Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

After-hours in Myeik Archipelago

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Myeik nights.04

Humanity is engaged in an ongoing war against darkness – not in the metaphorical good-versus-evil sense, in which pure-hearted Hobbits drop magic rings into volcanoes to banish the forces of shadow, but in the literal sense of wiring the world with power lines, flipping the switch and pretending the sun never sets on civilisation.

This mania for poking artificial illumination into all corners of the planet has, since the discovery of electricity in the late 19th century, become one of the enduring hallmarks of human progress.

To a certain extent this is all well and good – it would be callous and absurd to begrudge anyone the right to enjoy the benefits of electricity – but I am also not afraid to admit that there are times when I find myself sympathising with the darkness, in all its mystery and ambiguity.

At such times I feel an overwhelming urge to turn my back to the light and retreat to those ever-shrinking zones where the power lines have not yet reached, and where the stars and planets have not yet been smothered by the electric glow of the city.

Living in Myanmar has provided some good opportunities to escape The Glow and become one with the night – often without the need to even leave my apartment, and usually at times that were unexpected and unwanted.

The best moments, however, have occurred during trips outside the city: spending the night in off-the-grid monasteries while trekking in Shan State; starting a daylong push for the 3091-metre summit of Natmataung in Chin State at 3:30am under an intensely twinkling, unpolluted sky; and venturing out for a nocturnal amble around Mrauk Oo, where fireflies vied with the stars as the main source of illumination.

But trumping all these was my experience in Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi Region.

My previous trips, however active, had all involved sleeping indoors, but in the southern islands my wife and I effectively lived outside over the course of the six-day trip: eating, drinking, relaxing and sleeping on the open-air upper deck of the live-aboard boat that took us from Myeik to Kawthoung.

With no walls around us, and only a sun-shading tarp over our heads, there was no impediment to watching every sunrise and sunset from beginning to end, nor was there any distraction from experiencing the night-time hours in all their quiet glory.

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We knew from the start that our journey would be different from anything we had done before. On the first day our boat Ayer Princess left Myeik jetty at 5pm, just in time to watch the sun go down as we wove our way through the islands lying just off the coast.

We were the only two guests on the boat (along with five crew members), and despite the presence of three double-occupancy cabins below deck, we opted to settle in on the top deck, which was equipped with rattan chairs, a table, a reasonably comfortable bed, and a cooler full of water, soft drinks and beer.

We poured some drinks and basked in the smell and taste of the salty air, the feel of the wind, and the sight of the blue water and incandescent clouds. As day disappeared, the stars took their place in the indigo sky, a transition we witnessed as the crew brought us a feast of fresh food for dinner: chicken with cashew nuts, fried watercress and mushrooms, sweet and sour fish, and prawn tempura.

Our boat stopped for the night around 9:30pm, and our generator and lights stayed on for another 30 minutes as we prepared for sleep. Only when the electricity was switched off did the atmosphere take on an even more magical quality: light breeze, swaying boat, sparkling stars. A line of squid boats floated on the distant horizon, their banks of lights not enough to ruin our view of the sky.

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I woke several times that first night. The fact that I was not accustomed to sleeping on a boat probably contributed to the sense of unease I felt whenever I drifted toward wakefulness, but each time I opened my eyes the disquiet was replaced by silent, appreciative awe.

The first time I woke, I noticed the wind had died down but the stars still decorated the sky in glittering abundance. Strangely, hypnotically, the water seemed to shimmer with an eerie green luminescence, as if while we slept our boat had drifted across some invisible divide between worlds and into an alien ocean.

Waking later, I found that the wind had returned and a sickle moon had risen, sending the dimmest stars into retreat and casting a silver streak across the water. Later still, during the darkest hours before dawn, we were approached by another boat, whose crew used our vessel to anchor their fishing net, returning at daybreak to retrieve their catch.

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And so it went throughout the journey, the days spent exploring islands, coves and coral reefs by foot, kayak and flipper, and the evenings descending like an enchanted curtain over the Andaman Sea and the islands of the archipelago. Each night brought new surprises.

On our last night in the archipelago we anchored in a small bay between two low islands with names straight out of a Scooby-Doo episode: Myauk Pyu (White Monkey) and Thay Yae (Ghost). There was no village in sight, but three or four small fishing boats floated nearby. We were sheltered from the wind by the twin islands, and the atmosphere was calm and quiet.

My wife and I watched the sun go down as we ate our usual multi-course meal with fresh seafood, washed down with red wine and beer. As had been typical throughout the trip – during which we had been waking before dawn and spending many hours each day swimming, snorkelling and kayaking – we were asleep by 10:30pm.

On this night I slept through until 4:30am, at which time my wife and I both woke up. We didn’t try to go back to sleep. Instead we lay on our bed watching the stars in the western sky, where Ursa Major and Ursa Minor were clearly visible. We saw a few blinking satellites crossing the heavens, as well as a handful of falling meteors – I counted four, my wife seven.

We also glimpsed some peculiar sights, including what looked like another shooting star, except that as it streaked across the sky it followed a horizontal, rather than a downward, trajectory until it flared out. We both considered it too strange to add to our meteor count.

Odder still was a star-like light that we watched for many minutes as it moved quickly and erratically – up, down, sideways, diagonally – its bizarre dance confined to a small area of the sky. My wife and I both saw it and we were both baffled.

I tend to think it actually was a star, its apparent movement an optical illusion caused by the movement of our boat on the waves, coupled with the lack of a fixed visual reference on the ground. (The moon was new, and the night was so dark we couldn’t see the outlines of the nearby islands.)

My wife, on the other hand, calmly explained it away as an unidentified flying object whose pilot was clearly whacked out on space-yaba.

Eventually the lights in the sky, and their accompanying mysteries, faded with the inevitable rising of the sun over the trees of White Monkey Island. END

Myeik nights.01


This story was published in the May 1-7 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. Layout below:

Blog.Weekend_May_01 __ 14-15

Written by latefornowhere

May 3, 2015 at 6:49 am

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