Moken girl

Moken today are mainly found in the Mengui Archipelago of southern Myanmar. They have rejected agriculture, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and even fishing with nets. They generally try to avoid contact with the their Thai, Burmese, Malaysian and Indian neighbor, preferring to be among their own kind in their boats. They are known to flee at the sound of motor boats.

Moken don’t look that much different than Burmese or Thais. They spend much of their time resting and eating and smoking tobacco rolled in newsprint and drinking strong smelling rice whiskey. Most dress in Burmese clothes. A typical meal is made of boiled mollusks. They trade sea cucumbers and shells for rice and tools. Some have been hired to work in the pearling industry because of their ability dive deep and hold their breath a long time.

Their lives should not be romanticized. They have drinking and health problems. Many have skin diseases and look sick. They need doctors and medical care and are often illiterate, They have to compete with Burmese for sea cucumbers and fish. Sometimes they have their shells stolen by Burmese and Karens. . There is plenty of food. They know which islands have fresh water. They can’t write Burmese.

According to the BBC: “Even though many Moken now live permanently ashore, some families continue to spend days at a time living on their longtail boats fishing and collecting food. Tarpaulins have replaced the palm leaf roof and engines are used instead of sails. After the 2004 tsunami, some Moken were given numbered beach huts to live in.

Moken Economic Activity

Maritime and sedentarized Moken depend on the sea, fishing and collecting to be self-sufficient and take part in the money economic. Moken who have traditionally not been totally self-sufficient, depend on trade for food and other material needs. Spearing and harpooning of fish, turtles, dugong, trepang, and crustaceans at low tide are the most common techniques used to secure food and items to sell or trade. Women have traditionally gathered seashells above the waterline by the shore during low tide. Small homemade baskets, plastic buckets and simple knives are the tools they need. [Sources: BBC, Barbara S. Nowak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Moken collect and trade marine products such as sea shells, oysters, mollusks, ambergris, seaweeds and pearls as well as the edible nest of swifts, honey and medicinal plants that grow on the islands.. Many also worked as pirates or provided assistance for Malay and Thai pirates. They traded seafood, pearls, other of pearl and shark fins for rice, sago. tobacco, opium and iron tools. Some Moken men are employed on Burmese fishing boat vessels—and occasionally die from diving too deeply or breathing bad air from old compressors.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Shellfish, including oysters, clams, snails, and crabs, as well as other mollusks and crustaceans, turtle eggs, and sea slugs are collected along the beaches for subsistence and barter. Shallow-water diving for such bartering items as sea slugs, pearl oysters, rays, and sea snails is also important. Forest products collected include wild fruits, roots, honey, and wax. Moken hunt pig and deer with dogs and spears. Domestic animals typically include dogs used in hunting, and chickens; a few households also keep cats. |~|

Much of the collecting Moken do is for barter. The sea products they exchange include trepang, tortoise-shell, mother of pearl, agar, pearls, sea slugs, and shark fins. They barter forest products including birds' nests, woven pandanus mats, and tree resins with Malay and Chinese dealers for rice, sago, cloth, tobacco, alcohol, opium, and iron tools. Bernatzik reported traders marrying Moken women so the women's kin would become their exclusive trading partners. Traders established an exploitative monopoly by putting Moken into debt and dependence through opium addiction. Traders also acted as intermediaries for Moken with the outside world. |~|

Moken and Chao Lay in Thailand

There are more than 8,000 sea gypsies in Thailand, called "Chao Lay", "Chao Nam" or "Chao Le" by Thais. In Thailand, the Moken are regarded as one of the three branches of the Chao Lay. Over generations, some gypsies have abandoned their nomadic ways and moved to huts on the shore. But the fishermen among them still spend long periods at sea, often following the old traditions of moving to different fishing grounds according to the moon phases. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 5, 2005]

Thanaporn Promyamyai and Sophie Deviller of AFP wrote: “For the animist Chao Lay the beach is a vital space where they keep their colourful wooden boats and where they pray and give thanks to their ancestors. “The Chao Lay have unique gifts and traditions that have served them well. And their deep understanding of their environment allowed many of them to spot the warning signs of the devastating 2004 tsunami and flee. Most of them escaped and helped many tourists to safety too. “We will always be the children of the sea," smiles Alim. [Source: Thanaporn Promyamyai et Sophie Deviller, AFP, November 23, 2020]

Abby Goodnough wrote in the New York Times: “A few thousand chao ley live on the Andaman coast or islands near it. Most are more assimilated than the Moken, but they still lead segregated, impoverished lives. Yupa Klathalay, a 35-year-old Moken, said she visited the mainland a few times a month to sell sea cucumbers but had no interest in moving there."This place comes from the old generation, and we have to continue it," Yupa said. [Source: Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2005]

The Moken know the mysteries of the ocean better than most Thais, having roamed it for centuries as fishermen and divers. They used to live half the year in houseboats on the Andaman Sea, wandering between Thailand and Myanmar; and, while less itinerant now, they remain closely attuned to the water. They are animists who believe that the sea, their island and all objects have spirits, and the Moken use totem poles to communicate with them. Many cannot read or write, passing lore and knowledge down through the generations orally. They have their own language, though many younger Moken now speak Thai. Some go to the mainland to live and find work, but Salama said many return."They're not used to it over there," he said.

Moken in Myanmar

Jacques Ivanoff, wrote in National Geographic, “On the horizon we see them, their flotilla of small hand-built boats, called kabang, like a mirage beneath the setting sun. They are wary of strangers: At our approach they split up and scatter. We close in on one boat, and I call out reassuring words in their language. The boat slows and finally stops, rolling on the swell in heavy silence...An elder named Gatcha who allows me on his family's boat. [Source: Jacques Ivanoff, National Geographic, April 2005]

The Moken’s home “is the Mergui Archipelago, some 800 islands scattered along 250 miles (400 kilometers) of the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar (formerly Burma). For decades piracy and Myanmar's military dictatorship kept outsiders away. ..As divers and beachcombers the Moken take what they need each day — fish, mollusks, and sandworms to eat; shells, sea snails, and oysters for barter with the mostly Malay and Chinese traders they encounter. They accumulate little and live on land only during the monsoons.

Also known in Salon in Myanmar, the Moken live part of the year on a few littoral area on the fringes of the Andaman sea and part of the time on their boats. The Moken can be found in the southern part of Myeik Archipelago which has more than 800 small islands. It is believed that in the ancient times the Moken lived on the Malay Peninsula until the Malay incursion when they left their native places and lived scattered throughout the Myeik Archipelago. Nowadays the Moken can only be found on the coastal islands around Kawthoung. formerly Victoria Point — the southernmost town of Myanmar. In Thailand, a population of 200 Moken was forced to move to the Surin Islands National Park as a tourist attraction.

According to the Myanmar government The Moken nomads do not easily mix with other people. They do not participate in economic, social or cultural life of the countries they live in. Their society has different cultural values from those offered by modern society. The Moken have faced pressure to accept other faiths, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but many have refused, retaining their animist beliefs.

Moken Family in Myanmar

Jacques Ivanoff, wrote in National Geographic, “"The Moken are born, live, and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea," goes an epic of the Moken. For eight to nine months a year they live aboard their low-slung kabang — punishment, according to the myth, laid upon the society by an ancestral island queen, Sibian, when her husband, Gaman the Malay, committed adultery with her sister. The queen declared that the kabang would represent the human body, with the front of the boat a mouth constantly seeking nourishment and the back an anus for defecation. [Source: Jacques Ivanoff, National Geographic, April 2005]

The wave troughs look immense from the kabang, but Puket — one of Gatcha's seven children — sits in the stern calmly smoking his pipe amid the exhaust of the motor. Puket and another son, Jale — a mighty spear fisherman — and a daughter named Iphim, a childless widow, travel with their father most of the time. This family, like all Moken, poses little threat to others sharing these waters. Apolitical and nonviolent, Moken keep to themselves except when trading, usually on the move in flotillas of seven or more kabang belonging to an extended family. Still, our lone vessel is stopped by a Burmese military boat disguised as a trawler. Fortunately, we are sent on our way without incident, and Puket even manages to beg a few fish and some liquor by flattering the officials.

But it is not always so. The Moken have been exploited and harassed throughout history by the British, Japanese, Thai, and Burmese alike. They've been stopped to pay taxes, driven away by illegal fishermen, forced to work in mines and on farms, prohibited from vital trading areas, jailed for lacking permits, even turned into opium addicts by merchants to keep them dependent. Recently the Myanmar government, following Thailand's lead, has tried to settle the Moken permanently in a national park as a tourist attraction.

The Moken have resisted, but threats to forcibly settle them still hang in the air. And other troubles abound. Their own demography could destroy them: Many young men die each year in diving accidents — often from the bends when they dive too deep and resurface too quickly while working for Burmese fishermen. As the military presence increases throughout the islands, the Moken are unable to move freely in search of spouses. And without room to roam, they cannot find the traders who provide rice — the staple Moken food — and fuel for their motors. Ten years ago, some 2,500 Moken still led the traditional seafaring and spiritual life in this archipelago. That number is slowly diminishing and is now at perhaps 1,000.

As the son of a shaman and a father figure to his people, Gatcha's mission is to keep the old ways alive, bringing the Moken together for rituals that have suffered as flotillas have divided into subgroups and scattered north and south to reduce competition for natural resources. On this journey he will round up followers, including sacred singers and dancers to take with him to Nyawi Island, where things have gone awry. Soldiers are harassing the Moken and Burmese there, and the Burmese government has mandated a Moken festival for tourists — which Gatcha says is upsetting the spirits. With offerings, trances, song, and dance on Nyawi, he hopes his people can begin to appease the ancestors, to whom they look for guidance and protection.

The days of gathering end with a night of restorative ritual, after which I am heartened to see Gatcha and his family push out to sea in the damp, gray morning, continuing their journey through the archipelago. As the dry season nears its end, it is time to put down shallow roots on land, setting up a temporary camp in which to wait out the swift winds and rains of the monsoons. It will be a place to honor the spirits and to build new boats for young men coming of age.

The island chosen for a monsoon camp offers a breathtaking setting: A wall of virgin forest — rife with boar and bats to be hunted — a band of beach, and a deep, powerful sea. Women comb the beaches and sing, and children play in the surf. Girls coax sandworms from hiding with rattan sticks; boys fashion harpoons and learn from the older men how to hunt for fish, crab, turtle, ray, and eel.

Changes in the Moken Way of Life

Once the Sea Nomad came in regular contact with mainlanders their way of life was dramatically altered. When they first came in contact with money they avoided it. Commerce with outsiders was carried out with barter with trusted merchants who provided them with food, alcohol, motors and fuels in return for valued seafood and sea shells. The Moken way of life lasted as long as did in part due to the presence Andaman Sea pirates who scared off outsiders but left the Moken alone because they had no wealth. After World War II the Malaysian and Thai governments were finally able to drive out the pirates and after they did so they began insisting that the Moken become citizens of a country and become “civilized” The also allowed outsiders to take title to the islands When outsiders began taking over their islands the Moken did their best to avoid them but when number of outsiders became too large and their presence scattered over a wide area, the Moken turned to Islam partly because the religion’s egalitarian philosophy matched their own. But this was not enough to hold off the demise of their way of life.

creating an dangling artificial reef

E. Richard Sorenson wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: The Moken way of life is stable in isolation. “ Faced with predatory commerce and formal law, or even just bad manners, it withers and ultimately collapses. Traditional Sea Nomad bands typically recoil when touched by unkind social forces. When challenged steadily, their deep sociality gives way, collapses irrevocably, sometimes abruptly. Western manners had a ravaging impact, including transient cognitive paralysis and a blanking of intuitive response. [Source: E. Richard Sorenson, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

“When money first came in, the Sea Nomads avoided it. To their way of thinking it could not bring a life half as good as what they had. To avoid it, they formed client-patron relationships with friendly merchants and interposed these patrons between themselves and encroaching commerce. They gave prized seafoods and rare seashells to their merchant patrons. The merchants gave friendship and protection, rice and other foods, alcohol, motors, and fuel. The Nomads rarely counted what they gave and got. They preferred "trust barter" with a friend. The merchants also liked the system, since the commercial value of what they took substantially outweighed what they gave back. In the early phase of adaptation, some Sea Nomads became plunderers of the sea, not for their own commercial gain but for that of patrons. After cultural collapse, they started to exchange larger catches for larger dispensations of alcohol, and, later, money. |~|

“When domineering peoples first settled in their regions, the Nomads fled. When there was no longer any place to hide, most turned to Islam for protection. Egalitarian in philosophy, it struck a chord. More important, it offered political protection. Conversion was simple and nominal. Islamic practices were introduced gradually by Muslim teachers who later established mosques. Nomad legends also speak of animistic groups fleeing Islam to sustain traditional animistic lives in remote regions to the north. Their descendants still follow their traditional life-style off the coast of Myanmar, thanks in part to the isolationistic policies of that country, but also to the pirates ranging there. Pirates long discouraged commerce in the eastern Andaman Sea by their continual predations, but they ignored the Nomads because they had no wealth. Piracy bestowed on the Sea Nomads an additional century of isolated freedom. |~|

“Further south, government and commerce began pressing in after World War IL Thailand and Malaysia slowly squelched the pirates off their coasts (though not effectively near Burma). Mainland administrators began insisting that the Nomads join some nation or another, cease their random roaming in seas and isles of other lands, obey national laws, settle down, and be "civilized." By the law mainlanders brought and enforced, the once free islands of the Nomad range became the property of various claimants, people who knew the laws on claiming. Nomads were allowed to live on sites the new owners had no use for—until those sites were also wanted. Eventually they became an underclass on unwanted fringes of their previous domain. Some built shelters on the tide line, the open side facing toward the sea, a land-bound replica of how they had once lived on boats. |~|

Bajau Sea nomad boats in Indonesia

Collapse of the Moken Way of Life

In some cases, modernity caused the Moken way of life to ollapse abruptly. As outsiders took claims to their islands, Sea Nomad patterns of migration were dispersed and they took on the role of second class citizens when they shared the islands with outsiders. As their roaming stopped they turned to alcohol and to lesser degree opium and marijuana as something to do and had more children. To pay of their habits they did low skill wage labor. Many were became ill or were killed by diseases brought by outsiders. These days many Moken are Moken in name only. They now work at jobs, raise crops and watch television like everyone else. Many live a life shaped more by Islam and tourism than their traditional way of life.

E. Richard Sorenson wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ The Moken collective sociality could not meld with the social forces pushing out among them with deceit and selfishness, anger and contempt. Where such pressure increased, the traditional Nomad mentality gave way, sometimes suddenly, in a catastrophic spate of intense epidemic mental anguish, after which it did not reappear. [Source: E. Richard Sorenson, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Following such collapse, the Nomads turned to massive alcoholic intake (in some places a bit of opium, more recently marijuana); the birth rate increased. Temperaments akin to those of pirates began emerging. Where Islam had been adopted, Muslim social concepts filled some of the existential void. More recently government schools, especially in Thailand, brought a different kind of structure, one still more attuned to twentieth-century commerce.

“As fringe destitutes on the disappearing edges of a once prolific range, many Sea Nomads took up low-wage day labor to obtain alcohol. Diseases rarely seen started breaking out—epidemic dysentery, urinary failure, rampant funguses and parasites, and viral epidemics. Half of those Sea Nomads who had been caught by invasive social change were soon dying before the age of 2. Elders all agree that there was very little of such sicknesses in the old days. |~|

Impact of Modernity on Moken Youth

For a while teenagers enjoyed set off in their boats and enjoy the freedom of the sea but after awhile thse desires became secondary to desires for money. Teenage girls became more cloistered as they adopted Muslim mores and teenager boys became sort of homeless people with boats. E. Richard Sorenson wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““Seemingly impelled by imprints from the past, young teenage boys, spurred in part by the venturesomeness of youth, began going off in boats, sometimes for weeks. They would say "We're going off to snare a catch," but it was just an excuse to get away, to be nomads for a while, to live solely from the sea in close-knit harmony. The catches they brought back were usually very small, often none at all. As old ways kept fading and money started catching on, they began increasing the size of their catches. Many of today's modern Sea Nomads are commercial fishermen. [Source: E. Richard Sorenson, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]


“Economic style and the deep sociality changed together. As traditional hunting-gathering gave way to the "new-world" economic order, the deep social impulse was replaced by other behavioral patterns. As communities became more clearly Islamized, females were increasingly protected by Islamic mores and isolated from maturing boys. Pubescent boys could no longer sleep within their family houses. They went off with older boys to whom they were attracted, joined their ad hoc gangs of friends, and often moved through several such groups. They found and ate their food in these teenage clusters; they slept together on boats, in "boy houses" on the shore, on the pier or in vacant buildings, and sometimes under houses. Such teenage groups became part of the structure of the Sea Nomad communities in this phase of change. |~|

“A parallel rapport united teenage girls within extended family households. Such households turned into wealth-accumulating economic units to which boys began contributing after marriage. The bonds forged in the teenage peer groups were transformed into business and political associations after marriage. The male associations linked extended family groups, provided for a new type of cooperation based on in-group self-interest. Catching fish to sell became an accepted practice. Some families started getting wealthy. |~|

“In the last stage of conversion, schools and media came in, and then tourists. Mores, traditional and Islamic, started fading. When television comes to an island, the fading drastically accelerates. |"Modern" youths then emulate boy/girl social styles and dress seen on television, adopt brusque offhand manners, deliberately misunderstand, and espouse callousness. Traditional Muslims begin marrying 14-year-old girls to be certain of their purity. These modernizing youths become exploitative entrepreneurs, make sharp deals, and explore techniques of cheating in league with their gang, often with great verve. They take what they can squeeze from strangers, with a sense of triumph and without pity. |~|

Moken and the Great Tsunami in 2004

The 200 Moken that live on South Surin Island, 65 kilometers off the west coast of Thailand, all survived the Great Tsunami in 2004 but one even though the island was hard hit by the tsunami waves and the flimsy thatched huts that they live in are all located next to sea. They have traditionally called tsunamis “waves that eat people.” Closely in tune with the sea they knew that an earthquake followed by a retreating sea meant only one thing. Salama, a 60-something Moken chief told the New York Times, “I had never seen such as low tide. I started telling people that a wave was coming.” The chief said he that he had been told about such thing by his elders. By the time the wave arrived all the Moken on the island had safely reached high ground. The one man who was killed was elderly and disabled and had accidently been left behind. [Source: Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2005]

Abby Goodnough wrote in the New York Times: “After the tsunami, rescue boats took the Moken to a Buddhist temple on the mainland, where they stayed about 10 days before restlessness overwhelmed them. They returned to their island two weekends ago and started building homes with donated bamboo and palm fronds. Park rangers are helping them build 54 homes, and perhaps a small school and souvenir shop for tourists. The Moken rebuilt their village to avoid bad luck associated with the man who died. They could avoid future tsunamis by moving to the hills, Salama said, but they fear the snakes that live there... Salama, whose father was the chief here before him, said his people believed that tsunamis came because the sea was angry. "We didn't do anything bad, but maybe somebody else did," he said. "The wave has cleaned out the bad things."

“The Moken have been little more than an oddity for tourist guidebooks and a nuisance for the Thai government, which has chastised them for fishing and foraging on environmentally sensitive water and land. But now, because of their agile escape from the tsunami, these people who live without electricity or schooling are celebrities. The Thai news media have painted them as heroes, and politicians have called for preserving their way of life and spreading their long-held wisdom.

No sea gypsies died in the village of Ta Pae Yoi on Golden Buddha Island (Koh Phra Thong) in Thailand. . About 300 of the 500 people in the village are sea gypsies. They attributed their survival to the food and homemade alcohol they offered the spirits of their ancestors at their full moon festival the previous November. But,Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “the waves wrecked fleets of boats, destroyed two other villages and killed more than 100 people elsewhere on the island. The sea gypsies lost their boats, nets and squid traps, and with them, their livelihoods. After that, some members of the community fled to the mainland, an hour away, where they sought shelter with local Buddhist monks. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 5, 2005]

Sea Gypsy Politics and Activism After the 2004 Tsunami

In 2005, Arun Khlatalay, a 24-year-old fisherman, made history when he became the first of the sea gypsies, elected to a village council on Golden Buddha Island, also called Koh Phra Thong, in Thailand. The great tsunami that struck Thailand in December 2004 is what prompted him to take action? [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 5, 2005]

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “Before the disaster, Arun said he never would have thought to run for office. But, he added, he was angered at learning from aid workers and others that tsunami relief intended for his people was being diverted by greedy businessmen. Arun said he found out in March that village leaders were skimming government funds intended to compensate the sea gypsies for their damaged and destroyed boats.It was the ultimate injustice to the sea gypsies, Arun said. They had suffered years of exploitation by the island elite, who paid the gypsies a pittance for their fish and made usurious loans when they wanted to buy their own boats. "It made me realize that we had to change," said Arun, whose surname means bravery at sea. "We cannot be enslaved anymore."

Relief workers said there was evidence of corruption. The chief of the village, Yosapon Sae-Daeng, "directly admitted to me taking a 20 percent commission from government tsunami aid meant for the villagers," said Bodhi Garrett, director of North Andaman Tsunami Relief, who had lived on the island. "And he was laughing as he said it, pointing to his new gold chain."In an interview, Yosapon, 34, a local businessman and the village chief, denied that he cheated the sea gypsies but implied that some money was diverted. "I didn't take compensation for myself," he said, barefoot and smoking a cigarette on the breezy verandah of his beachfront house. "But I needed money to lobby other people to pay compensations to the villagers."

Arun was nudged along in his new political career by the monks. "You have to teach them that they have rights as Thai citizens and they have to use and preserve them," said the abbot who blessed him, Phrakru Suwatthithammarat, 44, whose shaved head and gaunt frame belie his past as a civil engineer and self-described playboy. Arun also recalled the inspiration of Mae Chee Wan, a nun who came to volunteer after the tsunami. She had urged Arun and his friends to stop sitting around drinking, cease whining, and start to organize themselves. Her words stung, but they moved him to act, Arun recalled. "She told us, 'You have to have pride. Otherwise people will say the Moken are dummies who can do nothing but fish. They'll say you're stupid, stupid, stupid!' "

Arun got 114 votes in the July 31 election, winning one of two council seats from candidates supported by Yosapon. Despite Arun's victory, however, the sea gypsies' future is far from certain. Half of the sea gypsies in Arun's village have taken shelter at the Buddhist temple in Phang Nga province, on the Thai mainland an hour's boat ride away.

Moken and Tourism

Thanaporn Promyamyai and Sophie Deviller of AFP wrote: “More than nine million visitors came to Phuket in 2019 and the boom has had a huge impact, bringing declining fish stocks, shrinking fishing grounds and a frenzy of construction. The traditional way of life of the Chao Lay has been turned upside down. “We hope that all of this will be abandoned," says Ngim Damrongkaset, 75, a representative of the Rawai community. “They want to drive us out of our homes, but also to deny us access to the sea." [Source: Thanaporn Promyamyai et Sophie Deviller, AFP, November 23, 2020]

The Chao Lay are sometimes harassed when they “sail in protected marine reserves or near islets usually reserved for tourists.“Before, we risked being arrested by a patrol or having our boats confiscated," he says. “We sometimes went up too quickly to the surface, not respecting decompression times. It was dangerous, there were injuries, even deaths." “The threat of eviction also hangs over the 1,200 Chao Lay living in Rawai, where property developers have been eyeing their land — a strip a few hundred meters long facing the sea.

“The battle with the tourism promoters is an unequal one: many Chao Lay cannot read or write and did not know that they could register their land in their name Many families today have no legal title to the land they live on, though the government is trying to help them prove that they were there long before the investors. It has ordered analysis of old aerial photographs and of the bones of Chao Lay ancestors — traditionally buried on the beach so they can still hear the sound of the waves.

“One option is for authorities to buy the land and entrust it to them permanently. The government has recently allocated an area of mangrove to neighbouring Chao Lay communities to temporarily live and fish — a first step but not a permanent solution. It has also committed itself to preserving their oral traditions, without much effect so far. People in Rawai face many problems, including alcohol and disease. “They need a special education system that preserves their culture. The government needs also to allow them to fish more freely," says Narumon.

Coronavirus Pandemic Gives Moken a Breather from Mass Tourism

The coronavirus pandemic brought welcome respite from the threat of mass tourism for Thailand's "sea gypsies".Thanaporn Promyamyai and Sophie Deviller of AFP wrote: “Since the pandemic began, life has been easier for Sanan Changnam and his people — there's an abundance of fish to eat and real estate projects on their ancestral land in the tourist hotspot of Phuket have come to a standstill. “It gives us a bit of a breather," says Alim, Sanan's uncle.[Source: Thanaporn Promyamyai et Sophie Deviller, AFP, November 23, 2020]

With Thailand closed to foreign visitors for the past eight months, tourist boats have been stuck at the quay and fishing has been easier for the Chao Lay, or "people of the sea". “We don't dive as deep as before, so it's less dangerous," Sanan, 42, tells AFP. His ancestors, former nomads who came from Indonesia nearly 300 years ago, took a spit of land in Rawai, a beach in the south of Phuket, long before the island became one of the country's most popular destinations.

“With tourism halted because of the virus, Phuket's economy is paralysed, tens of thousands of workers have returned to their home provinces elsewhere in Thailand and construction projects are at a standstill. The authorities are less strict when the Chao Lay sail in protected marine reserves or near islets usually reserved for tourists.

“Narumon Arunotai, an anthropologist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says the government "must seize the opportunity provided by the pandemic to rethink their vision on Chao Lay". “Covid is an opportunity to change mentalities. Mass tourism in Phuket has been a catastrophe for the sea gypsies," she adds.

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

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