Family adventure in Borneo & Burma
Dr Francoise Lyons and her family visited Borneo and Burma with Audley in December and January
As a family of four adults who like a combination of wildlife and adventure, Audley arranged for us to visit Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, followed by six days yachting in the unspoiled, undeveloped Mergui Archipelago off the coast of Burma (Myanmar).
Our intention was to see orangutans in the wild, so our first destination was Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley, Sabah. This is a totally isolated ecolodge in the midst of pristine primary rainforest. We were thrilled to see five orangutans in the trees, quite close to the lodge.
Jungle treks and waterfalls
We made the most of all the lodge offered, from lengthy jungle treks to night drives and walks accompanied by one of the naturalist guides. We saw a leopard cat, washing himself close to the road, monkeys and deer, flying foxes and a civet, as well as a myriad of vibrant birds, butterflies and insects.
We swam beneath a waterfall where a type of carp nibbled our toes. We saw herons and oriental darters fishing from our chalet alongside the Danum River and watched a monitor lizard and snake move along the riverbank. We walked the lodge's canopy walkway, 26 m (85 ft) above the forest floor, in the soft rain.
At night the wild boar and Sambar deer fed around the lodge and we listened to noisy hornbills, frogs and the '6 o’clock cicadas'. We slept soundly despite the heavy rain at night, which had swelled the Danum River by the morning.
Rehabilitating orphan orangutans
The young orphans are kept fenced off while they learn life skills, whereas older ones wander around the reserve freely. For us, the highlight was the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre within the complex, showing these critically endangered and rarely seen bears.
For our journey from Borneo to Burma, Audley had arranged a number of flights via Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, ending up at Ranong on the Thai/ Burma border. The transfer to our yacht was fun, going from Ranong, a bustling Thai border town, in a longtail boat directly to the yacht moored at Kawthaung.
We stayed on the 15 m (50 ft) catamaran SY Meltemi for our five-night Mergui Archipelago exploration. The Dutch captain, Roland, promised us from the start that there would 'always be more' and he did not disappoint as the six days went by.
A yachting adventure
I would not define this trip as a cruise, but as more of a yachting adventure in a beautiful and isolated area. It was perfect for us as active, adventure-seeking adults, involving a lot of snorkeling, swimming and clambering on and off the dinghy.
We also had the opportunity to fish, kayak and paddle board, and to help with the sailing. Being a large catamaran, Meltemi is a very stable boat, and was best enjoyed while under sail, when we achieved speeds of over nine knots at times.
Our route, up to the north of the archipelago then back around the outer islands to the south, varied according to the prevailing conditions. It was obvious we had an experienced captain looking after us, with a deep knowledge and understanding of the area. He also took into consideration what we and the other four guests on board (an Italian family of four adults) wanted to see and do during the voyage.
As the yacht only draws 1.5 m (5 ft) in the water, she can go into places in the archipelago where some of the larger yachts cannot, such as a snorkeling spot within a flooded caldera.
Fishing and barbecues
The fishing was a great success, with my son catching three king mackerel and an unusual-looking tuna, whose subspecies we have yet to identify. Several times we had mid-afternoon sashimi prepared within 30 minutes of the fish being landed.
We also ate our catch during lunch or dinner, as well as seafood obtained from the local fishing boats such as crabs and prawns — Roland liked to call this 'the local supermarket'. On one occasion we even boarded a fishing boat from the dingy while it was trawling slowly, to barter some crabs for the beers and cokes we had with us.
The food prepared by our chef, Kaylin, was mostly oriental cuisine with great variety and beautifully presented. The breakfasts were gargantuan and always welcome after an early morning swim.
Zoley, essentially the steward/guide/mate on the yacht, was an excellent barista, offering as good a choice of coffees as any self-respecting coffee bar, and he made a wicked fresh ginger tea or hot chocolate. He also helped Kaylin by barbecuing food on the stern.
The fourth crew member, Lou Lou, helped around with most jobs and also kept our cabins clean and tidy. Whenever we were out on the water swimming, Zoley was always at hand in the dinghy in case anyone felt tired or needed assistance.
New Year's Eve on an isolated beach
The Andaman Sea is plankton rich, making visibility while snorkeling poor at times, not helped by the sand being stirred up by winds and tides. It’s not as clear as the Maldives, but nevertheless we saw some species we had never seen before in the Indian Ocean. For me, the highlight was spending ten minutes snorkeling alongside a beautiful and graceful cuttlefish. There were also turtles, morays, anemones and corals, and a myriad of fish.
We spent New Year’s Eve on an isolated beach with no other yachts to be seen, and we could count around 30 other islands in the distance. We built a bonfire, lit lanterns and even had fireworks after a magical evening.
During the six days we were never at anchor near any other yacht, although occasionally a local fishing boat or night prawn fishing boat was at anchor nearby. The only times we saw another yacht were on the first and last days. The visit to the fishing village, where a few Burmese and Moken people live, was a treat, and the people charming.
Meltemi is very well appointed with four double cabins, each with modern en suite bathrooms. Being a catamaran, there was loads of deck space so the two families on board could spend time quite separately if desired, either on the huge foredeck/sunbathing area or flying bridge or in the saloon.
On the last night, Roland asked each of us what our best and worst moment of the trip had been and, as it was all so good, I found it difficult to answer. Roland told us that the Burmese government had started to sell off some of the islands in the archipelago and there was already evidence that some development was being started on some of them. My advice would be to go now, while the area remains relatively undeveloped. I left the yacht with sadness but with wonderful memories of our voyage.
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