As the world becomes smaller, solitude is hard to find and it’s a rare thing indeed to drop anchor in a beautiful bay safe in the knowledge that you are the only yacht within a 100 mile radius.
That is the unique position veteran skipper Herbert Mayrhauser and his team have enjoyed since establishing Burma Boating in 2013. Previously a country that was shunned by international travellers who did not want to endorse the military dictatorship, Burma -also known as Myanmar - tentatively entered a new era of freedom following the release in 2010 of popular pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent many years under house arrest.
Following the formal end of military rule in 2011, Austrian born Herbert, a sailor for more than three decades, seized the opportunity to start one of the country’s first sailing enterprises in Kawthaung with fellow yachties Christoph Schwanitz and Janis Vougioukas, organising boating holidays around the stunningly beautiful Mergui Archipelago and its 800 mostly deserted islands in the Andaman Sea.
The five-strong staff is based between Shanghai, Phuket, Kawthaung and Zurich, with Herbert managing the fleet. After 30 years and more than 300,000 nautical miles sailing in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, he is proud to have set a precedent in a land which remains largely untouched by commercialism as a result of government neglect, lack of provisioning and infrastructure.
‘In Phuket there is a lot of competition but in Burma, which is only 300 km north of Phuket, the Mergui archipelago doesn’t really have competition because the sailing industry is very new here,’ explains Herbert as we chat via Skype. ‘A few companies from Phuket come up to try the season out but we stay here with our boats from mid-October to early May and just concentrate on Burma charters.’
Herbert’s love affair with South East Asia began after a successful career chartering in the Caribbean and the Med. ‘I’m from Salzburg, we don’t have our own sea!’ he laughs. ‘I went on holiday to Australia when I was 24 and met a South African guy who was on a round the world sailing trip. I spent a week with him and decided I would do the same thing, buy a boat and sail around the world. A couple of years later, I bought my first 10m boat which was delivered to the former Yugoslavia and I started sailing in the open sea to the Western Mediterranean.’
He spent 20 years based in the Caribbean, crossing the Atlantic delivering yachts twice a year, and in 2010, Herbert bought a new boat in Asia and spent three years refitting it before the idea of Burma Boating was born.
For him and his team, the appeal was simple. ‘I first came to Burma in 2012 and I was very surprised that no other boats were here,’ he admits. ‘There are a lot of beautiful beaches and the coral reefs are not as you would expect in the Barrier Reef, where a lot of fishing has happened. The water quality is amazing.
‘This area is really untouched and quite easy to reach by plane or car from Phuket. There are so many islands and the distances between them are short - you never have to sail more than two hours to reach the next one. Apart from the fishermen and fishing villages, you can cruise around without seeing any other boats. Sometimes we meet the Moken people - semi nomadic sea gypsies who live along the coast - but generally it is deserted and this makes it unique.
‘I’m sure there are areas in the Pacific Ocean which are undiscovered but it is not easy to reach them and that is the big problem. Also, the distance between islands is too big - charter guests do not like to spend three or four days getting from one island to another. They get seasick whereas it is very calm here during the winter months.’
After so long as the poor cousin to thriving South East Asian economies like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Burma, which has been described as ‘the Thailand of 40 years ago’ is poised to become the latest go-to destination although thankfully, that is unlikely to happen overnight.
‘The borders have been closed for many years so there haven’t been lots of visitors,’ he adds. ‘In the last 10 years, it was possible to get into Burma but it was not easy. Now the government sells business licences so it is finally possible to do official business and work in Burma but it will take a while to develop commercially because it’s not easy here.
‘There are no resorts and big hotels being built yet because there is no provisioning. It will take at least five to 10 years to commercialise it and so much else needs to happen first, including the creation of proper infrastructure. I hope they will try to keep a lot of it as National Park. There are plans to create resorts on some of the islands and there was a resort on Macleod Island but it has closed already.
‘The government keeps a close eye on people but we are now in our second season and we have good relations with them. We have good contact with an official government agent and they clear us in and out every week with our guests. Nobody speaks English so we needed someone to translate and we have local guides on each trip who speak good English and work with us as crew.
‘There will be changes here in the next two or three years because bigger boats are coming. Last year, we had two Superyachts of 40 metres plus which came into the area with provisioning but for smaller boats, it’s still a problem because they have to get their provisions from Phuket and be self-sufficient.’
As central agent for four boats, they have recently added a fifth, Scame, a 72 foot wooden cutter, and are also planning to set up a bareboat charter business as bookings are on the increase. However, Burma is unlikely to become a major backpacking destination according to Herbert, who hosts guests from all over the world.
‘Our cruises are not cheap because it’s not possible to run boats this size and provision them without spending a lot of money,’ he says. ‘Thailand started with backpackers but in Burma, it will not happen. It’s too expensive and it isn’t easy to move around here. If you rent a car, you have to have an official guide.’
A typical day starts in Kawthaung, a little village close to the Thai border, before guests and crew set sail to the nearest island, three hours away. ‘We start at noon because guests transfer in the morning and by late afternoon, they can go snorkelling or swimming in the clear blue sea with no-one else around while we prepare dinner on board,’ says Herbert. ‘We buy most provisions from Phuket and fresh fruit and vegetables from the local market.
‘We try to visit one of the two Moken villages and take presents like pencils which the children can use at school. The villagers are very happy when we pass by once a week because we don’t buy fish from them, we give them cold beer, soft drinks and goggles in exchange for fish!
‘Every sailor dreams of an area where they can anchor and be totally alone. You won’t find that in the Med or the Caribbean. There are birds here that I have never seen anywhere else.
‘There isn’t a sailing community in Burma yet. I remember the first time I came to Myek, the next city along from Kawthaung. We were the first sailing boat to arrive there. The villagers had never seen a boat with tall masts like ours before and they were fascinated. We invited them to come aboard and have a drink and a look around. I don’t think it’s too much to say that many sailors around the world would be very happy to sail in an area like this.’
All photographs courtesy of www.burmaboating.com