Just before the end of the sailing season (cruises typically operate from October to May), Tour Mandalay were lucky enough to find last minute availability onboard Burma Boating’s SY Jubilaeum. To borrow the description from Burma Boating’s website, ‘With her flowing lines, embodies the timeless elegance of a classic ketch. She was designed and built by the renowned boat builders of Kemeu Engineering in New Zealand. This Don Brooke Pilot House 77 features a steel hull construction with full keel, beautiful teak deck and woodwork throughout and an impressive cabin design.’ So in short, this is a corker of a boat.
Before we got the chance to meet the lady herself, it was first necessary to stay overnight in Kawthaung. If flying from Yangon, currently it’s only possible to arrive early afternoon, which doesn’t work with the 10am departure time (due to them needing to make the most of daylight, this is usually the case for all of Burma Boating’s cruises). With this in mind, we booked a night at the Victoria Cliff Hotel, which is by far the best option for anyone that appreciates his or her creature comforts. Although it doesn’t really have much of a Myanmar feel (it predominantly caters for Thai tourists), a stay here was extremely pleasant. For us, the highlight was the view from the pool, which wonderfully complimented the crisp taste of our chilled Myanmar beers. There’s also a gym and small spa, so passing time at Victoria Cliff Hotel is going to be the least of your worries.
After enjoying a leisurely morning at the hotel (NOTE: to ensure freshness, we’d recommend eating breakfast early!), Burma Boating escorted us directly from Victoria Cliff to Kawthaung jetty. Kawthaung itself is a lively town, with a mishmash of Myanmar and Thai influence. An imposing golden statue of King Bayinnaung (said to be one of the three great kings alongside Anawrahta and Alaungpaya) quickly reminds us that we’re still very much in Myanmar. It wasn’t long until the speedboat was ready to ferry us across to the anchored SY Jubilaeum. Before setting sail, or should we say starting up the motor (there was no wind whatsoever), it was necessary to complete the compulsory immigration checks. Whilst the officials filled out the necessary paperwork onboard, some birds of prey put on an impressive hunting display in the distance.
Our captain for the next five nights was the young, smiley and ever-enthusiastic Aye Min Htet. Accompanying him was a small team whose duty was to navigate, clean, cook and make sure the experience ran smoothly from start to finish. Due to the number of crew outnumbering the number passengers, it didn’t take long for us to feel incredibly spoilt.
After being consulted about our individual interests, Captain Aye put together a tailored route that included snorkelling, kayaking, hiking, fishing and plenty of opportunity to interact with local people.
Another key ingredient to the Burma Boating experience is the food. Each boat has it’s own dedicated chef, who’s basically there to cook what you want, when you want (within reason of course!). At the time of writing the chef onboard the SY Jubilaeum was a skilled and extraordinarily talented Thai lady called Noi, who knocked our socks off with her culinary creations from start to finish. Similar to Captain Aye’s tailored approach, we were asked whether we had any likes, dislikes or allergies from the start and the meals served were based around that. One of the passengers mentioned that they particularly liked som tam (a spicy green papaya salad), so before leaving Kawthaung, a crew member was sent back to town to source a fresh papaya from the market. After a short wait, voila, lunch was served.
With the activities agreed and our bellies full of food, the SY Jubilaeum navigated its way as far north as it could reach before sunset. This gave us plenty of time to put our feet up, lap up the sun and enjoy the cool breeze. The plan was then to make our way back to Kawthaung, via some of the Mergui Archipelago’s best islands over the next five nights.
Once we’d reached our destination, we were sped over (using the yacht’s mini-speed boat) to a nearby island to watch a magnificent burning sunset – this is typically what Burma Boating use to get you from A to B on most excursions.
With Noi continuing to cook up a storm in the SY Jubilaeum’s kitchen, the next hour or so was spent sampling the yacht’s wine selection. Although soft drinks are provided free of charge, alcohol such as beer, wine and spirits are charged for separately – seeing as it’s easy to lose track of time / what you’ve consumed, keeping a physical tally of what you’ve opened is highly recommended.
Before we knew it, dinner was finished and we were staring up into a starlit sky, with the SY Jubilaeum’s mast hypnotically bobbing up and down in the foreground. With no mosquitos, a gentle breeze and no internet connection, there was nothing do to other than completely switch off from the world we’d left behind. The following evenings panned out in a similar manner.
It’s important to mention that even though you’ll pay a similar price, staying overnight on Burma Boating is not the same as staying in a luxury hotel suite. Although each of the cabins we inspected are comfortably appointed (and vary in size depending on which yacht you’re assigned / what you’re able to afford), air-conditioning usage is limited to certain hours, it’s impossible to escape the sound of the engine starting in the morning (in the case of no wind) and you’ll need to be mindful of how much water is used to shower and flush with. To ensure expectations are correctly managed, it’s best to think of this as a floating glamping (luxury camping) experience. You even have the option of sleeping up on the top deck, something we’d strongly encourage, even if just for one night.
Perhaps the biggest benefit sleeping on the deck provides is that you’ll never miss a sunrise. Alarm or not, the natural light will be sure to wake you and a member of crew was always around to prepare a freshly brewed cup of coffee. We experienced some of the best sunrises we’ve ever witnessed this way, and it certainly beat being cooped up in a cabin (or any kind of enclosed space for that matter).
In contrary to what you’ve read thus far, booking with Burma Boating offers so much more than starlit skies, sunsets and tasty alfresco dining. The experiences off the boat were just as memorable as the ones on it, which for anyone concerned about spending too much time on a boat, helped to eliminate any sense of cabin fever. Even if you felt like being unsociable and missing out on Captain Aye’s guided excursions, you’re more than welcome to go off and do your own thing using the resources available. Whether it’s snorkelling, fishing, or kayaking across to one of the Mergui Archipelago’s myriad private islands, there’s plenty to keep everyone active and entertained.
An experience you shouldn’t pass up on, assuming routing permits, is kayaking through the mangroves of Lampi Marine National Park, an area that protects over a thousand species of animals, plants and marine life. From passing a fever of baby stingrays to aimlessly floating to a backdrop of tropical sounds, it won’t take long to realise that you’re passing through an area of incredibly rich biodiversity.
The visit to a Moken village was also special. The Moken people are a shy, semi-nomadic group, with a total worldwide population somewhere in the region of two to three thousand. With numbers rapidly declining, partly due to the confiscation of land, pollution and the waters they rely on being heavily overfished, it was a real privilege to meet with them and we hope that tourism will somehow play a part in increasing awareness of these issues. For anyone keen to learn more, Captain Aye informed us of Project Moken (www.projectmoken.com), a non-profit organisation established and run by key members of the Moken community.
Captain Aye was just as concerned about the marine life as he was the people. No thanks to irresponsible fishing practice, he regularly finds discarded fishing net tangled around coral. Sadly, inside of these it’s common to find hundreds of trapped and starved sea creatures ranging from crabs to clownfish (think Finding Nemo). On a couple of occasions we witnessed Captain Aye and his crew dive into the sea to free tangled netting, with the aim of cleaning up the seafloor and saving any living sea life trapped inside. One crab they found was very fortunate – it had started to grow out of the net but was luckily cut free just in time. Hats of to Captain Aye and Burma Boating for voluntarily taking part in small-scale conservation activities such as this.
Captain Aye and his crew were just as passionate about helping the people, and on a couple of occasions donated bags of their own cooked rice to Moken rowers that sailed past. This provided us with the perfect opportunity to have a quick chat (thanks to translation by one of the crew) and get their permission for some photographs.
Much to Noi’s delight, one of the passengers, an avid fisherman, lucked out one evening and came back carrying a ginormous king mackerel. This was then incorporated into the breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, with the standout dish being the chilli and lemon marinated sashimi.
Regardless of whether you opt for a chartered or shared cruise, Burma Boating is a social experience. The five nights we spent onboard saw us grow incredibly fond of the passengers and crew, although we guess it’s hard not to when you’re all sharing such unique experience. Even though the SY Jubilaeum’s crew were nearing the end of a busy season, it was impossible to tell. They were all extremely enthusiastic throughout and constantly came up with new ways to keep us entertained. Take the penultimate evening for example, the seemingly shy Mumu, whipped out a guitar from nowhere and started serenading us with some Myanmar love songs.
With the trip fast drawing to a close, Burma Boating had one more trick up their sleeves. On an island nearby to where we anchored on the final night, SY Jubilaeum’s crew prepared a seafood barbeque and bonfire. Noi grilled the remainder of the mackerel, hand dived scallops and squid to perfection. We then let off some sky lanterns, made a wish (as is custom) and opened our last bottle of wine by the fire.
In conclusion, Burma Boating is a very special experience, quite unlike anything else on offer in Myanmar at present. It’s not cheap, but we do feel it represents extremely good value for money. Starting from approximately USD3000 per person for a five night shared cruise, you’re guaranteed complete exclusivity and comfort in a destination that’s still considered extremely off the beaten track. You’re waited on hand and foot by experienced crew, cooked for by an incredibly talented chef, guided around areas rarely frequented by tourists, and perhaps best of all, you have no option but to completely disconnect. Once you feel comfortable with this (it took us a little bit of time), you’ll be sure to enjoy a taste of what it feels like to be truly free.
For more information on Burma Boating, or how to go about incorporating it into typical Myanmar touring, do not hesitate to contact one of our specialists now by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.