Plunder'n the Mergui Archipelago aboard The Phinisi!! "Cause We're Pirates, and We Likes to Sail the Sea!!
Plunder'n the Mergui Archipelago aboard the "Cheng I Sao", aka, "The Phinisi" was one of those epic life experiences many dream of but few experience. I'm a Lucky Pirate, cause I got to experience it twice. I first sailed on the liveaboard diving yacht in March of 2019 and then again in March of 2020. My tale of 17 days as a Pirate aboard her exploring the remote and primal Mergui Archipelago follow. A brief summary of what the ambitious explorer can expect aboard this beautiful Pirate ship.
The pandemic hit just as I disembarked the Phinisi, I was hopeful that by now it would be back to business as usual. However, that has not been the case and I know alot of scuba divers are ready to get back in the blue as soon as international travel opens up. For those scuba divers who enjoy the primal, the un-explored, and the unique, the Mergui Archipelago is for you. I've been diving in quite a few such places across the world. The Galapagos Islands, Komodo Islands, Isla Guadalupe, Yucatan Peninsula, Socorro Islands *Revillagigedo Archipelago*, and Phi Phi Islands are some of the wildest locations I've been scuba diving. Some of these locations are considered to be the most primal spots on Earth, protected against human development or exploitation. Some are just too difficult and wild for the average sport diver to enjoy.
The Mergui Archipelago would best be compared to Galapagos and Komodo. It has only recently been opened (2017) by the Myanmar government to international tourism. The islands themselves are beautiful, undeveloped, and mostly uninhabited. It is the home of the Moken people. A indigenous tribe of nomads known as "Sea Gypsies" who have been living in the Mergui Archipelago for more than 4000 years. Aboard the Phinisi, you will step back in time,, explore the un-discovered and join a crew of kindred spirits, Pirates, who likes to sail the sea.
Getting to the Phinisi is a'bit of trouble. (nothing cool is ever simple) Although you can fly into Ranong, Thailand and catch a cab to the Phinisi's port, most travelers will probably prefer to do what I did. And what I did was to fly into Phuket and stay over in the Naiyang Beach area for a day or two before catching a ride to Ranong. Its a 4-5 hour ride, but, the Phinisi will help you organize a ride with another diver to cut the $200 one way cost, or, possibly charter it for the group you may travel with. Once there, you will have to go through customs to get into Myanmar. The Phinisi will handle the customs meeting, and while your there, the crew will be readying for departure.
Once your at sea, the fun begins. The "Cheng I Sao" is named for a ruthless Lady Pirate who happened to be one of the most successful Pirates in History. A beautiful Indonesian, phinisi style schooner, I immediately began to practice my "Arrrgh" as I was showed to my room. All rooms are airconditioned and the sheets are changed everyday. I've enjoyed the double room and a four person room. Each has its own shower, so, let your wallet guide you on which room you prefer. Honestly, after 4 dives a day, I'm asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. The showers are hot and the ambiance is real. I enjoyed more modern rooms on steel hulled liveaboards, but, when it comes down to comfort, cold air conditioning and hot showers are how I start my review. The Phinisi's cabins are cold to sleep in with a hot shower to clean in.
Diving is done with certified dive masters and safety is job #1. I've enjoyed some very skilled dive masters and guides on my two trips aboard the Phinisi. Sabi on my first excursion and Ping on my last. Both excellent and patient dive masters. The diving in the Mergui Archipelago is similar to Komodo Islands and Phi Phi Islands. The Andaman Sea is part of the Indian Ocean, so, the coral and animals are similar. However, don't expect Komodo quality fish and corals. Sadly, Myanmar doesn't try to protect this Archipelago of Islands the same as Indonesia. Its over fished, but, in some areas that I traveled on the Phinisi we went far into the ocean. To areas the fishing boats hadn't raped. Black Rock and Tower Rock were some of the most epic areas. Literally, diving on coral reefs that were possibly never explored by scuba divers before. Similar to diving Darwin and Wolf Islands in the Galapagos, or, Roca Partida in the Socorro Islands, Black Rock is a seamount over 120 miles from the mainland. Whale Sharks, Giant Oceanic Mantas, and schools of open water fish are found here. While Tower Rock was even further away, with coral reefs that exploded in color and coral species diversity. Macro Photographers will enjoy the Tower Rock reefs with the many tiny animals, nudibranchs, PeaCock Mantis Shrimp, and cleaner shrimp waiting to be discovered. You can literally see everything on this trip without seeing another single diving boat. Pristine and undeveloped islands await to be explored. New Zodiacs with 4 stroke motors and larger area for your photography rigs were purchased on my second trip. Charging stations and a camera table are onboard. The crew is very helpful with your gear and understands how picky a underwater photographer can be with its care. I recommend both wide angle and macro lens for the serious underwater photographer. Like Komodo Islands, you can literally shoot either at all dive sites. Black Rock, though, is definitely a wide angle dive.
Landscapes so beautiful it seems surreal are your daily fare. The islands of the Mergui Archipelago are picture postcard perfect. Horseshoe Island, Cock's Comb Island and South Twin are some the most beautiful landscapes I've ever seen. With over 800 islands scattered about, there are areas you can explore that few people if any have ever walked. Dream of Treasure Island and then live it. That's what a trip aboard the Phinisi is like. You live the life of a Pirate, sailing from one island to the next, plunder'n the beauty of the Mergui Archipelago and stealing those memories of long gone days when most every island was undeveloped and pure. You also get to meet the Moken on their island. A humbling experience that provides the humanity for experiencing something more important than typical vacation memories. Learn about the "karst" limestone rock formations and don't forget to bring a wide angle lens for those landscape shots. The islands of the Mergui Archipelago are worth the trip alone with their unique, unspoiled, tropical beauty.
Finally, its the kindness and fun of being a part of a crew. These Pirates and their enthusiasm for adventure is infectious. Returning for my second trip, I felt genuinely missed, a crew member who was welcomed back with a genuine fondness. Singing at night under the stars with Ping playing his guitar, smoking a cigar, laughing with other crew members and guests who came to join in. Or, hanging out in the lounge watching TV and choosing from a library of movies. All the conveniences of modern entertainment. Delicious food prepared after every dive, healthy, fresh, and authentic Thai. The Phinisi's chef bringing her special flavor to every meal. There's alot of love going on in everything the Phinisi's crew does to make sure you have a most excellent adventure. I miss each and everyone of them and that fact alone tells you how cool your adventure is gonna be.
So, if you are a Dive Pirate looking for the most primal experience. A opportunity to go explore where no other Pirate has dove before, book a trip as soon as you can to the Mergui Archipelago aboard the Phinisi. It will change your life and your appreciation for the primal. These magical places are disappearing fast. See it while you still can!! "Cause I'm a Pirate,, and I likes to Sail the Seas!!"