The secrets of southern Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago

In a pristine corner of a country in flux, a remarkable new resort is pointing the way to sustainable development. Kendall Hill considers the future of the Mergui Archipelago

A tented beach villa at the sustainably built Wa Ale Island Resort, in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago
A tented beach villa at the sustainably built Wa Ale Island Resort, in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago | Image: Scott A Woodward

In southern Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, there are almost as many islands in the Andaman Sea as there are clouds skimming across the sky. Karst-and-jungle hillocks extend in every direction, their sugar-white sands dissolving into waters rich in coral reefs and marine life. 

The surprise of these stunning islands is that they lie at the very heart of the earth’s most crowded continent – halfway between India and China – yet so few are inhabited, much less troubled by tourism. This is Asia’s last ocean frontier, and it is on the cusp of great change, under Unesco consideration for World Heritage listing and earmarked for substantial development by the Myanmar government. The big challenge will be whether this still-pristine maritime playground becomes the next Phuket or Maldives, or something more sustainable altogether.

Wa Ale Island Resort sits within Myanmar’s only marine conservation zone
Wa Ale Island Resort sits within Myanmar’s only marine conservation zone

Wa Ale Island Resort, a low‑impact, high-style resort opened last October within the Lampi Marine National Park, Myanmar’s only marine conservation zone, makes a compelling pitch for the latter outcome. From the port town of Kawthaung, it’s an exhilarating two-hour speedboat ride to reach Wa Ale’s mangrove bay of milky-blue water. Guests alight at a jetty of pastel‑striped planks salvaged from old fishing boats. A brief buggy ride delivers them to the resort proper, a place so captivating – so unusually but immediately familiar – that the long journey to reach it recedes from memory.

Oregon-born owner Christopher Kingsley fronts the welcoming party, consisting of staff from Myanmar, Malaysia, France and North America, including resort manager Alyssa Wyatt, who is the embodiment of Minnesota nice. Her British husband Ray is Wa Ale’s talented executive chef, whose repertoire ranges from revelatory salads of seaweed to house-made bread, pizzas and even his own butters. They greet me looking like the cast of Survivor, which is apt given the trials they’ve been through to realise this remote, remarkable refuge. Kingsley and company camped on the beach here for two years while they built the property by hand. The main pavilion, with its pitched roof of recycled hardwood and pandanus-fringed deck above the caramel sweep of Turtle Beach, is positioned perfectly for sunsets and sea breezes. Inside, driftwood dining tables and slate countertops cut from old billiard tables contrast appealingly with Belgian and Italian fabrics and furnishings designed and manufactured by Kingsley and his wife Farina (he made his fortune in furniture production and farming Asian teak). Wa Ale’s 11 tented villas were custom-made in South Africa then assembled and arranged on the beach against a palimpsest forest of trees crusted in epiphytes and draped with vines. White-bellied sea eagles soar overhead; macaque monkeys caper along the shore. 

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The resort’s premise, according to Kingsley, was “build less and we have more. We want to showcase the nature, not anything we’ve built here.” Three treehouses rise into the canopy on 6m stilts, their balconies and alfresco bathrooms shaded by a towering banyan. A river café, clad in colourful wooden windows and shutters gathered from more than 100 old Burmese houses, serves hot coffee and cold beers beside a mirrored black stream. Glossy reticulated pythons nest in the twisting branches of an ancient Alexandrian fig overhead. 

In water or on land, guests rarely encounter other humans. The top-drawer dive centre arranges outings to newly discovered local sites and beyond – to North Twin’s manta rays, to whale sharks at Black Rock and the submerged mountaintops of Burma Banks, Myanmar’s most coveted dive site. As we kayak through mangroves on the national park’s Crocodile River, there are only kingfishers for company. On a dawn hike, giant squirrels shake the branches above us and mouse deer bark alarm calls in the undergrowth. Elusive pangolins and civets lurk somewhere in the jungle beyond.

The Pavilion Restaurant at Wa Ale
The Pavilion Restaurant at Wa Ale

From the outset, the Kingsleys aimed for their solar‑powered, sustainably built resort to not simply showcase its rare surroundings, but to protect and nurture them. Under the terms of their lease with the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, 20 per cent of annual net profits and two per cent of room revenues must be spent on conservation and social welfare projects in the Lampi Marine National Park. So the Kingsleys created the Lampi Foundation to provide free education and a medical clinic for the 200 or so local villagers and establish a sanctuary on Wa Ale for threatened hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles. (Turtles nest on the beach directly in front of tents; guests can opt for wake-up calls in the night to watch hatchlings scamper into the sea.) 

Their vision for the Mergui, known locally as the Myeik Archipelago, has been endorsed by the highest levels of Myanmar’s government. Vice president Myint Swe and the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, both visited Wa Ale in its opening season and, Kingsley said, told him they hoped it could become the template for future development. It’s quite an evolution for the country. Tourism was banned in these islands until 1997, when the junta finally opened them to outsiders. Steep visitor taxes and bans on overnight stays initially stifled demand. Most travellers came aboard expensive dive charters out of Phuket accompanied by government guides toting official maps, with all the off-limits islands (military or mines) blacked out. 

A canopy bed in one of the tented beach villas
A canopy bed in one of the tented beach villas

When I first explored the Mergui in 2014 on a sailing expedition with Burma Boating, there were just three resorts: the Myanmar Andaman Resort on Macleod Island; the Grand Andaman Hotel, a 24-hour casino and golf club on Thahtay Island, off mainland Kawthaung; and the half-finished, abandoned Aureum 115 on Island 115, regarded as one of the archipelago’s prettiest sites. Inside the ghost hotel I found plastic-wrapped televisions and beds, Evian bottles on bedside tables and Aigner toiletries in bathrooms. The resort’s backer is Tay Za, a crony of the former dictator Than Shwe and, by some reckonings, the richest man in Myanmar. In 2008, he was branded a “notorious henchman and arms dealer” by the US Treasury Department, which imposed sanctions against his financial network from 2007 until 2016. (Aureum is still there, still shuttered, but island gossip suggests it might finally open next season.)

After Myanmar elected its notionally civilian government in 2010 and re-entered the global fold, mainland tourism boomed to become a key driver of the national economy. Interest in remoter regions like the Mergui has been slow to kindle, but the government is now actively championing its prospects: a 2016 plan released by the Tanintharyi Tourism Development Committee, formed to focus on “cultural and nature projects” in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi region (which covers the Kra Isthmus and most of the islands), shows 41 planned or existing hotels on the archipelago. A dozen more dot the coastline and its peninsulas, according to Ministry of Hotels and Tourism data.

Awei Pila, which opened last December, is on a remote 5,000-hectare island and has 24 yurts
Awei Pila, which opened last December, is on a remote 5,000-hectare island and has 24 yurts

The logistics of building in such isolated island-scapes ensures that, for now, there are only a handful of hotels. Besides pin-up property Wa Ale and the long-in-operation Grand Andaman Hotel and Myanmar Andaman Resort, there are the sustainability focused, 20-bungalow Boulder Bay Eco Resort, and the Victoria Cliff Resort on Nyaung Oo Phee, which caters mostly to visiting Thais and Chinese.

And there is Awei Pila, which opened quietly in December, with 24 rooms and a restaurant overlooking its photogenic house beach and reef. In contrast to Wa Ale’s pioneering attitude and architecture, this venture from Myanmar’s Memories Group has a chain-hotel feel that sits somewhat uncomfortably within the glorious isolation of wild, 5,000-hectare Pila Island. Service is professional – about 95 per cent of staff are Burmese, many relocated from other Memories Group hotels across Myanmar – but lacks the warmth and the spark of evangelism that prevails at Wa Ale. The yurt-shaped accommodation is smart and comfortable, but the circular tents are part-cased in clear plastic and air-conditioned, so offer little sense of connection to place. 

Inside one of the yurts at Awei Pila
Inside one of the yurts at Awei Pila

In truth, it is too early to gauge what Awei Pila will become; there are plans for hilltop villas, a wellness complex, an expanded dive centre and a sunset bar, as well as ecotourism and picnics on neighbouring Nga Man Island. But there is already promise in the cooking of executive chef Than Tint Aung and excellent guided snorkelling with resident marine biologist Marcelo Guimaraes, who finds me an eagle ray seconds after we slip into the sea and, later, a flaring lionfish as flamboyant as a showgirl. And on a hike through the hinterland with Romanian guide Cris Cororu to a small village of Moken, the semi-nomadic “sea gypsies” who spend most of their lives at sea and are the soul of the Mergui, I’m impressed by his sensitive observations about their lives and their views on love, money and faith. 

While it lacks Wa Ale’s fastidious attention to environment, Awei Pila’s stewardship extends to making and bottling its water, propagating corals, recycling glass and plastics and living symbiotically beside the Moken. “One of the conditions of us taking the islands [on a 50-year lease] is that we have to take care of the environmental side,” Guimaraes assures me. 

The view from one of the seafront rooms at Awei Pila
The view from one of the seafront rooms at Awei Pila

Of the two new resorts, Awei Pila appears more likely to set the standard for future Mergui development, not least because Memories Group’s chairman is the influential Burmese-Chinese tycoon Serge Pun, who also chairs the Tanintharyi Development Committee. His son, Memories Group CEO Cyrus Pun, says their company is optimistic for tourism’s potential “not just in the Mergui Archipelago but Myanmar as a whole”. 

But optimism is a commodity in limited supply right now. The not-quite-articulated fear of everyone I spoke to was that the Rohingya humanitarian crisis could throw Myanmar back to the pariah status it held during Aung San Suu Kyi’s 15-year house arrest (intermittently from 1989 to 2010), when the Nobel Peace Prize winner urged travellers to boycott Burma rather than prop up its junta with their foreign currency. From a boycott low of 194,000 visitors in 1995, tourist arrivals to Myanmar peaked at almost 4.7 million in 2015. The bubble burst when ethnically targeted violence re-erupted in western Rakhine State in August 2017, driving hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya people into neighbouring Bangladesh. The United Nations characterised the purge as ethnic cleansing and foreign powers imposed a fresh wave of sanctions. Since then, arrivals from western Europe and North America have dropped 20 per cent; the government, meanwhile, has pivoted its attention to Asia, last year easing or scrapping visa requirements for visitors from China, South Korea and Japan. Hotel and Tourism Ministry data recorded a small bump in tourist arrivals for 2018, up three per cent to 3.55 million. Chinese arrivals more than doubled in the year to January 2019. 

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No one doubts the Rohingya crisis has seriously damaged Myanmar’s international standing. Kingsley concedes it has impacted on Myanmar tourism, and “hurt Wa Ale badly”. His Burmese general manager Aung Zin Latt, a former government tourist guide, tries to put the controversy in context for an outsider. “We became independent in 1948, were a democracy for 14 years and then the military took power for half a century. When it got power, we went back to year zero. Our democracy is not strong like [those of] the US or UK; we are very fragile.” Cyrus Pun, for his part, argues that isolating Myanmar would only hurt its people once again. “Past tourism boycotts and economic sanctions were ineffective and brought a disproportionate amount of suffering to everyday people,” he says. “The vast majority of the population is peace-loving and kind-hearted… they should not be punished for political events far outside of their control.”

Now, as then, it is possible to visit conscientiously, directing your spending to best benefit individual Burmese and, in the case of Wa Ale, helping to protect precious ecosystems. Despite the ongoing uncertainty, Kingsley is busy planning a self-contained villa sleeping 12 – perhaps with a greenhouse and even a farm behind – on Honeymoon Beach, the resort’s other stretch of sandy paradise. “We just want to continue to develop responsible tourism,” he says. “I always say, if you do the right thing, things work out. And I am having the time of my life. I love this place.”

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