WHO ARE THE MOKEN SEA GYPSIES AND WHERE DO THEY LIVE?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).