In the far southern tip of Burma, there lies a a span of remote islands largely untouched by the outside world. Known as the Mergui Archipelago, it consists of some 800 islands and is largely closed to outsiders. These islands are empty of outside development and unpopulated by all but one group: the Moken, also known as the sea gypsies.
The Moken sea gypsies have lived in this region for centuries, historically traveling from island to island on live-aboard boats, occasionally making temporary huts. Moken men are known as some of the best free divers in the world, able to hold their breath for 5-8 minutes underwater while diving to catch fish.
Some still follow the traditional, nomadic way of life — sailing from island to island on small boats as their ancestors did. Others have taken to living in small villages spread throughout the region. These towns allow children to attend school and give shelter and better care for the sick and elderly.
Even here, however, you see few young men. They often set out on fishing trips for several days, or longer, as their ancestors did before them.
If you’re going to live the life of a sea gypsy, you could not pick a more beautiful place to do it. Above and below are a couple of photos of the surrounding region — the color here hasn’t been altered; this is actually what these sunsets look like.
To get into the Mergui, you must first find a tour operator with a license to enter the archipelago. Then, upon entering, your tour operator obtains a permit for you and the Myanmar government closely checks the paperwork, then holds onto your passport during your time in the archipelago. If you do visit, you’re bound to see at least a few boats of the sea gypsies in your time there.
The best entry points for the Mergui Archipelago are Kawthaung, Myanmar and nearby Ranong, Thailand.