In the Andaman Islands archipelago south east of India in the Andaman Sea, on remote and little-known North Sentinel Island, lives the world’s last wild tribe, a fierce community of people who most closely resemble African pygmies. Very little is known about them; why they’re here or where they came from, because, while many have tried, to this day no one else has ever set foot on this island.
As European powers spread their influence across India and South East Asia, several traders and explorers tried to land here, but were always rebutted by the locals. With spears. The Sentinelese are actually one of four Negrito tribes living in the Andaman Islands, the other three being the Great Andamanese, the Onge and the Ang. Since British, and later Indian settlement, their numbers have dwindled so their villages are now protected, and strictly off limits to tourists.
Nearby Nicobar Islands (also off limits) are home to two Mongoloid tribes, the Nicobarese and the Shompen, and again, nobody knows how they came to be here, and indeed, how many are left.
I discover all these fascinating anthropological insights on board the Silver Discoverer, one of Silversea Expeditions’ fleet of luxury cruise ships. So, while these islands are relatively remote, they’re actually really easy to access on a cruise from Phuket, and we sail past them in the lap of luxury, fed and watered at least five times a day with gourmet food and the finest of wines, all included in the cost of the ticket.
My spacious cabin comes with an equally spacious ensuite, king-size bed and my own personal butler, whom I struggle to find tasks for as he hovers each day with suggestions of breakfast in bed and requests to launder and press my evening attire.
Also on board the ship, a range of experts, here to guide us through the various geological, historical, anthropological, and ecological aspects of the region. As we sail from one port to the next, in the late afternoon, one or two of the on-board experts prepare us for the next day’s excursion, the seminar accompanied by the cocktail of the day and canapes, in case we’re slightly peckish it being at least an hour since afternoon tea.
The 11-night cruise takes in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, then heads to Myanmar’s capital Yangon, on to Lampi Island and the Kawthuang and Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar, before returning to Phuket.
Sailing from Phuket to Port Blair, we learn about the Andaman Islands’ mysterious anthropological history, its later more blood-thirsty history as a British Penal Colony and its role in India’s fight for independence, from the engaging and knowledgeable on board lecturers. And then when we land, we tour the places we’ve learned about.
After visiting the rather sinister Cellular Gaol, used to house political prisoners by the British, we learn about the island’s violent history as a penal colony, its brief occupation by Japanese forces during WWII and its role in India’s independence, all through the medium of a laser light show, projected the ruins of the old British settlement, which seems to have been not unlike a posh colonial country club. There’s a swimming pool on the shore that still seems to be in better condition than most ocean pools in Sydney.
The buildings however, have not fared so well, with large fig trees growing through the middle of most, their root systems cross-hatching the brickwork, like something out of Jungle Book. An odd selection of animals wander through the grounds, herds of spotted dear and white rabbits, while fruit bats fly overhead.
The following day we head for remote North and South Cinque Islands, uninhabited, picture-perfect desert islands. White sandy beaches fringed with palm trees, and a heavily wooded interior, surrounded by crystal clear shallow lagoons dotted with coral outcrops.
From here we sail to Yangon to seek out a few of Myanmar’s mysteries, visiting the country’s oldest and grandest temples, including the most famous Schwedagon Pagoda, which towers over the city, at 99m tall, glistening in the sunlight being covered in 60 tonnes of gold plating, topped by a stupa containing over 7000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires, and a massive emerald positioned to reflect the last rays of the setting sun.
On the waterfront, the crumbling, grandiose administrative buildings of old Rangoon, capital for British Burma for over 100 years, still stand. Some converted into labyrinthine office blocks, some with trees growing through them (though still occupied), some transformed into luxury hotels and some, such as the General Post Office and the Port Authority, still operating in their original capacity.
We leave the bustling city of Yangon after a couple of days’ exploration and head back out to the Andaman Sea to another remote outpost. The Lampi Marine National Park encompasses a group of islands in the Myeik Archipelago, 800 islands stretched along the coastline of southern Myanmar. The area is covered by tropical evergreen rainforests and surrounded by extensive coral reef system.
Lampi Island is the largest island in the group, the core of the marine park, covered by lush tropical rainforest with a rocky coastline dotted with white sandy beaches. The rivers and inlets are lined with thick mangrove forests and surrounded by seagrass meadows, important feeding grounds for sea turtles and dugongs.
It’s also home to another mysterious population, Moken sea gypsies who have hidden themselves away from authorities in a sheltered bay, deep inside the national park. As we arrive in the early morning in our little fleet of Zodiacs, the Moken fishermen are heading out to sea waving as they pass us by.
We spend some time weaving through the mangroves looking for dugongs, turtles and birds before settling on one of the beaches, where a grand-looking seafood lunch awaits us, which the crew has whipped up in our absence.
It’s our last day in this pristine archipelago before returning to bustling Phuket, back to civilisation, so we soak it all in, stretching the day out for as long as we can before returning to the ship for our last supper.
For departure dates, check out the website: www.silversea.com