Sea Gypsies



At twenty-three years old Lin is already a widow with two children to support.“My husband’s work was dangerous and we always new that there was a possibility that he might not come back – it happens here often enough.” She shrugs, with typical Oriental resignation. Traditionally known as the ‘Sea Gypsies’, the Moken people once lived almost their whole lives on their boats. But almost all their boats were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and these days they are confined to several dilapidated shantytowns on a few relatively remote islands in Thai and Burmese waters. Without their boats the great schools of fish that congregate in the rich tropical waters of the Burma Bank became inaccessible. The Moken have always been known as legendary swimmers and free-divers however and Lin’s husband was just one of many young men on Koh Noi island who was tempted by work as a diver. Indian fishing boats in particular often make the long voyage from their home-waters just to recruit gangs of Moken divers who are willing to run the risks in the dangerous but lucrative quest for pearls and, more commonly, sea cucumbers.


Lin’s husband was the second man in this little hamlet of three hundred to die of the bends in the first quarter of this year. In January a fourteen year-old boy died while diving for sea cucumbers. Although backpackers and divers visit the Thai islands off the coast of Ranong, Koh Noi seems to be far removed from the tourist trail. Koh Chang, just a couple of hours away by local motorboat, is a particularly sleepy and restful island with a few rented bungalows that see sporadic, if relatively lackadaisical, bursts of party activity around full moon. Even on Koh Chang though few people are aware of the existence of Sea Gypsies in the area. I arrived on Koh Chang following a vague rumour that there was a Moken island somewhere in the area. It took me two attempts to swim out against the current to reach the only fishing boat that lay in the bay. Standing dripping in the bow, struggling with my woefully inadequate marketplace Thai and drawing numbers in the sand on the deck, I managed to haggle Petr the Thai fisherman into shuttling me to the Sea Gypsy island.

Petr had only visited Koh Noi once before and I crossed my fingers as the little skiff puttered out into the maze of islands that dot this part of the Indian Ocean. We seemed to be motoring for so long that I began to think that we must have crossed the border and that I had surely already entered illegally into Burmese waters. In fact among this tangle of islands, reefs and rocky outcrops, few local people place much importance on just where the border lies. Many Sea Gypsies have yet to be accepted officially as citizens of either Thailand or Burma and they cross at will over national boundaries without giving it much thought.

As our voyage progressed the droning of the engine and the gentle sun soothed me so that Petr had to shake me awake when we arrived at Koh Noi. At first sight the village was sadly lacking in boats. A couple of skeletal prahus lay rotting in the shallows, their struts rearing from the mud like the ribs of stranded whale carcases. The people lived in rough, stilted huts cobbled together from bamboo or driftwood. The land on which the village is built is rented from a mainlander but the villagers own no extra terrain that could be converted to orchards or crops.

Judging from the heaps of garbage strewn throughout their village it seemed that the Moken people had traded their old diet of fresh fish and their legendary knowledge of wild fruit and traditional herbal medicines for a diet of instant noodles and Chang beer. As is often the case in South East Asian villages a separate shack had been set aside as what was grandly described as a ‘guesthouse.’ The ‘bed’ was just a rattan mat laid out on the floorboards and the ‘shower’ was a rusty bucket but I was grateful for the offer and the hut itself was infinitely more sturdy than most of the villagers’ homes.

Missionaries from several organisations have tried to get a grip on the Moken of Koh Noi with only limited success. Sunan Thuanthong has been more dogged than most (and less self-serving than a great many). He has lived in a little shack on Koh Noi for the past 16 years and has worked hard to help the people. It is in great part through his labours that they are on the verge of winning the identity papers that would guarantee the community official Thai citizenship and thus offer them access to medical services, schooling and some chance of paid work that could provide an alternative to their dangerous diving.

As the island’s self-proclaimed spiritual leader, Sunan had to rush off to oversee the funeral of Lin’s husband. Six hours of traditional mourning would probably lead to the two or three days of drinking, dancing and carousing that was needed to lay the ghosts of the young man to rest.

“I’ve tried to convince them that a day of drinking is already more than enough,” the preacher said morosely, “but I’m not sure they agree.”

As the night wore on the drinking led to fighting. Once or twice even knives and sticks were brought into action but the fighters were always overpowered before they caused serious injury. I had been in more local tribal villages in Asia than I could count and had always been astounded by a level of fellowship and mutual respect that is rarely seen in the west. Although I was accepted and respected as a guest the Moken of Koh Noi seemed to be as close to the edge of social collapse as any community I have ever seen.

The Moken were traditionally the most knowledgeable and independent of the several nomadic groups that are still known – with perhaps misplaced Western romanticism – as the ‘Sea Gypsies.’ It was said, for example, that they harvested more than eighty different plants for medicinal use. Little of their hereditary store of knowledge has been passed down though and the people that I spoke to on Koh Noi seemed surprised to learn that their people ever had a reputation for any sort of wisdom whatsoever. Their unique brand of Buddhism is also fast disappearing.

“We had several visits from missionaries in the weeks after the tsunami,” says Sunan Thuanthong. “Three hundred years ago missionaries were converting ‘rice Christians’ out of starving peasants…Inflation might have caught up but today it can still be done with a bible and a boat.” It seems that the disaster heralded something of a boom period for missionary societies working in the Thai islands. The Bible Society proudly claims that, on Phuket, hundreds of Urak Lawoi Sea Gypsies became Christians after the tsunami.

‘Over the last few years, as people up and down Thailand’s coastline have been rebuilding homes, infrastructures and lives, a remarkable change has taken place among this minority group that has in the past been very resistant to the Christian message,’ reads a report on the society’s website, ‘…what has happened since the tsunami is amazing – God has been at work building his Church.’

Ali Pramongkit is headman of the thirty-six families who live in a ramshackle shantytown on the northern end of the backpacker paradise-island of Koh Phi Phi. His people are Chao Ley (literally ‘people of the sea’) and there are only four families of Moken. Here too Ali claims that twenty people were converted to Christianity with the offer of boats. The Sea Gypsies of Koh Phi Phi are more fortunate than many of their compatriots and at least here they are able to make a living by ferrying tourists around the island.

“In Phi Phi town there are few families who did not lose loved ones in the tsunami,” says Ali. “Nobody knows for sure how many people died on the island but they say around two thousand. Not a single person died in our village.” It was the tourists and the mainlanders who went out to explore the naked reef who were the first victims. Thousands of years have taught the Sea Gypsies that, while they could count on the ocean for food and security, they should never trust it unreservedly. Among Sea Gypsy communities all over the islands the story is the same; at the first hint of strange activity in the sea the people instantly took to whatever high ground they could reach. On Koh Phi Phi they were also able to warn farang (foreigners) to follow them.

There can be precious little good news to come out of what is now known as the most horrific disasters ever witnessed by modern man. As Ali points out though it was a poignant reminder that at least some of the Sea Gypsy’s legendary knowledge has been passed down…and that even today it can prove to be a key to their survival.


FOOTNOTE: The islanders of ‘Koh Noi’ are currently fighting to be integrated into Thai society. The process is a long and arduous one and rather than risk complicating the matter still further the names not only of the islanders but also of the island itself have been changed.