The fabulous Mergui Archipelago consisting of 800 stunning, mostly uninhabited islands, and the Surin islands (made up of 5 islands) to the south of Mergui nestle in the Andaman Sea off the west coast between Thailand and Myanmar.
These two locations are where a unique group of people; the Moken tribe can be found. A population of 1-2,000 people, also known as ‘sea gipsies’ live what can only be described as a semi-nomadic lifestyle, surviving from what they can scavenge off the land and sea in very basic conditions on their houseboats called ‘Kabangs’.
The Moken Kabang on Surin Islands, Thailand.
They gather everything they need on a daily basis to exist from the sea and the coastlines of the islands. Anything that can’t be sought from the sea or land is exchanged with goods from local land-based folk using their catch of fish as currency. Despite their small and rapidly dwindling population, they have their own unique dialect; the Moken language, a dialect of Austronesian origin.
The community as a whole consist of several different subgroups, Moken, Moklen, Orang Sireh and Orang Lanta. Many of the small population are now in relationships with Myanmar land-based nationals through which their offspring are further diluting their ethnic DNA. Even though they are often cruelly referred to as sea gipsies, this term doesn't just apply to the Moken, but also to a small number of other Southeast Asian people who live their lives on the sea.
Their intimate knowledge of marine life means that simple foraging methods like spear and net fishing are employed to exploit the local fauna and flora of which their diets consist. During the rainy season, it is often too dangerous to fish on the seas so their time is otherwise consumed building additional fishing boats or kabangs.
Older moken man on Lampi Island
An extraordinary trait which evolution has bestowed upon them enables the Moken to swim like dolphins in the ocean, dive to extraordinary depths to reach the seabed and hold their breath for longer than any ‘world record’ holding free diver! Another unique genetically inherited characteristic is their ability to see underwater with crystal-like clarity.
Their extreme competency in free-diving is often exploited by industrial land-based fishing companies who exploit their unique diving skills to harvest large quantities of fish from environmentally disastrous (and illegal) dynamite fishing.
This dangerous and often fatal practice has seen many male members perish or become permanently disabled from injuries for which they or their families are little, if at all, compensated for.
Moken kids have amazing underwater sight.
Because of their chosen way of life, this population is content to be marginalized by most of the civilized world. Attempts are underway by both the Burmese and Thai governments to assimilate these people into society.
Their ‘neutral’ status in terms of officially existing is starting to cause issues among their community with both governments trying to relocate various groups into settlements on land.
The island’s forests in which they once had free rein to harvest wood needed for crafting their kabangs are now off limits. Their islands are now classified as national park status and are therefore protected against illegal logging practices. Even the removal of a single seashell from the beach of one of these islands is deemed ‘illegal’ and carries a heavy fine…. or worse.
This legislation is now, unfortunately, making their customary existence all but impossible.
Moken family in their traditional house, the Kabang boat.
Small numbers of Thai Moken can now be found in villages on the Surin Islands, Phuket province and the nearby islands of Phi Phi and Krabi.
The discovery of oil reserves off the Tenasserium coast in the 1990s expedited the relocation process by the Burmese military regime and it is believed that this was heralded as a ‘success’ by 1997. Thai officials, on the other hand, felt compelled to deal with issues of land ownership claimed by the Moken.
Due to their unofficial status, it appeared they didn’t officially ‘own’ the land they inhabited for centuries. Developers have now taken advantage of this and have mounted land grab campaigns which have resulted in groups from the community being relocated.
Moken lady, Ma Kyone Galet Salone Village
In 2004, the Moken people suffered a severe blow- the well documented and devastating tsunami that swept through the Andaman Sea on 26 December destroyed many traditional settlements in its path along with the tools of their trade… their fishing boats and kabangs. Fortunately, virtually none of the Moken’s lives were taken by the disaster, the reason being was because of their tight relationship with ‘Mother Ocean’.
Tribal leaders foresaw what was going to happen and were able to gather their people and take them to shelter on high ground before the tsunami struck. Hermit crabs retreated from the sea and birds vacated the forests prior to the disaster… even technology from the modern and civilized world did not predict what was going to happen as well as these nomadic people did!
The tsunami, afforded the Thai and Burmese governments to seize the opportunity to try and gather the entire population into settlements with promises of food and other material aid if they stayed… but nothing if they decided to leave. Their settlements weren’t allowed to be built over water as they preferred.
The resulting settlements were overcrowded and were arranged in an uncharacteristically organized manner.
Older moken lady fishing squid on the Sampan boat, Mergui Islands.
Fears of a further tsunami prompted the authorities to build the settlements on the edge of forests, ignoring the inherent beliefs of the Moken that spirits reside in the jungle, hence their repulsion to land. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Moken opted to leave the settlements as they missed their nomadic and unrestricted lifestyle too much to stay.
For the majority of Moken, the modern world is a confusing and scary place in which they feel they have no place. The frenetic pace of life, the noisy growl of traffic, and urban rush-hour that the civilized world ‘enjoys’ is alien to them!
Moken village at Kanmaw Kyun (Kisseraing Island)
Their natural diets are uninfected with saturated fats, refined sugars, alcohol and chemical preservatives. Members of their community who have been assimilated into modern culture are now facing increased health issues such as obesity and diabetes because their bodies are not attuned to the ‘toxins’ prevalent in modern processed foods that most of us are used to.
This closed group is generally self-sufficient and they don’t have the same materialistic tendencies that many in the civilized world do. They have no word for ‘worry’, they don’t fret about their future existence, nor are they jealous of the creature comforts that life in the city provides. Even their boats are designed in such a way to display their meagre possessions, proving that they have nothing worth stealing by pirates or other aggressors.
The vessel (by david Van Driessche):
In November 2017 I was invited to shoot photos of the Andaman Explorer, an amazing vessel that was built as the MV Atlantic Guard in 1963 in Norway as a 61 meter long Norwegian coast guard boat. Now completely refurbished and with the updated original Rolls Royce engines, the cruise ship sails the calm waters of the Andaman Ocean instead of breaking the Norwegian icecaps.
To be true I did not know what to expect but having photographed (therefore stayed) at many 5 star resorts in Asia, I could see the managing company Pandaw Cruises has had many years of experience in quality service catering to Luxury designed adventure trips.
Looking at the Pandaw website, the concept of having unexplored territory combined on a high class service ship seemed a great concept and a bit new to me.
Having your own working desk with 24 hours electricity, excellent cuisine and friendly service was a great luxury to have in the Mergui Archipelago, as this area only opened up to tourism about 15 years ago, therefore leaving us with 800 islands nearly "untouched by humans" to explore. This also means there are no facilities on the Islands which the Andaman Explorer provides when photographing and exploring the remote areas of the archipelago.
For more information please look at the website: https://www.pandaw.com/expeditions/the-mergui-archipelago/
David Van Driessche, hotel and travel photographer, organizing photo-tours mainly in South East Asia with his company Expeditions in Photography.
For more information please look at the website: http://expeditionsinphotography.com/
Mark Freeman, travel writer, editor, proofreader and freelance English tutor.
For more information please look at the website: www.121englishtutoring.com