The Moken is a group of maritime hunter-gathers that traditionally roamed freely between the small islands, reefs and shoals in the Andaman Sea and ranged across an area that embraces the waters off Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Also known as Selung, Sea Gypsies, Chaolay and Sea Nomads, they are similar to sea nomads in the Sulu and South China Seas between the Philippines and Indonesia. Although there are a number of subgroups, the Moken can be viewed as a single unified group in that different groups have similar myths and religious practices and their languages are mutually intelligible. [Source: Jacques Ivanoff, National Geographic, April 2005]
There were once many Sea Nomad groups, who spoke a variety of languages. The Selung and Moken are two names used to describe nomadic boat people that live off the coast of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. Moken has been used to describe people living around Mergui Archipelago off Myanmar. The origin of Selung is not clear. Moken means “sea drowned.” Moken are called "Chao Nam" or "Chao Le" by Thais. In Thailand, the Moken are regarded as one of the three branches of the Chao Lay. Malays use the term"Orang Laut." “Selung” is a Burmese name. They are also called Salon, Selon, Selong and Silung in Myanmar. Selung may be derived from the Thai-Malay placename Salang (Thalang) Phuket, where Moken may have lived. [Source: Barbara S. Nowak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]
Moken speak a Malay-based language and were given a written language by missionaries. They have little interest in writing and generally can’t write Burmese. Their religion is tied to their myths about their origins and the sea. Youths often made their own boats at relatively young age so they could roam around and look for women. Moken have traditionally gone to sea in the dry season and stayed on islands in the wet season. Their boats have traditionally been painted black and have curved notches in the bow and stern (symbolizing a mouth and an anus). Many have diesel engines. When their engines break down they paddle.
Moken Populations and Where They Live
There are about 2,000 to 3,000 Moken. Population statistics have been based on estimates. Bernatzik estimated the Moken population of Burma was around 5,000 in 1939. This figure included settled boat nomads. The population for all sea nomads has decreased since the early 20th century because of disease, intermarriage and attrition as many became land settlers as a result of government intervention. Individuals who join mainland-style communities, sometimes by marriage, are no longer considered "people of the sea." The Sea Nomads of the Andaman are related to similar Sea Nomads in the Sulu and South China seas. [Source: Barbara S. Nowak,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
Moken live primarily along the coast Tenasserim, the long strip of land that dangles from southern Myanmar, and the Mergui Archipelago of southern Myanmar and western Thailand. E. Richard Sorenson wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““From north to south, from the multitudes of tiny islands along Myanmar's coast down past Thailand to Malaysia, there is today a spectrum of adaptation. Off Myanmar the Sea Nomads are fully animistic and nomadic. To the south there are varying degrees of seminomadism and Islamic influence. The most nomadic of the shore-settling groups build rude temporary shelters close to the tide line on one island after another, inhabiting each for several weeks or months before moving on. The least nomadic have permanent home communities stretching into their islands, from which they go out to sea. Between these poles are those who have central sites they prefer and consider their "home," but who spend much time in temporary shelters on different isles. On a few large islands near the mainland, some groups live and work among mainland people and have abodes in separate zones within alien communities.
Barbara S. Nowak wrote: The major islands on which the Moken wander include Tavoy (Mali), King (Kadan), Elphinstone (Thayawthadangyi, Dung), Grant, and Ross (Daung) in the north; Domel (Letsok-Aw), Kisseraing (Kanmaw), Sullivan (Lanbi), Owen, Malcolm, and Bentinck islands to the south; and the southernmost point of Myanmar at Victoria Point (Kawthaung), including Saint Matthew's (Zadetkyi), Saint Luke's (Zadetkale), and the Loughborough Islands. Moken reside along the Thai coast down to Ko Phra Thong, Tongka, at the foot of Phuket. |~|
The Burmese/Thai communities include four distinct dialect groups: Dung (Doang) residing in the northen end of the archipelago around the islands of Elphinstone, Grant, and Ross; the Ja-it dialect group living around Lampi Island and Bokpyn; Lbi speakers living around Victoria Point; and the Lawta dialect group of Lawta and Tongka, Thailand. Farther south along the Thai coast at Ko Lanta Yai and Ko Lanta, in the Trang area, are Orang Laut Kappir (from the Arabic kafir, "unbeliever"). There were once significant Moken populations in Malaysia, where they were called Orang Laut and Orang Biduanda Kallang, that roamed as far south as Singapore. But they are now gone or mostly gone. Skeat and Ridley reported that there were only eight Moken families left out of the 100 families removed from Singapore to Johor in 1847.
Mengui Archipelago, Home of the Moken
The Mengui Archipelago (in southern Myanmar near Thailand) is a string of 800 mostly uninhabited islands with stunning white sand beaches and lovely blue and green water, Moken camps and delightful rain forest teaming with wildlife such as sea eagles, kites, hornbills, herons, gibbons, flying fox, crab-eating monkeys and elephants.
The islands haven’t changed that much since then. The Moken that live here live in temporary huts. Burmese fishermen live on stilted huts in the forest near the beach. At low tide they collect shellfish, shrimp and shellfish, check their fish traps and fish with tridents. At high tide fishermen head out in their long-tailed boats and traditional Mawken boats, on which Moken live when they go out to sea.
Pula Nala Island is the home of Marghon Galet, a village where the government has attempted to settle a community of Moken. The village is kind of artificial. The Moken have traditionally not lived in on one place. There are lots of Burmese here as well as some souvenir shops, a monastery, a school, a hospital; and fuel depot. But not many Moken if any. About of them 400 Moken live there in the rainy season. The government encourages them to send their children to school but the Moken are not interested. When they are in the boats in the dry season, Burmese fishermen occupy their homes. Some of these are dynamite fishermen and illegal timber harvesters.
Origin and History of the Moken
The Moken speak Austronesian languages. Austronesian people are thought to have originated in southern China. It is thought the ancestors of the Moken moved from there through Southeast Asia to Malaysia, eventually splitting off from other migrant groups in the late 17th century. The Moken lifestyle began to change after World War II when mainlanders moved to the islands to escape diseases. Nineteenth-century reports of Moken all describe the decimating impact of cholera and smallpox on Moken populations. The Moken were dealt a blow when the islands they traditionally visited were transformed by the tourist industry.
The historical origins of the Moken people is not clear. Based on their Austronesian language, it is theorized they originated in Southern China as agriculturalists 5000–6000 years ago and along with other Austronesian peoples migrated south and west and settled on different South Asian Islands. Some have speculated that the Moken were forced off of these coastal islands into a nomadic lifestyle on the water due to rising sea levels. [Source: Wikipedia]
Moken oral history and reconstruction of historical materials suggests that the Moken originated in the southern part of the Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, suggesting a cultural and historical connection between Moken and peninsular Malaysia's Jakun. The history of Orang Laut (sea nomads living around Singapore) is full of stories of Malay slave raiding and exploitation that forced the sea nomads' settled ancestors to flee in boats and adopt a nomadic maritime life-style. [Source: Barbara S. Nowak,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ A characteristic consistently recorded about Moken is their timidity and the likelihood of their fleeing outsiders. The transition of sea people into settled coastal fishing peoples, integrating cultural features of the locally dominant culture of the region and accelerating during this past century, was occurring long ago. The sea nomads' maritime mobility and their intermittent and scattered sedentization had a profound effect by carrying and spreading "Malay" cultural traits.
Moken Religion, Spiritual Beliefs and Burials
Among the Moken, traditional animist beliefs have coexisted with Islamic, Christian and Buddhist beliefs. In recent decades the Moken have faced pressure to accept these faiths but many have refused, retaining their animist beliefs. The Moken worship two spirit gods — one for the good and one for evil. Nineteenth-century missionaries and government officers recorded Mergui Moken belief in a spirit called Thooda (Thida), which some anthropologists believe is derived from the Thai god Theoda.[Source: Barbara S. Nowak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
Spirits are thought to cause illness and death, storms, thunder and lightning, or provide food and protection from other spirits. Illness and death are believed to be caused by evil spirits who enter a body through a wound. Moken believe that spirits require propitiation with food and drink left at temples and carved spirit posts.|~|
Shaman perform rites at festivals and funerals. They lead ceremonies in which they communicate with and make offerings to spirits and exorcise illness from the sick. Shamanic ability is not inherited. Women may become shamans. Sorcerers are believed to be capable of causing sickness and death. During healing ceremonies shaman go into trance and ask the spirits for help in curing the patient. Sometimes shaman pull pain spirits from the sick and deposit them in carved figures which are disposed of. |~|
Moken believe souls go the east while evil spirits remain in the grave. They fear the evil grave spirits so cemeteries are located as far away from where people live as possible. The traditional method of burial was to place the corpse on a four-post platform wrapped with bamboo sticks. Boat owners were buried in their boats, which were cut in half. The boat thus became part of the grave goods, which also included the individual's personal possessions. By 1850 platform burials were abandoned and replaced with burial on the beach. |~|
Some Moken carve and paint totems called spirit poles. The are used in full-moon rituals by shaman who use them to contact ancestors According to National Geographic: “Connecting to the past the ancestors are summoned during the annual spirit pole festival, For weeks ahead of time, the Moken gather ritual offerings, including cakes of rice flour, alcohol, betel nuts, and cans of soda—whose bubbles represent life-giving wind. It is a joyous day of song and recitation, led by a master of ritual. Here he also acts as the shaman, who, in a trance, tastes the head, blood and flippers of a fresh turtle and asks the ancestors for favors, translating their replies for the community.
Moken Ceremonies, Turtles and Festivals
Moken have an annual ceremony in several neighboring boat groups come together to "feed the spirits" and ask for good health and a good year's sea harvest. Shamanism is a central element of the spirit festival. Shaman are involved in curing illnesses. Sick people propitiate spirits and ask for good health. [Source: Barbara S. Nowak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
The Moken like to sing at their festivals and are regarded as singers. One of their musical instruments is a drum made from monitor lizard skin. Devotional offerings made at festivals include popcorn, alcoholic drinks, honey, betel and the flesh and blood of ducks, chickens, dolphins and turtles. The most important Moken rituals involve turtles. The turtle has many meanings. It represents all women: daughters, sisters and especially life-giving mothers. Harpooning a turtle means to marry her. They are caught live and when eaten are shared by all. Moken woman prepare iron forged into harpoon used to spear turtles for ritual festivals.
The Moken or Sea-gypsy festival is held at Ma-Kyon-Galet village on Lampi Island, one of the islands of Myeik Archipelago of Southern Myanmar during the second week of February each year. The visitors to the Moken Festival can see the Moken traditional ritual dances as well as the traditional dances of the local tribes of Dawei and Kawthaung. It has been arranged that the visitors can also participate in some Moken spiritual dances. Bonfires are held during the nightime. In addition to the dances and show booths. Submerging competitions and traditional regattas are held.
Moken Family, Kin and Marriage
Among Moken, nuclear families are generally the rule. In some cases you can find extended households made of young newlyweds and elderly parents. Average household size ranges from four to ten people. Women are good with boats and fishing as men. They also have traditionally gathered strand fauna and wove pandanus mats for sleeping and barter while men hunted, built boats, and dived for marine life, which women processed by cooking or drying. Midwives still assist in the birthing process. . There is no ceremony following birth. Mothers name their newborn without ceremony. [Source: Barbara S. Nowak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
There are no permanent kin groups. Boat groups are composed of kin from the both the husband’s and wive’s side who can be called upon in times of need. The large flotillas that come together are probably larger bilateral kin groups. Gender is distinguished only for parents, and parents' siblings. There are general terms for sister (lua ) and daughter (me'). Kin terms not distinguished by sex may be marked with the designation kanai (man) or binai (woman). Cousins are called "friend" (ja), suggesting they are outside the family's "inner circle."
Traditionally, a couple became married when they started having sex together. Couples arrange their own marriages with the consent of the bride's parents, whom the groom approaches with a go-between. He may provide a small bride-price to the bride's parents. Marriage between Moken women and non-Moken men is not uncommon. While there is no formal bans against polygyny, it is uncommon. Individuals who marry into mainland-style communitiesare no longer considered "people of the sea."
Some of Moken that live off of Myanmar have retained their traditional ways — living in simple shelters bear the ride line of one island for several weeks before moving onto another island. while most of the others have been assimilated to varying degrees. Some live in permanent homes. Many have a home base from which make excursions out to sea.
The Moken do not live on farming. Instead they roam in the sea near the coasts and pursuit on sea and marine products that they can obtain in in various traditional ways. Their customary way of living in the sea is extraordinary in that they take all the household things— utensils. food rations and including dogs. cats and chickens — with them on the boat. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
According to the Myanmar government: “ The Moken people are so simple and shy: non-violent, egalitarian, they don’t like outsiders. That means when you arrive in their group. You feel like an intruder. They won't say anything. They won't push you away. They won't welcome you. They ask what are you doing there. That's the main question they ask you. So. it's quite difficult to be in touch with them. So shy, and really on their own and living in their own story, legend and dreams that are difficult for outsiders to understand. it. “ [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
During the hot and cool seasons the Moken survive by fishing and gathering and selling of natural marine products. During the rainy season, when the weather is strong and rough, they live on the nearest islands they can find, where they build stilted hut made of bamboo, canes or anything that they can find useful for building huts. Honey is greatly valued. It is offered to ancestral spirits and consumed. Moken that collect it coat themselves in mud and plug leaves into their ears and nose and fill the air with smoke before approaching the hive.
The Moken have traditionally traveled around in handmade outrigger boats and owned few possessions. They shared everything they had, even with a strangers, a custom based on the belief that the sea was bountiful and there was enough for all. They showed virtually no signs of materialism or greed. They didn’t save; they didn’t want possession because carrying a lot of things only slowed them down. The accumulation of wealth went against their social and community spirit. Those that settle down often lose these values. The only possessions that meant something to the Moken were their boats and a few simple seafood-gathering tools. They caught only what they needed for that day and didn’t use nets. They didn’t try to make large catches and they didn’t sell what they caught. Individuals had a sense of well-being when the group was happy. Outsiders were generally welcomed.
E. Richard Sorenson wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Whatever they might gain by luck or labor is shared spontaneously with everyone at hand, including nearby strangers, a practice that slowly fades when they settle down. No mental ledger sheets are kept. They have a sensual sense of unity extending to the sea, to the life in it, and to nature's forces. The sea produces all the things they like, in diverse profusion. Those in the north say: "We have a good life." Those further south say: "We had a good life with few worries in the past." [Source: E. Richard Sorenson, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
“Traditional Sea Nomads eschew personal ownership. They do not store largesse, nor do they hoard: accumulated goods impede a nomadic way of life. Among the Sea Nomads keeping goods for oneself undermines the subtle social impulse that infuses them with joy, an experience they value deeply. The sociality that is the basis of their way of living engenders a rapport that is not easy to reconcile with the practice of private ownership. To have more of anything than does another, or to domineer by wealth (or in any other way) is a crassness, an atavism, a behavior incompatible with and destructive of their cultivated system and of their collective sense. Where anger, selfishness, deceit, or fraud enter Nomad life, as they do when entrepreneurs come to settle, traditional Sea Nomad bands must depart or suffer a traumatic collapse of their basic way of being. |~|
“Underlying their adaptive and consensual way of life is their deep social impulse. Growing up in such a milieu, children seize on patterns of behavior that increase collective joy. To do this effectively they must first assimilate the desires and states of mind of those around them. The rapport thus cultivated deepens and solidifies during adolescence. The sharpened state of feeling that suffuses Nomad teenage groups creates a deep but subtle intuitive rapport that fosters behavioral and economic consonance. |~|
Moken Fishing, Diving and Eyesight
Moken have traditionally used harpoons, hooks, and hands to fish. Fishing with nets and lines is not part of Moken custom. At low tide they collected oysters clams, snails and crabs, gathered turtle eggs and sea slugs and speared and harpoon fishes, turtles, dugong, trepang and crustaceans at low tide and caught sharks for their fins. A traditional way to attract fish up from deep ocean reefs is to moor a rope at a depth of 70 to 80 meters with palm leafs attached every second metre up to 10 meters below the surface. This "artificial reef" brings larger fish nearer to the surface. [Source: In pictures: The Moken,, BBC, July 18, 2013; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures", National Geographic]
Like the turtles of their rituals, the Moken spend much of their time submerged, both for work and play. Plastic goggles are now the fashion among the nomads, who used to carve their eye pieces from wood, then attach glass lenses from broken bottles with tree sap. The Moken are exceptional free divers They can dive to a depth 20 meters (65 feet) and and stay submerged for several minutes on a single breath as they search of fish and sealife. Even without weights, they become negatively buoyant enough to walk across the bottom of the sea as if hunting on land.
Moken used to dive and submerge several times in a day. It is presumed that the Moken are the only people who can stay underwater for many minutes without using oxygen tank. Today the Moken tie stones to their waist as ballast and reportedly can dive as deep as 60 meters breathing through an air hose to the surface. On a Chao Lay in Thailand, AFP reported: “In the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, connected to the surface by a slender pipe stuck in his mask — a "thread of life" allowing him to breathe — Sanan stalks fish and shellfish, spear in hand. A few kicks of his flippers and he skewers three groupers before rising to the surface. [Source: Thanaporn Promyamyai et Sophie Deviller, AFP, November 23, 2020]
Moken have unusually good underwater-vision because their eyes have adapted to the liquid environment. Their eyesight under water is so sharp that researchers have studied it. Heidi Schultz wrote in National Geographic online: “A 2003 study by Swedish scientists shows that Moken children see twice as well underwater as European children do. They are able to focus on and pick out small shellfish and other sea life from the rocky ocean floor that for most people are only a blur. The human eye is adapted to function optimally in air and its focusing capability deteriorates underwater, that's why we need goggles to see clearly while swimming. The researchers found that Moken children are able to constrict their pupils more than European children, thereby producing sharper images. They were also able to effect a greater change in the shape of the eye's lens to increase visual focus (a process known as accommodation). The researchers are still unsure as to whether the ability is primarily genetic or learned, but they speculate that the environmental component plays the larger role because preliminary evidence suggests that non-Moken can be trained to improve their underwater vision.
Moken Boat Life
Traditionally the Moken formed boating communities with 30 or 40 boats that head out to sea together, generally no further than 50 kilometers from their home island. They spent much of their time living on their 6- to 8-meter dugout canoes with a main a sailing mast made of palm sheets. The boat has walls made palm leaves and an hearth built with earth on the deck to prevent a fire. A sheltered living area, built on deck toward the boat's stern, is constructed of split bamboo arch supports covered with a removable palmleaf roof, which can be rolled up and stowed away or used as a shelter on shore.Even when the came to islands they continued to live on their boats. When they do ashore they sometimes build small temporary beach huts or. Settled Moken construct single-room houses on stilts on the strand or out in the water.
The Moken spend eight to nine months at sea each year, with some boats traveling more than 1,600 kilometers in that time. Seasonal monsoon rains make the Andman Sea rough and unnavigable at time of the year. During the periods of the heaviest rains and winds—mainly in May, June and October—the Moken take refuge on land, making temporary houses from wood, bamboo and pandanus leaves they forage from the forest. Fish are caught and shells are collected from the shore. New boats are built.
Boat building is a skill passed down through the generations from father to son. The boat, called a kabang, is the mainstay of their nomadic culture. Each is hollowed out in the forest from a single an old-growth log, then hauled to the beach, where the hull and roof are built. A kabang take about four months to complete. Most modern kabang have motors. Those that employ sails use ones made from plastic. In the old days they were made of pandanus leaves. Barnacles and algae that collect on the hull are burnt off with burning pandanus leaves.
These days many Moken use longtail boats like those used by Burmese and Thais and tarpaulins have replaced the palm leaf roof and engines are used instead of sails.
Moken Boat Communities and Family Life
The Moken often travel in a flotilla of boats grouped by extended family, with individuals occasionally venturing off to seek tradable items like shells and sea stars, find a spouse or healer or join another flotilla for a ritual. Each kabang is occupied by a family or extended family with five or more relatives. The sleeping quarters are cramped and possessions are basic and minimal. Their boats represent the human body. Inside the Moken eat, sleep, cook and give birth. Young couples with a baby live with their mother’s parents until their community builds them their own boat. [Source: National Geographic]
A nuclear family of five or six usually spends much the year mobile at sea. Each boy will eventually help build a boat of his own. On the traditional panadanus leave sails a Moken epic goes: “Oh Young man, may the wind fill your sails. I ask the seven gusts of wind to come and blow. May they push the boat of the young man who is going home.”
Barbara S. Nowak wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““Boat communities are autonomous. Mergui boat communities are under the nominal direction of a headman who provides some amount of leadership to boat groups' movements and activities. Nuclear families form the primary residential boat unit. Five to ten boats form a community and travel together. Communities come together annually, forming flotillas of up to thirty or forty boats. [Source: Barbara S. Nowak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Sofie Olsen, BBC, Project Moken
Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022