Are you familiar with the Moken – a marine nomadic tribe?
Because of their former unique lifestyle, this tribe is also known as sea gypsies or nomads, and referred to as Chao Lay: ‘sea people of Thailand’. Travelling around the islands of the Andaman sea between Myanmar and Northern Thailand, they used to spend most of their lives on Kabangs, their traditional houseboats. In harmony with nature and dependent on wind and weather, they temporarily settled in self-built villages on land during monsoon season. Without a written language, the knowledge about the sea and environment, the unique culture and old traditions get passed down through folklore over generations. For example, the legend of the seven rollers. Living for centuries in coastal areas, ancestors have experienced tsunamis, encoded in the legend of Laboon or giant wave that comes in a series of waves (hence 7 rollers). Acting as a natural disaster warning system, it teaches how to predict and react to any signs.
As hunter-gatherers, the children develop exceptional eyesight underwater and are able to dive and hunt the seafood that makes up most of their diet. Other necessities like rice are then traded. In an economy that is based on sharing and trading, individual possessions are not valued – this mindset is deeply implemented in their culture, and equivalent words do not exist in the Moken language!
Photographer @catvinton , who lived with the Moken for 2 months, captured their former free-spirited way of life, which got hugely limited due to government regulations, forcing them to settle on Koh Surin, an island in the established Mu Koh Surin National Park. Next to the new rules, also increased media and touristic attention had its effects. After the Moken survived the tsunami in 2004, where their great observation skills and understanding of the sea (based on the laboon legend) let them react quickly, uninformed tourists came to visit. In response, the Moken community established a tourism team working to support respectful and empowering tourism practices, benefiting guests and locals. Moken-led activities like boat or snorkeling tours and NGOs support a transition to CBT.
If the story of the Moken fascinated you, please don’t hesitate to visit the links below to gain more insight into their history, culture and recent developments.