As Paul, our dive guide, drifted over a head of coral, his body stiffened. Wheeling around wide-eyed, he put an open hand on top of his head like a fin -- the universal signal for "shark." Inside a coral crevice on the sandy bottom lay a pair of gray nurse sharks, the longer of which appeared to be more than 6 feet.
I was relieved. Nurse sharks are bottom feeders and don't attack. These were big ones, so I dived down for a better look. The hail of bubbles and flailing limbs proved too much for the timid fish. They wriggled about, kicking up clouds of sand while searching for a place to hide.
Paul surfaced and yelled across the water to the sailboat that we'd found sharks.
"This is supposed to be an incentive for us to get in?" asked Bea, who was sitting on deck and preferred her sharks behind glass.
By the time Paul returned below the surface, the sharks had disappeared beneath a coral ledge, but they would live on in our dinner conversa-tions aboard the Gaea, the 51-foot trimaran we called home for nearly a week.
It was our fourth day amid the empty islands of the Mergui Archipelago on the southern coast of Myanmar -- or Burma, as it is still widely known. In addition to the sharks, we'd seen some fishing boats, visited a village of sea gypsies and crossed paths with a Burmese naval vessel.
That was it. No other tourists -- and sometimes, when we scanned the horizon at dawn, no one at all.
In a world of six billion people, where you can phone home from the Great Wall or watch Jennifer Lopez videos on the Vietnamese coast, the search for authentic travel experiences has become increasingly difficult. Each year, people must go farther and farther to find places untouched by American pop culture and unfiltered by the tourism industry.
The myth of unspoiled lands has fueled the Western imagination for generations, spawning novels ranging from James Hilton's "Lost Horizon" to Alex Garland's "The Beach," which was set on an island in Thailand and made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The reality is that most of the best spots in Asia were "discovered" long ago.
Thailand's resort island of Phuket complements its beaches and limestone karst formations with go-karts, bungee-jumping and "Dino Park," a dinosaur-theme miniature golf park with an erupting volcano. These days, tour buses pull up to the ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, which were deserted a few years ago because of civil war and fear of land mines.
The Mergui is one of the last great places in the hemisphere to be spared from the cultural Cuisinart of globalization. The islands have remained largely unchanged because of self-imposed isolation by Burma's repressive military regime.
Cut off from the world for more than half a century, the Mergui comprises some 800 wooded, tropical islands covering about 10,000 square miles in the Andaman Sea, which lies just north of the Indian Ocean. The islands are filled with wildlife, including hornbills, sea eagles, heron, python, macaques, wild pigs and elephants. Other than the village of sea gypsies and fishermen, there are no other people.
Just opened to tourism
My wife, Julie, and I first heard about the Mergui a couple of years ago over dinner in Beijing. We were out with fellow journalists who raved about a sailboat trip they'd taken in Burma.
The voyage sounded wonderful: sea kayaking amid mangroves and caves as well as snorkeling and scuba diving on isolated reefs. What made the Mergui so attractive, though, was that few people had ever been there. The islands only opened to tourism in early 1997, when two brothers from Britain, Graham and Adam Frost, negotiated an agreement with the Burmese government to take passengers there.
Last April, with Julie expecting a baby in several months, we booked two bunks on the Gaea as a last hurrah of pre-parental travel and flew to Thailand, where the Frosts' company, South East Asia Liveaboards, is located.
We were nervous about spending so much time on a boat. The Gaea sleeps eight and we didn't know who else would be aboard. Our concerns dissolved the morning we arrived at the office and found out that no one else had booked the trip. We would have the boat to ourselves for six days.
The night before, we had had dinner in Phuket with a fellow correspondent, Miro Cernetig of the Globe and Mail in Toronto, and his wife, Bea, who happened to be in town. When we learned the next morning that the other cabins were empty, I called Miro and Bea and made my pitch: six days on the water in Burma kayaking, scuba diving and snorkeling. Because of the short notice, the company would offer them 40 percent off.
Bea, half asleep, handed the phone to Miro, who was stepping out of the shower.
"Call me in 10 minutes," he said.
When I called back, Miro said, "We're packed."
After a flurry of calls to change flights and hotel reservations, we set off in a van up the coast, leaving the heavy development of Phuket behind.
Five hours later, we arrived in Ranong, a Thai port town at the mouth of the Pakchan River, across the water from Burma. After a brief stop at Thai immigration, we loaded our bags into a wooden long-tail boat for the 30-minute trip across the river. Although still in Thailand, we felt as if we'd already entered another country. Row after row of stilt houses made of plywood and corrugated aluminum lined the riverbanks. The harbor was jammed with long-tail boats, so named because of the huge, egg-beater engines drivers wield like giant weed whackers.
"This is like the Mekong," Miro said, "only better."
Both of us had traveled by boat through Vietnam's Mekong Delta, a latticework of bridges, canals and tributaries filled with boat traffic that has emerged as a tourist attraction in the past decade. Ranong had some of the same qualities, but here we were the only foreigners.
After crossing the brackish, choppy water, we pulled up to a white shack on concrete stilts. Tires dangled from ropes along the side and the red, white and blue Burmese flag flapped from the roof. It was the first stop in what turned out to be a surprisingly casual immigration process.
Our guide, Paul, from Birmingham, England, hopped out. After a customs official did a cursory head count of our boat, we pulled into Kawthoung, a thriving Burmese port. The second phase of immigration was even more relaxed. We sat down at a bar, ordered several mugs of Myanmar Beer and handed our photos and passports to Tom, an amiable guide ostensibly assigned by the Burmese Tourist Ministry to keep an eye on us.
Tom went off to collect our visas; we went strolling around town. It was a Sunday afternoon, and swerving motorbikes filled the city's dirt streets. Kawthoung is a mix of fading colonial architecture and new buildings with names such as the "Honey Bear Hotel," built on a distant dream of tourist dollars.
It is also home to one of the more squalid open-air markets I've seen in Asia.
We weaved past stalls where dead fish lay rotting in plastic pales blanketed with flies and women sat cross-legged on wooden pallets hacking away at chicken necks. The meat, which stank, had been out for hours. The air was so hot that our arms, faces and backs dripped with sweat.
With the paperwork finished, we boarded the Gaea and prepared to weigh anchor. Paul lighted a long string of firecrackers adorned with the Chinese characters for "Double Happiness," a ritual designed to bring good luck and impress passengers. The explosion sent bits of red paper flying at us across the deck. The staccato blasts echoed off the hillsides nearby.
Lonely beaches, clear water
The Gaea was simple and cozy. Three of the four cabins lay inside the boat's wooden pontoons and were really no more than narrow passageways with shelf-like beds. Because of the heat, we usually slept on deck, lying on blue cushions and covered with beach towels. It was lovely when we were motoring along and the boat gently rocked back and forth beneath the stars. It was dreadful when the Burmese deck hand snored.
The boat was equipped with a bathroom and a hand-held shower. There was a cramped kitchen with two burners, wicker cabinets and several coolers filled with ice, sodas and a seemingly endless supply of food. The boat's electrical system had its idiosyncrasies: The captain had to turn on the engine to operate the toaster.
The first day, we were under way until 2 a.m. When we awoke the next morning, we were surrounded by several jungle islands, each with its own crescent-shaped beach. As the pink light of dawn hung on the horizon, Miro and I leapt into the clear, green water and swam for the nearest beach.
Like most of the islands we saw, this one began with a lip of sand and then rose quickly in a tangle of vines and trees up steep limestone rocks. Julie said the foliage reminded her of the shoreline along Loch Raven. She had a point, but I couldn't imagine telling friends back home: "You've got to go to Burma, it's just like Baltimore County."
The archipelago's clean water and many untouched forests stand in stark contrast with the squalor of Kawthoung, but there are increasing signs of human encroachment. Along the beach lay plastic water bottles tossed from the growing number of boats that come to exploit the area through illegal logging and dynamite fishing.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, croissant, pineapple, toast and sausage, we boarded sea kayaks and paddled along the island's edge. The area teemed with life, including kingfishers and fluorescent green crabs, which darted along the rocks. A sea eagle plunged beneath the surface and emerged with a fish between its talons. The rocky coastline swallowed up the water and spit it out in waves and rivulets.
We came upon a cave filled with hundreds of swallows. After we paddled in backward, the swallows roared out over our heads, blackening the sky. As a swell rolled into the cave, we paddled out furiously to avoid being pulled in deeper and smashed against the rocks.
That afternoon, we made our way toward the Mergui's only settlement, a village of about 400 sea gypsies and 200 Burmese fishermen who live in stilt houses along a beach. The sea gypsies, known as the Moken, are Southeast Asian nomads who speak their own language and travel from island to island in flotillas. They collect seashells, hunt sea turtles and seem to do little else. First encountered by the British in 1826, they had fiercely resisted integration. The Burmese corralled them into a government-built village six years ago.
Many of the gypsies, whose faces are dark from the sun and whose teeth are yellowed from a lifetime without fluoride, seemed friendly. Young mothers held their children up for us to see as we strolled past their homes. Others, though, exuded the sort of toughness one might expect from a life spent largely on the sea. Some young women walked around with cheroots -- cigars -- sticking out of their mouths.
It was hard to know if the sea gypsies liked their new, sedentary life, because we couldn't speak their language. We visited a 62-year-old monk, who lived on a hill above the town and spoke Burmese, the country's dominant tongue with an alphabet comprised of various circular and horseshoe-shaped letters. We gave him several cans of Coke and Sprite -- valuable commodities when the nearest cold soda is at least 10 hours away by boat. Then we sat down on rattan mats and asked questions as Tom translated.
The monk said the sea gypsies found the island hard to farm and complained about the lack of food. But they also thought the village safer than the open sea. Two weeks earlier, a sea gypsy had been gunned down when robbers attacked his boat and stole his engine.
(Adam Frost, co-owner of South East Asia Liveaboards, says the Mergui is perfectly safe for tourists and that none of the company's boats has ever been threatened, followed or stopped.)
Trading with fishermen
The next two days were filled with snorkeling, kayaking and wildlife. We paddled up a clear river with a sandy bottom to gaze at pythons wrapped like ribbons around tree branches. We meandered through a maze of mangroves that hung down like slalom gates.
As we anchored one evening, hundreds of flying foxes flew past the moon. At sunset, Julie and I drifted quietly toward a beach in a kayak as a troop of macaques wandered along the sand hunting for crabs.
One morning, a small fishing boat approached. The skipper cut the engine and guided his craft toward ours, moving the rusty rudder back and forth with his bare foot. A crew member held out a silver fish like a tiny billboard.
The fishermen had been on the water for 10 days and had little to show for it but grimy clothes. In an act of charity, we traded a couple of packets of cheroots and cigarettes for the silver fish and two dead crabs.
That evening, our cook, a Thai named Mee, steamed fresh crabs. Julie, who grew up in Baltimore, demonstrated how to pick them Maryland-style.
Food was good and plentiful aboard the Gaea. Breakfasts usually included eggs, bacon, papaya and mango. Dinners were often built around Thai seafood and a mound of rice. Mee cooked it all shirtless, his back painted with a tattoo of a dragon and what looked like a pagoda. A man of few words, Mee sat on deck in the evenings, scraping knives on a sharpening stone.
With two days left on our trip, a voice crackled over the radio one morning: "Have an urgent message for one of your passengers -- Frank. His editor wants him to call immediately."
This is the last message a foreign correspondent wants to hear on vacation anywhere, let alone the Andaman Sea. The information was sparse: American and Chinese planes had collided. Jumbo jets? We didn't know.
"I hope it wasn't a U.S. military plane," Miro said.
We motored two hours across the water to a dive boat where I used a satellite phone to call my editor in Baltimore. The People's Liberation Army was holding a U.S. spy plane and its crew of 24 on Hainan, China's tropical island province.
"It would be good if you could get back to Beijing as soon as you can," my editor said.
The trip was over. Unable to make port by the time immigration closed, we took a final snorkel and dive before setting off through the night and arriving in Kawthoung at dawn. Along the way, we thought about all the islands and empty beaches we had seen that week and knew that some day the Mergui would change. In some ways, it already had.
On our last day we saw dozens of dead puffer fish floating on the surface where fishermen had recently used dynamite. In the hills, we heard the whine of chainsaws wielded by illegal loggers.
We could only hope that when development comes, it doesn't destroy the very things that draw people here. We knew we were lucky to have seen it now.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: Round-trip flights from Baltimore to Phuket start at about $1,000. Connecting service is available on China Airlines. You can either fly from Bangkok into Phuket and spend the night or fly directly to Ranong, which is on the Thai-Myanmar border. (If you stay in Phuket, I recommend Le Meridien Phuket, which has excellent restaurants and a private beach with sailboats. Prices start at $150 a night. U.S. reservations: 800-225-5843. Online www.catpro.com / home / meridian.)
South East Asia Liveaboards, 225 Rat-U-Thit 200 Year Road, Patong, Phuket, 83150 Thailand
* Phone: 011 (66) 76 340-406
* Online: : www.seal-asia.com
* Rates: $958, plus $100 Customs Entry Permit (includes 30-day visa). Price includes all meals, sodas and round-trip transport by van from Phuket to Ranong and the boat, which is berthed in Myanmar.
* The "Adventure Cruise" includes six days and nights on the trimaran Gaea, with a crew of five and accommodations for eight guests. The trip includes snorkeling, scuba diving, sea, river and potentially surf kayaking as well as hiking. The number of dives range from six to eight. Best conditions: four to six passengers. Best time to go is the dry season, October to mid-May.
Should you go to Burma? This is worth pondering. The country is run by a nasty military dictatorship, which refused to give up power despite losing national elections in 1990. The regime continues to abduct, torture and even kill opponents. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic opposition leader, has urged tourists to avoid Myanmar to deny foreign currency to the regime and pressure it to change. For more information on the situation in Myanmar, see the U.S. Department of State's 2000 Human Rights Report: www.state.gov / g / drl / rls / hrrpt / 2000 / eap / index.cfm?docid =678.