En route to Thailand last year, I saw a short video about the Moken, a Polynesian who traditionally have drifted among the islands and coasts of Thailand and Burma. Inspired to see them, we found a group that arranged visits and provided a translator, which led to this story in the June 2014 issue of Islands, “Last of the Moken.”
To read the story, see the PDF link (not the photo) below:
Here the pre-edit version of my story, a bit longer than the version that appears in Islands:
Floating with the Moken: A journey among a nomadic sea people
By Michael Shapiro
“You want to try something special today,” says our Moken guide Ngoy at the start of our third day in Ko Surin, a group of islands in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand. “Let’s take the kabong!”
These are the first words Ngoy says to us today – the Moken don’t say hello, goodbye or thank you. “We just see one another’s eyes,” Ngoy says. “That’s enough.”
It’s our third day among the Moken, a nomadic sea people whose ancestors have drifted among the islands near what is now Thailand and Myanmar for thousands of years.
“The kabong is our traditional boat, the center of our universe,” Ngoy says. For countless generations it’s been everything to the Moken people: their home, their transportation, their means for catching fish. This boat took Ngoy’s village six months to build – today most Moken get around in Thai longtail boats, but they built this kabong to keep their traditions alive.
“We have just one kabong left,” says Ngoy, gesturing toward the traditional boat moored in the bay alongside the Thai island of Ko Surin. “We used to see a lot of kabongs on our way to Burma. Now we see hardly any. You would see the kabongs in long rows; it was a caravan of kabongs, a floating village.”
The water is crystalline and the sky powder blue as Ngoy readies the kabong for a day of snorkeling and island exploration. His features are distinctly Polynesian – round face, thick black hair, strong stout build, a stark contrast to the slender Thais and Burmese.
Ngoy says he feels a deep connection to Polynesian peoples. Yet like many Moken in this area, his surname is Thai: Klatalay, which means “brave in the sea.” The name was bestowed by the mother of the Thai king. “We don’t know why but we love the king and his family,” Ngoy says. “There is no reason, but we do.”
Dressed in a Hawaiian fish shirt and shorts that say “Surf Cool,” Ngoy is one of his village’s ambassadors to travelers, most of whom stay for less than an hour. During such a short visit, “they can see our boats and our houses,” Ngoy says, “but they don’t really see us.”
Though Thai regulations prohibit us from staying overnight in the Moken village, we sleep on the beach in tents nearby at a Ko Surin National Park campground. We spend our days on – and in – the water, with Ngoy and his extended family.
Speaking in Thai (his second language) in a high, sing-song voice to our Thai translator, Mai, Ngoy tells us the kabong is carved from a single tree trunk and is 7 wah long. A wah is the height of a man. “Traditionally, we never use nails or a hammer,” Ngoy says. “We use twine to bind everything together.”
Ngoy cuts the top off a plastic water bottle, turns it upside down and uses it as a funnel to fill the motor with gas. Before motors were widely used, kabongs were powered by their sails – assisted by men on paddles – as the Moken moved wherever the tradewinds took them.
Today, due to Burmese restrictions, this Moken group hasn’t been allowed to return to their ancestral waters.
“When we kept moving, the sea was sustainable, the fish would come back,” Ngoy says. “Now it’s getting harder to find fish. This area cannot replenish itself. When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why we always had to move. Now I understand – the older generations were thinking it through.”
Ngoy wraps a thin rope around the motor and tugs but nothing happens – he tries again and the motor starts to rumble. “Almost,” Mai shouts to us. “Al-mo!” exclaims Ngoy, eager to learn English, a wide smile spreading across his face.
We spend the morning snorkeling with Ngoy and his brother, and a couple of teenage kids they call nephews who may not be blood relations. It doesn’t really matter – they’re all family.
The snorkeling is exhilarating – a rainbow of butterfly fish, parrot fish, clownfish, giant purple clams, little Nemos and angelfish darting among the vibrant coral.
But then I see a larger form swimming at least 30 feet below me, something only seen in this region of the Andaman Sea: Moken chasing fish. Two teenagers swim without flippers moving through the ocean with the grace of mermaids and the strength — and lung capacity — of Michael Phelps. They’re not carrying their spears today – Ngoy tells me the most colorful fish don’t have that much meat and don’t taste good – but if they were, these fish wouldn’t have a chance.
Back on the boat Ngoy shows me a spear used for hunting underwater and says that until recently, “We never had to worry about not having enough to eat – we could get fish from the sea very easily, anytime. We don’t save money, we save rice, even today.”
Ngoy’s nephew Kaidaeng, who tells me he’s 15, says he’d like to stay in touch with my wife, Jackie, and me. I say sure – but how? He looks up from his comic book and says: “On Facebook,” stating the obvious. “I have 1,600 friends.”
That afternoon we float to Mother-in-Law Bay and snorkel alongside an underwater cliff then go ashore. A small graveyard sits just above the palm-shaded beach, Ngoy says his mother-in-law was buried here the previous year (Nov 2012). The headstones are unmarked but ritual objects have been placed on the graves.
On one man’s grave sits an old battered TV set. “This is what this person liked,” Ngoy says. “That’s why it’s here.”
Sun-reddened and still wet from our snorkeling expedition, we come ashore at Bon Yai Bay, where this group of Moken has lived yearround since the 1990s – for long before it was their base during the monsoon season. Bon Yai is a village of homes on stilts, a cinderblock school and a new health clinic – almost all the rubble from the tsunami has been cleared away.
In front of the Moken village, Ngoy takes me to a copse of “spirit poles” or totem poles, each about as tall as we are with painted faces and flags flapping above. His people have no real religion, Ngoy says – they believe in their ancestors and in Mother Ocean.
The highlight of their year is the Lobong Festival, when Moken shamans perform rituals and the people dance ecstatically for three or four nights. But Ngoy says he’s worried about the festival because the shamans are getting old and no new shamans are being trained to replace them. “When these people pass, who will take care of the festivities?” he asks. “Without the shaman, the festival would not be sacred.”
As part of the festival, a scale model of a kabong, about 1 wah long is built and filled with rice, papaya and other delicacies, then released into the sea. The offerings to the ancestors help keep evil spirits at bay, Ngoy says. “Our people sometimes believe in bad luck, but by giving these things to the bad luck, it will not come after you.”
But bad luck did come after the Moken on the morning of December 26, 2004. That’s when an earthquake that measured over 9.1 on the Richter scale sent shockwaves that washed over islands in the Andaman Sea and beyond.
Ngoy says he was preparing a boat to go look for honey when he noticed the tide going way out to sea. The Moken people, he tells us, have a legend that tells of a wave 7 wah high. The moral, says Ngoy: “If you see the water leaving, a big wave is coming, so go up.”
But Ngoy wasn’t too worried at first. When suddenly his boat was stranded on dry land, Ngoy’s wife said “ko ma loy no” referring to the Moken story about tsunamis. “When my wife said this, the women put out the fires and prepared to walk up the hill. As we were going up the hill a big wave started to come in, but we didn’t run because we didn’t fear it much,” Ngoy says.
“The first wave was not so high – people came down from the hill to collect their plates and glasses. After the first wave, most people thought it’s probably over. The second and third waves were very high so everyone had to run a second time. After the first wave the houses were still standing, but after the second wave, there were no houses left.”
An advocacy group called Project Moken (projectmoken.com) estimates 12,000 Moken roamed the Mergui Archipelago, a constellation of islands off the coast of Myanmar, prior to the tsunami. Today it’s less than 2,000, maybe closer to 1,000 – it’s hard to count.
Today, as I sit on a shaded patio of Ngoy’s thatch-wood-and-bamboo hut, I notice that all the new houses are above the high-water line. All around us, during the heat of the day, Moken men and women sit under their homes, tell stories and play a Moken card game as Thai baht changes hands.
Though the sea is their first home, Ngoy wants to show me how much the land means to the Moken. Above the beach is a dense forest that’s become essential to the Moken way of life – Ngoy invites us on a short walk through the birdsong-filled trees. “The trick to walking in the forest is not to go too fast or too slow,” says the barefooted Ngoy. “Too fast and you can cut your feet – too slow and the ants and mosquitoes will find you.”
He pulls out his machete and hacks at a tree that seems to bleed when cut. “The tree is called the A-ya-la,” he says. “We call it the blood tree – it has a soft wood that’s good for furniture.” Perhaps the greatest gift of the forest is the abundant bamboo. The Moken, Ngoy says, use it for building their homes and boats, they eat its shoots, and if they’re thirsty can cut young plants and drink their water.
We come out of the forest near the village school and ask if we can say hello to the kids. The building is modern, made of cinder blocks with a metal roof. Most kids are five to nine years old – it’s kindergarten through third grade. Ngoy’s college-educated sister is the teacher.
Many of the girls’ faces are painted with thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from ground bark that’s common in Myanmar. I ask if we can take photos and they look straight into my lens.
Spending time with Moken children makes me wonder about their future. Ngoy has two daughters, ages 4 and 11, living on the mainland with their grandparents. I ask about his hopes for them.
“I want to teach my children” – and by “my children” he means all the kids in this village – “to make a kabong,” he says. “And to pass this knowledge on. Knowledge of the sea will let the Moken people live by the sea in the future.”
What’s the best way for the Moken to maintain their traditions?, I ask Ngoy.
“My first wish is for jobs for the kids here on the islands. If we have to go to the mainland, our community will disintegrate,” Ngoy says. “I don’t care what kind of job they have, just as long as there are jobs to keep them here. I want them to use the local wisdom. But a lot of people have no choice because there is not enough work here.”
We climb the creaky steps to the shaded porch in front of Ngoy’s home. A girl with thanaka painted thickly on her face wearing a purple shirt that says “So Happy” shyly peeks through the front door. Her name is Gumduan and she’s Ngoy’s niece. She grew up along the Burmese coast and dreams of returning to the seas there to work as a squid catcher, floating under the stars each night. I ask what her name means. She says, “catching the moon.”
Despite the forces of modernity buffeting the Moken, Ngoy is confident his people can keep living on islands in the Andaman Sea.
“In 50 years I believe we will still be here – maybe not like this, but we will be here,” he says, noting that the Moken have drifted among these seas for as long as anyone can remember.
I ask one last question: “Where do you want your daughters to live?” Ngoy’s answer is thoughtful, modern, perfect: “That’s up to them.”
We climb out of Ngoy’s kabong, grateful for the rare privilege of spending three days with him among the Moken. I look at Ngoy in appreciation. His copper-brown eyes hold my gaze in a wordless farewell; then he turns toward the sea.
IF YOU GO
This three-day, two-night trip was arranged by Andaman Discoveries, based in Kuraburi, Thailand (about 100 miles north of Phuket). Ko Surin National Park is typically open to visitors from mid-October through April. Most travelers stay in tents, but bungalows are available. A restaurant serves generous and tasty meals. Our trip, which included tent-camping, a speedboat from Kuraburi to Ko Surin and back, all meals (not including beer) and a Thai translator, cost about $600 per person, a significant proportion of those funds goes to help Moken community development projects.
Tel. +66 87 917 7165 (English, Thai)
www.andamandiscoveries.com (click the Tours menu and select Koh Surin)