Bangkok – The Moken people is one of three groups of sea nomads who roamed the Andaman coast spanning southern Thailand and Myanmar for hundreds of years. From roaming the seas to settling permanently on dry land, they are slowly learning to integrate into the mainland society, leaving behind their unique culture and lifestyle. More than 10,000 of their population are scattered throughout Thailand’s coastline, which extends in the Mergui Archipelago off the southern coast of Myanmar, where they are also known as the Salone.
The Mokens, along with the Moklen and Urak Lawoi, are ethnic minorities in Thailand locally known as Chao Lay or sea nomads. A nomadic, seafaring tribe of hunter-gatherers, the Mokens are reported to be descendants of the migrant Austronesians who set sail from southern China some 4,000 years ago. They roam the oceans in flotillas and spend much of their lives on wooden boats called kabang. According to studies, the name “Moken” originates from a Moken word that means “drowned people” or “people of the drowning.” They are animists who speak their own language and have their own set of traditions.
As sea nomads, the Mokens have accumulated a vast knowledge of the sea and lived in several bays, including the Mu Koh Surin, for more than 150 years. Living an isolated life, most of them rely almost entirely on natural resources to sustain themselves. They use spears to fish and trade goods with people from the mainland for profit. During the wet monsoon season, they build temporary villages along the coastal areas. Since they do not have any form of written language, socializing is a big aspect of their culture because through their stories, the elders are able to pass down their history from one generation to the next.
Kabang Representing Moken Society
A kabang (boat) is an important mainstay of the Mokens’ nomadic culture. It serves as their home, transportation, and fishing boat. In fact, this is usually a place for mothers to give birth. Kabang symbolizes freedom and is often given as a gift from a new bride’s family to her groom. Building a kabang takes about 4 months to complete, and this skill is passed down through the generations from father to son.
Unfortunately, only a handful of traditional kabangs remains. The practice has since been hindered due to the modern laws and logging restrictions that prevents the Mokens from building kabangs. When this cultural practice stops, the Mokens will eventually lose memories of their own history and culture. And with just so few of them living at sea today, it will only be a matter of time.
Coping with the Modern World
For decades, the Moken communities have been largely left undisturbed until the catastrophic tsunami in the Indian Ocean destroyed much of their habitat in 2004, thus forcing them to live on permanent villages. Many of them traded their houseboats for more permanent coastal settlements. Being exposed to mainstream society and getting accustomed to new environments made it challenging for the Moken to preserve their customs and their ethnic identity. The constant demand of blending into the modern world means one needs to adapt to the new standards despite strong reservation.
An increasing number of Mokens have adopted new jobs on the mainland, while those living off the sea have become more sedentary in recent decades, with Moken families building houses along island coasts. They still venture to the sea, but often only to search the ocean for fish, shrimp, and sea cucumbers to augment their food supply. Their knowledge about life in and on the sea is slowly disappearing. Unlike the Moklen and Urak Lawoi, who have already integrated into the Thai society and acquired a modern-day lifestyle, the Mokens are still learning how to live on land among other people.
Image from Boaz, https://www.flickr.com/photos/boaz/