Myanmar’s tropical sun laughed from a happy blue sky, but the mood of our travel group was introverted to the point of being somber. This was fair enough, since we had just survived the worst tropical cyclone to plough through the Andaman Sea in years.
Horizontal torrents of rain had hammered us hard, but finally the violent surf calmed down. Our Myanmar journey had been seriously delayed by the storm, and we still had to paddle the final leg of our journey through the Mergui Archipelago.
All of our soaked belongings now had to be dried out, including our international airline tickets for our flights home. The tickets were dated to leave the day before – a fact that made some of our clients anxious. “What to do now?” I asked myself.
Three weeks earlier, our group of adventurers had crossed over the Thailand and Myanmar border post from Ranong to Kawthaung, There we built our expedition, folding kayaks in the backyard of a flophouse and setting out into the unchartered waters. We decided to hire a local Burmese skiff driver as a follow boat to transport our food and commissaries, and then paddled and camped our way 200 miles northwards through the wilderness, ending up at the ramshackle town of Mergui.
On our kaying journey, we paddled through a fantastic maze of more than 800 picture-perfect tropical islands. Up until that time, this area of southeastern Myanmar had been off-limits for foreigners due the country’s political isolation and years of fierce local fighting between the Moken guerrillas and the Burmese government. We were lucky to get a permit and be first tourists allowed into the area.
Because of the Mergui Archipelago’s virtual isolation from most of mankind’s influence, the Andaman Islands exhibit an amazing diversity of flora and fauna, including charismatic megafauna such as whale sharks and orca whales. On the islands themselves, we encountered various thriving animal populations such as deer, monkeys, hornbills, and wild pigs. Tracks from tigers and elephants on the tidal flats were common.
One of the highlights was our paddle through the mangroves of the Bay of the Hundred Wreathed Hornbills – appropriately named. There is a reason that this area is one of the important and vulnerable World Wildlife Fund ecoregions in southern Asia.
Another great experience on our journey was traveling through Lampi Marine National Park, which is home to an abundance of well-protected wildlife. The park includes many species that are threatened in other places, including the plain-pouched hornbill, Wallace’s hawk eagle, loggerhead and green sea turtles, Sunda pangolin and dugong.
It was at the end of the trip that the cyclone unexpectedly hit us. I realized later that the key to our survival during this ordeal was our local liaison officer and guide Aung-Gyi, who was seconded to us by the authorities. Aung-Gyi (which in Burmese translates into “Great Success”) aspired to his namesake and I have never met a more positive and inspiring co-guide! His answer to all adversity was always affirmative nodding, followed by an infectious big grin exclaiming, “No problem, mister!”
His nickname thus quickly became “NP” for “No Problem.” It had been “no problem” when we had been hit by the storm and had to take shelter deep into and high up in the foliage of the jungle and away from the breaking surf. “No problem” that our follow boat had vanished and absolutely “no problem” that we got stranded on a remote sandy islet with only our kayaks and wet personal gear – including our soaked passports and plane tickets. NP was a natural guide and friend of the best kind, attentive too all but himself.
So there we were, a little lost in the paradise of Myanmar, as well as hungry and thirsty. Somehow, though, NP’s positive spirit persisted. A small dug-out canoe with an old wrinkly fisherman working his paddle came around the sand spit and approached us cautiously. NP jumped into the ocean and helped the tippy canoe through the waves and turned around towards us – exclaiming with a wide grin: “No problem, my friends – Burma dinner!” And out of the canoe he scooped up handfuls of freshly caught and squirming squid and a cluster of ripe coconuts. The kind fisherman had seen us from a far shore and come to our aid.
We quickly lit a small fire from the coconut husks, grilled the squid on bamboo skewers, and quenched our thirst with sweet, succulent coconut milk. A few hours later, we were re-energized and on our way again, and after seven hours of hard paddling, reached Mergui with its airstrip. Somehow, we all eventually made our way back home, expired airline tickets and all.
I will never forget the wonderful spirit of Aung-Gyi (NG), a local guy poor in material possessions but rich in kindness, optimism, and a zest for life. It is local guides like him that help put adventure in perspective and teach us patience in adversity.
Five months after our Myanmar journey, I learned from my Burmese friends in Kawthaung that Aung – Gyi had died from a cerebral hemorrhage. I am sure that “Great Success” is still laughing somewhere up there in the happy, blue Myanmar sky.
Although you won’t face similar challenges as we did on your Myanmar adventure, you will be guided by some of the world’s best expedition leaders who, like Aung – Gyi, are committed to creating an outstanding travel experience for their guests. Armed with a “no problem” attitude, you’ll explore the best of Myanmar’s unspoiled tropical landscapes, Buddhist cultural treasures, traditional rural villages, pioneer ecolodges, and hidden natural treasures.
Olaf Malver is Chief Exploratory Officer at Natural Habitat Adventures.