Mergui Archipelago, Southern Myanmar
When cycling the world, visa duration is a serious consideration. Upon entering Thailand we were issued a 28 day stamp, as no actual visa is required for many nationalities. While this certainly saved us some money, it didn't ease the slight tension that goes with pedalling with a time restriction. Nevertheless we thought it would be enough and were just grateful for the ease of entry. We were planning to cycle from Trat (border with southern Cambodia) to Satun (border with northern Malaysia). This is around 1500km. So the daily distance calculation was fine, but it did not leave much time for side trips and relaxing.
We began to find our rhythm in this friendly and relatively developed country (compared to most others on our tour thus far) after only a few days and quickly discovered that bike touring here is wonderful. We really didn't want to rush, so after running a workshop in a school and hopping across the gulf to Hua Hin, we started looking at our options for extending our stay. In short; it is possible to extend the days on the visa-free regime by applying at any of the dozen or so immigration offices around the country. We were willing to do this and pay the fee in order to avoid overstay penalties, but then the idea came to mind of dipping into Myanmar. We are glad it did.
The new Myanmar E-visa ($50- 3 day processing) enables many tourists to enter at airports and some land/sea ports including Ranong-Kawthuang in the extreme south. There is very little information about this on the internet as anything other than a 'Visa-Run' for tourists/sexpats in Thailand wanting to go out-and-in for another 30 day stamp.
We had to dig around to find out whether there were any trips we could do to see some of Myanmar for a few days. There most certainly are. Using Kawthuang as a base a few tour companies offer 1 or 2 day boat trips to islands in the Mergui Archipelago. We visited 4 islands in the south including the entertainingly named Cock's Comb, and staying in a wooden bungalow next to the beach on Horseshoe Island. It was basic but blissful. We were delighted to be pretty much on our own snorkelling and kayaking, playing frisbee and kicking- back.
Many islands in south east asia are now overdeveloped for tourism and their beauty and isolation somewhat compromised because of it. These little islands in Myanmar though are still uninhibited, untamed and au-naturale. Well worth the trip even if pricey at $180 dollars all in, but it's difficult to put a price-tag on that experience.
The logistics involved with getting to the jumping off point, the town of Kawthuang, were not clear when we arrived at the Thai frontier. To be fair, everyone was helpful and finding a boat (yes this is a by sea entry point) to take us across on the 30 minute ride to Myanmar was easy. After some bargaining with eager drivers, it cost us about $7 to get ourselves and bikes across. When arriving in Kawthuang remember to report to immigration at the dock. We forgot to do this for 5 hours and only remembered when sipping beers after we had ridden right out of town to Pulo Tonton island, a good place to go as an out-and-back day ride if you want to experience the diverse culture of this part of the country. Thankfully the immigration process when we arrived back in to Kawthuang town was simple and involves no more payment.
I have mixed feelings about the town. It sure is different to Thailand; Intermittent power, Indian/Malay food and spices, ludicrously cheap drinks ($2 for a litre of Rum). Overall I think the change of environment and atmosphere broke up our Thai ride perfectly. However, we sure were glad to get back to 7-eleven and Cafe Amazon land, with a fresh 30 day stamp in our passports.
We chose Life Seeing Tours for the islands. They were fine. I think there must be some tacit collusion on pricing between operators. Many service the wealthier tourists staying at the Victoria Cliff Resort and pick up from there and Kawthuang's main pier.
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