A 6 hr speed boat ride away (55km) from southern Thai mainland lies a tiny, picturesque island called Au Bon Yai. It is part of Mu Ko Su National Park and home to former sea dwellers known as The Moken people. The Moken would live on their boats called ‘Kabangs’ for 8-9 months a year, only returning to land to seek shelter during the monsoon months. The Moken had always been self sufficient. Their language has no words for “want”, “take”, or “mine” – money and material goods never held much interest for nomadic people. Their traditional wooden kabang boats were designed to show they had nothing to steal.

After the Tsunami in 2004, the Thai army were sent to build houses, but the Moken people managed to build 20 in the time it took the army to finish one!
Despite the sea gypsies being incredible boatsmen, due to their lack of passports or I.D. cards and inability to establish their birthplace in order to get one, they are only given menial low paying jobs within the National Park.
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The sea gypsies are able to hold their breath underwater for up to 6 minutes. Back when they were able to fish wherever they wanted and live in their Kabangs (houseboats), they would trade extra fish for petrol and rice.
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The children living on Koh Surin now attend a school which was built after the Tsunami. They are taught Thai and English only, many fear the Moken language will die out soon unless it is continually practiced at home.
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Pulmerised bark of the Thanaka tree is used as sunscreen, and sometimes worn decoratively as make up.
The houses are getting closer and closer to the water, much to the governments disapproval.
The Moken use the rainforest behind their houses and the sea in front of their houses to survive entirely. They forage for food, medicine and building materials.
Moken children posing for a photograph, Koh Surin, Thailand, 15/2/14
Moken children posing for the camera.
Ngui spotting for rocks as the boat approaches the shore.

Following the tragically destructive Tsunami of 2004, as foreign aid poured in, the Moken plummeted into the media spotlight due to their 100% survival rate. Their knowledge of the ‘Laboon’, or “seventh wave”, had been passed down for thousands of years through generations of Moken living intimately with the ocean. It told the tale of an ancient thing that has swallowed whole islands before. “Laboon is a sea monster. It is sent by the ancestors to remove the bad in the world and make a place for a new beginning. He gulps the water into his mouth, then spits it out with such force it results in many devastations. Then the world gets reborn after the bad is removed.” Their quick recognition of the Tsunami arrival signs sent them fleeing for higher ground or deeper sea, ultimately saving their entire population.

The Moken have become accustomed to visitors to their village now, however when they first came the villagers would hide in their houses, or run to the rainforest behind the village.
Moken children are said to be able to swim before they can walk.
The last ever ‘Kabang’. The Moken used to live at sea in these boats for 8/9 months of the year and only turn to land during the Monsoon. They are forbidden to cut down trees to make more boats, they fear the art will be lost as the ones who know how to build such a boat are gradually dying out.
Women play bingo using sand instead of markers.
Moken means “immersed in water”
Spearfishing with homemade bamboo spears – I tried this and it’s HARD!! On top of holding your breath for a really long time, the bamboo is buoyant making it super hand to stay underwater as it wants to float back to the surface. The Moken make it look effortless and don’t even wear weightbelts!

HOWEVER, the NGO aid and worldwide media coverage, despite being in best interests, jeopardised the Moken’s entire future. It brought Government attention to the sea gypsies who were seen as an untidy problem. They were forced to reside on Au Bon Yai and forbidden to roam freely. They were only permitted to hunt for certain fish at certain times due to the protected status of the National Park they lived in, yet they’d see trawlers scrape the bottom of the sea). They were not given passports or ID cards unless they could prove they were born in Thailand. This meant they were only permitted to work in the Koh Surin region and offered only menial low paid jobs like collecting rubbish in the National Park.

Inhabitants of the island are encouraged to make souvenirs to sell to tourists to make an income.
This Moken man is making dolphin keyrings out of wood.
Along with the addition of the school and library on the island, there is now a small tuck shop stocking sweets, drinks and toiletries mainly. This is forming a problem for the environment as there is no where to dispose of the plastic properly. Bottles and bags end up in the sea cause great danger to sealife.
Children play in their front garden!
Making souvenirs to sell.
This guy makes 7 of these keyrings a day. They don’t sell for much.
Thanaka is valued as a sunscreen and as a beauty product that keeps the skin cool, stops oiliness, tightens pore, improves the complexion and adds a soft pleasant, soft fragrance to the skin. It is also used as a medicinal product to trat acne, fungus, skin sores, measles, epilepsy, poisoning and fever.
Moken kids learn boatsmenship at a young age!
None of the houses have doors as everyone is welcome everywhere.
Messing around on the job! Children sell handmade souvenirs in front of their house.

Young boys and men were forced to take illegal and dangerous fishing jobs for Burmese fishermen, some dying of nitrogen narcosis (the bends) from diving too deep for extended periods of time and returning to the surface too soon.

Not only have the government restricted the Moken from earning money, but they are actually making money off of them. They have made them a human zoo, charging tourists to visit the “attraction”.

Like so many tribal people, the Moken had been exposed to the vagaries of modern life with few of the benefits; they were left with the worst of both worlds.

Hook showed us which plants are used for medicines, let us try some that are edible and pointed out plants and trees used for construction purposes.
The Moken began to consume more refined sugar, saturated fat, salt and alcohol causing a rise in diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure – they do not have access to healthcare to treat them.
Kids play jump rope in front of their house.
Many young men die each year in diving accidents – often from the bends (nitrogen narcosis) when they dive too deep and resurface too quickly while working for Burmese fisherman.
When the Moken first began residing on Koh Surin, many of them brought pet dogs with them. The Government saw this as an untidy and noisy problem and shot them all in one day, the inhabitants now own cats instead.

I went with Freedive UK and Project Moken to visit and dive with the sea gypsies. It was an incredible experience, read all about my time there in Part 2 (coming soon).

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