaboard boats here.
I have been helping out at Mergui Dolphin Travels & Tour company in Myeik. They generously invited to join one of their island tours in late December to see how they run. All opinions in this post are my own.