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Sea Gypsies of Thailand: The Moken (Chao Leh)

Updated on January 8, 2014

A Nomadic Sea Culture

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Chao Leh (Moken) people group

The Chao Leh migrated from Southern China 4,000 years ago. They live in Mergui Archipelago in Malaysia, Burma and Thailand, along 250 miles of the Andaman Sea coast.

The Sea Gypsies of Thailand

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Customarily, the Moken are hunter-gatherers as opposed to being fisherman although they are adept at spear fishing.

Foraging from the Sea

Lobsters
Lobsters | Source
Moken Family
Moken Family | Source
Shells
Shells | Source
Ready for a Fish Fry
Ready for a Fish Fry | Source

The Moken Way of Life

Traditionally the Moken lived from birth to death on small wooden houseboats called Kabang, living on land only during the monsoon season. The Kabang are usually made of zalacca wood with a bifurcated bow and stern for getting in and out of the water with the top covered by woven leaves. Collections from the sea are often spread on the roof to dry.

The Moken people collect sea urchins, sea cucumbers, snails, and eels from the reefs and mudflats, set traps for rock lobsters and crabs and dive for pearls and shells.

These activities have put them into conflict with the government. Restrictions on fishing and the development of National Marine Parks have curtailed the way of life of the Moken people. Theep, a Moken women from the Rawai village relates how her brother was caught at sea by the police and thrown into prison for three months. His long boat was taken, depriving he and his family from earning a living. Their boat is their life-line to the sea.

Ivanoff, a French anthropologist, who studied the Moken people group for 20 years, contends that recent aid money sent to help in Moken relocation many only serve to help the Thai government relocate them into settlements, which may be counter to their wishes and destroy their culture.

The Fish Market

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The Moken Society, traditionally has little in the way of what one would call an economic base. In the past these hunter-gatherers collected what is needed from the Sea for their families to survive and collected a little extra to barter for necessities. Now the Greater Phuket Magazine describes the Moken village at Rawai “as a human Zoo, busing in tourists to gawk and point cameras at the sun burnt scrappily dressed people. The children beg from the tourists, even grabbing things from them. It is a sight of a people dispossessed of their traditions and dignity” (ARTASIA, 2000).

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Saruk Lawoi

A visit to one of the sister people groups, the Saruk Lawoi, gave opportunity to observe the results of disenfranchisement of the people. Although this woman elder, Somchit Pramongkit, appears to be interested in our discussion, she spent a great deal of time discussing what she might be able to gain financially from me, how she had received a great deal of money from tourists and had even been visited by the Thai princess. She was able to relate some details regarding their beliefs and the Tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand. One of the workers at our hotel acted as translator.

When the Sea Receded Far and Fast

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A Man Eating Wave Would Come

The Tsunami of 2004

The Moken have been celebrated for their understanding of the Tsunami. It was passed on by oral tradition, that when the sea receded far and fast, a man eating wave would come. According to Pramongkit, oral lore speaks of 7 great waves of which this is the last.

On December 26th, the tide went out very far, around 2 Km from the beach. One of the Moken tour guides was able to notify the tourists and Moken people to head for high ground when he saw this strange receding tide. It is felt that this understanding of the sea saved many lives. Only one Moken child, who was handicapped, perished in “The Wave”. Rebuilding of the village has taken place in a different area to appease the ancestral spirits.

Uruk Lawoi Home

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This is a typical home of the Uruk Lawoi. They are built on stilts, providing for normal tidal movement and indoor/outdoor activities. You can see how easy it was for Tsunami to destroy so many homes.

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God and Ghosts

When asked about the role of faith in their society, Somchit Pramongkit, one of the female elders of the Uruk Lawoi tribe simpley stated, “I believe in God and Ghosts”. Day to day activities seem to stem from appeasement of the spirit world.

Animistic Belief System

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The religion of the Chao Leh is animism. Twice a year they celebrate the “Loy Ruea” festival. Small wooden boats are released into the sea carrying presents, fingernails, hair and miniature weapons to please the ghosts of the sea and the souls of the dead so the Sea Gypsies can live in peace. They also celebrate the spirit poles where their ancestral spirits are enshrined and the Shaman predicts the fortune of the community for the coming year.

The Chao Leh World View

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There is a yearly hunt of the sea turtles, which is the only time of year they are allowed to hunt them and eat their flesh. Their legends say that a woman of the Sea Gypsies turned into a turtle with a human face and now they worship the Sea turtle as a sister of humankind. The Sea Gypsies, like each of us, view the world from their own window. This is a picture of one of their traps, used to forage from the Sea.

A Joy to be a part of the Sea

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Moken children are at home in, at and around the Sea.

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Simon, a CBS news correspondent, put it this way. “Kids learn to swim before they can walk. Underwater, they can see twice as clearly as the rest of us, and by lowering their heart rate, can stay underwater twice as long. They are truly sea urchins” (Simon, 2005)

Moken View of Health and Illness

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Health and illness are mostly seen in terms of spiritual rather than medical states. The sick often seek out Shamans who ask the spirits for a cure. They pay with money or bartered products when they are cured. Theep, a local Moken woman from Rawai, did state that they will go to a local Dr. when their ways fail. The Moken also use medicinal plants from the forest. Ba-ai bark is ground into a paste and mixed with water and smeared on the head of a child to reduce fever.. They also have midwives to attend their deliveries.

Money Changes a Culture

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Money changes a CultureLittle Girl Playing with Beer BottlesSpending time DrinkingThe Karaoke ClubMoken Child
Money changes a Culture
Money changes a Culture | Source
Little Girl Playing with Beer Bottles
Little Girl Playing with Beer Bottles | Source
Spending time Drinking
Spending time Drinking | Source
The Karaoke Club
The Karaoke Club | Source
Moken Child
Moken Child | Source

Children take to the Sea with their Parents

The introduction of money into a more sedentary population of Chao Leh, is serving to help destroy the culture. The people in this village spend great amounts of time drinking and hanging out at the local karaoke club. The child is playing with a case of beer bottles. In trying to preserve the culture, it is important that Western funding does not become its demise.

Efforts have been made by the Thai government to provide schooling for the Moken children. However, school fees often prohibit their attendance. When conditions are right for fishing, children take to the sea with their parents.

Promotion of family, respect, relationship and lifestyle is important in preserving the Moken Culture.

Preparing Lunch
Preparing Lunch | Source

I hope that you enjoyed this cultural exchange with the Moken, "Sea Gypsies" of Thailand.

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    • Lenzy profile image
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      Lenzy 3 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Thank you Oneka. This was a very informative interaction for me as well. I knew almost nothing about this group of people before I started to research them and interact with them in Thailand.

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      oneka johnson 3 years ago

      thanks for the information , i have learned.

    • Lenzy profile image
      Author

      Lenzy 3 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Aviannovice, Thank you for your interest in the Moken people group. I had never heard of them until the Tsunami. When I knew that I was going to Thailand, I just had to get the chance to meet them and talk with them about their culture and how they avoided the big wave.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I had never heard about the Moken and their ways until now. Thanks for the great information.

    • Lenzy profile image
      Author

      Lenzy 3 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Thank you for the Editor's Choice Designation. I did put in a lot of time to try to make this hub everything it should be and appreciate the recognition. I enjoyed sharing the life-style of the Moken people and how their oral tradition helped spare their lives when the Tsunami came in 2004.

    • Lenzy profile image
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      Lenzy 3 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Phyllis, it is heartbreaking to have a hard-working group of people side-lined by displacement and well-meaning funds which allow them to spend too much time without meaningful work. I saw a similar thing happen with a pygmy group in Uganda when the government pulled them out of the forest and relocated them on the outskirts of a village.

    • Lenzy profile image
      Author

      Lenzy 3 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Thank you Carolyn. I really enjoyed my time with the Moken people and I am also glad Bill shared my Hub. He writes some great ones and I count it an honor to have him endorse my Hub.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      What an interesting article! so glad bdegiulio shared it! :-)

    • Lenzy profile image
      Author

      Lenzy 3 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Thanks Bill. It's been a while. I have a hard time writing unless it is something that grabs my heart. Then I write. I found this people group, and the story of the Tsunami to be really fascinating. Thanks for your encouragement.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Lenzy. What a fascinating culture. Thank you for sharing this amazing look at the Moken people. Great presentation. Great to see you writing here.

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