To be born and raised and, in time, to die on the sea; to live out one’s seamless days together with one’s family, wandering the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea in a hand-built boat and feeling suffocated by contact with land or civilization—this is the heritage of the Moken. It is an easily romanticized way of life that has captivated the land-locked souls of the Western world since the Moken were introduced to us by anthropologist Pierre Ivanoff in 1957. But contact with Western culture proved the catalyst that led the majority of the Moken, a people with some 4,000 years of history as sea nomads, to assimilate to mainland culture, to live in villages instead of on boats, and to become a regular stopover on the tourist trail in Thailand.
The Moken were a people who knew no borders, whose lives were not defined by the lines on a map. They lived on boats year-round in nuclear family groups, traveling from island to island in search of fresh water, yams, and other foods and herbs provided by the forest. They avoided contact with the industrialized world at all costs, even using middlemen to sell their shells and fish. But these nomads made governments wary. They crossed between Thailand and Myanmar with no regard for border patrols or government regulations.
The Thai government precipitated the move to settlement by turning the Surin Islands into a national park in 1981 and using the Moken as an attraction. The government restricted their fishing and foraging activities, but did not offer all of the Moken Thai citizenship. Some Moken are Thai citizens, some are not, and some are given an Andaman People card which is something like, but not quite, citizenship. The Moken currently live in a village on the beach on Surin Tai Island, and the national park ferries boats of tourists over to the village during the day, setting up a cycle of dependency and degradation.
Traditionally the Moken traveled between Myanmar and Thailand during the course of their nomadic wanderings, among the 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago. Today, the governments of both countries restrict the movements of the Moken, because their nomadic way of life does not mesh with the current political boundaries. The Moken also are rarely given citizenship because they are considered neither of one country nor of the other. In a sense, they are punished for being nomadic.
In November of 2006, just after the national park opened, I visited the Moken to see how they were dealing with life on the beach and in the public eye. Before leaving the mainland, I interviewed Abbot Pharakhru Suwatthithammarat of the Wat Samakkhitham Monastery in Khuraburi, who helped the Moken recover from the tsunami in 2004. While the Moken refugees were living in the monastery, the abbot told me, they carved models of their traditional boat, the kabang. “The boat is their life,” he said. “Now it’s very hard because something has changed in Moken people: they need to have money.”
Two hundred Moken, sixty-two of them children, live in the Moken village on Ko Surin Tai. The Moken are fit and muscular in a way earned only by a life of hard physical work. Their skin is nut brown with a bronze sheen, their hair dark but bleached reddish-blond in places by the sun. Their faces are expressive and full of glorious wrinkles and the telltale signs of a life of work, childbearing, laughing, and time in the sun. The men are built like a T, with strong arms and tiny, muscled torsos. In the village, children run around nude giggling, crying and splashing in the water. Friendly dogs and well-fed cats wander the village looking for food and affection, while groups of women in bright sarongs play cards in the shade of stilted houses. Music floating from the radio contrasts with the symphony of cicadas issuing from the forest. Clothes dry on the sides of houses, and old women sit weaving baskets of dyed Pandanus fronds while watching over sleeping babies. At low tide, 25 boats sit in muddy tidal flats; most of them are wooden longtails—the standard Thai craft, with a car engine and a long drive shaft with a propeller on the end—a post-tsunami gift from local NGOs. There are a few traditional kabangs in the lagoon. The kabang is an anthropomorphic boat that forms part of the Moken creation story, which describes their nomadic life as a submerged people.
To better understand the dynamics of the relationship between the national park and the Moken, I sat down with Narumon Hinshiranan, an anthropologist from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a Moken expert. Hinshiranan has been working to foster appreciation and understanding of the Moken through the Andaman Pilot Project since 1997. She is one of only a few outsiders who speak the Moken language, a language that she is working to set down in writing. The Andaman Pilot Project carries out activities to promote local knowledge, including the development of ethnogeographical maps, the surveying of trails, and the building of traditional kabangs. “The Moken usually spread out,” Hinshiranan explains, “especially to prevent disease. I asked the park to designate five to ten places for the Moken to live spread out.” But the national park did not construct traditional Moken houses on stilts over the water. They also refused to construct multiple village sites because they said it would be easier to have just one village. Houses that used to be far apart and built over the water became a group of numbered thatched huts spread about six feet apart on the beach.
Hinshiranan says the Moken relationship with the national park can be summed up very succinctly: “The national park hires the Moken to wash dishes and collect trash. There has to be some master plan, but park management right now depends on one person, and the park director is very difficult to work with. Here they operate a tourist business. There have been three different park directors since the tsunami.”
Taksin Sai Son, nicknamed Pinok, is a former member of the national park staff who is now Hinshiranan’s field researcher. He confirmed that the Moken were upset with the new houses built by the national park. “The Moken prefer their traditional houses built over the water,” he said, “and they say that having the kitchen inside is uncomfortable.” In the new Moken village there are no yards, no fences, and little space between thatched huts. All doors are open, and tourists can walk by and peek in at women in skirts cooking or nursing babies. Tourists feel free to follow women down the beach looking for the perfect picture. Visitors point and ask the Moken to sit, smile, and pose for pictures. Freelance photographers plead for people to “smile, smile, smile.” Freelance journalists and TV crews come into the village bearing gifts of whiskey and are ready to make deals. “Let’s have a drink, and you tell me a traditional Moken story,” they say. Sometimes visitors request to see a trance ceremony, which forms part of the Moken’s animistic religious beliefs. The Moken believe in individual spirits, and they worship the sea. This sacred ceremony is now transformed into a trance-on-request, usually inspired by gifts of alcohol or money.
The Moken are friendly and obliging, and, thrust into a cash economy, they also are in need of work, so they will fulfill requests made by foreigners. “They like the attention,” explained one photographer when asked to guess what the Moken thought of all the tourists.
“I wish all tourists and journalists would think about this,” Hinshiranan says. “The Moken are regarded as backwards and without education by the people on mainland Thailand. It is difficult to make a wider audience appreciate their culture, but we can learn from them. The media should respect their culture.” For that reason, Hinshiranan tries to discourage visitors from bringing alcohol and junk food as gifts for the Moken. “In the beginning, they were not so addicted to alcohol. Now I am worried,” she said.
When I asked if drinking was a problem for the Moken, Ngui, a Moken man in his mid-twenties, replied, “Drinking is for having fun. If you bring a bottle of whiskey then we will play music.” And it’s not only alcohol. Addiction to drugs and junk food are becoming all too common, a situation that is all the more serious because there is neither a doctor nor a dentist on the island.
On the first day I arrived at the Moken village I found the beach crowded with a group of national park officials and a Bangkok television crew filming an educational video. As soon as I stepped onto land, a wild-eyed man ran down the beach shouting and gesticulating angrily, his eyes flashing. He shouted at the TV crew in broken Thai and English. He started pushing villagers into the sand and waved his arms. Just as I realized he was drunk, someone whispered to me, “That is Salama, the village leader.” I wondered who had brought the alcohol—the national park officials or the TV crew?
During the dry season, from mid-November to May, the national park is open, and the Moken can earn 100 baht (about $14) per day by washing dishes and picking up trash. For Ngui, who has a young daughter and a pregnant wife, this is his job during the tourist season. “I am happy to have a job and work so that I can save money for the monsoon season,” he explained. During the monsoon season, from June to October, it is difficult to make a living. Ngui usually goes fishing or looks for shells to sell to support his family. He was born on a traditional kabang in Burma and lived on the boat with four family members. He has traveled several times between Burma and Thailand following a traditional, but now discouraged, route of Moken migration. When asked about the conditions for the Moken in Burma, Ngui said, “Burma is not better because there is no post-tsunami help there, but there are lots of relief organizations in Thailand.” On the other hand, Ngui said, it is easier to find work in Burma because in Thailand the national park controls the whole island. Ngui, like many Moken, speaks some Thai, learned by watching TV. “I watch Thai soap operas every day,” he told me. At one time, Ngui moved to the mainland and lived there for two months. “I couldn’t stay there,” he says. “This is my land. I want to stay here even if I have nothing to eat in my home. But I would like a job during the monsoon season.”
Village leader Salama has an idea to help the Moken make money: he would like the national park to let tourists pay to spend the night on a traditional Moken kabang. Currently no tourists are allowed to spend the night in the village. When I asked Salama to talk, he was sitting next to an empty bottle of Regency brandy, with his wavy salt-and-pepper hair forming a wild halo around his head and a gap-toothed smile on his face. He immediately jumped up and walked toward the cavernous skeleton of his kabang, eager to show me his boat. “I learned to build boats from my grandfather and father,” he explained. “It is important for me to use it until I die.” Before going out fishing, Salama explained, he prayed to the spirits that he would be healthy and would not see any sharks. He also fondly discussed turtle curry, a traditional dish that has practically disappeared since the government banned the killing of turtles. With a childish grin Salama told us, “You can catch them, but don’t tell the national park.” To make extra money for food, Salama collects and sells wild honey. “The last time I was in Burma was 25 years ago,” he said, looking out to the sea. He then picked up a small hatchet and began working on his boat, which he hoped to finish in six months.
A younger Moken boat builder, Kun Taht, fears that he can no longer pursue a traditional lifestyle since the park banned the killing of sea turtles and the collection of clams and sea cucumbers. Despite those restrictions, he said he felt the national park “does good work.” As I talked with him I noticed a scar running the length of his forehead, which I later learned was caused by an accident with a boat motor. Kun Taht is one of the few Moken men in the village who still knows how to make a kabang. For example, Ngui, the young man with the pregnant wife, knows how to make a model kabang to sell to tourists, but he doesn’t know how to make the real boat. Taht points to his handmade tools and tells me, “If you can make the tools, you can make a boat.” As for the future, he and his wife hope their three young boys will marry Moken women and live in the village when they grow up. Snuggled next to Taht was one of his young sons wearing a secondhand shirt that read, “Poverty shows us who our friends are and who our enemies are.” Later that day, sitting near the visitor center, I looked down the beach littered with Coke cans and Ramen noodle wrappers and found Salama squatting in the sand, working on his boat, the turquoise sea unfurling behind him. Echoing in my mind like the waves upon the shore were his words from earlier in the day: “I learned to build boats from my grandfather and father,” he explained. “It is important for me to use it until I die.”
Alice Driver is a PhD student in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her dissertation research analyzes how contemporary chroniclers like Pedro Lemebel and Alonso Salazar capture the voices of marginalized populations. Her interview with Colombian filmmaker Victor Gaviria was published in the December 2008 issue of The Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies. Her travel writing has appeared in South American Explorers Magazine, Abroad View, and the guidebook To Vietnam With Love.