The Life of the Moken "Sea Gypsies"
by Blake Johnson May 23, 2017
In 2009, I lived in a remote area, with strange but warm and open-minded people. They were self-sufficient nomadic people. They were willing to help me capture a fast-disappearing way of life. Learning Moken language to communicate, I stayed with Tat, Sabai and their three young boys on their kabang (a single-log sailboat) within several weeks. That time allowed me to explore the last years of nomadic Moken life, which is completely harmonious with the rhythm of the sea.
The last mysterious Moken lived in the Surin Islands, to the south of Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea. They survived among these isolated Islands for centuries. They lived in a kabang, only one time put out to sea, and then died at sea. It was the ocean that became their home, means of transportation and the bank of foods.
The Moken people can breathe in water as well as dive deeper and longer than any others on earth because they learn how to swim before walk. Furthermore, they do not count date and month, also do not know how old they are. And they have no worry, no wish and no word "goodbye".
Playing in the turquoise waters
Most Moken children can swim before they learn how to walk
Tat could understand the rhythm of water. He taught his sons all his life skills including diving for fish, sailing and making a roof with plants for their sailboat. Growing up as nomadic Moken people, these three young boys played with turquoise water and pristine beaches as their father used to. Sabai found some lobsters, sandworms at sea, and some wild yams in the "fridge" called rainforest. The song of Moken voices covered the atmosphere of the sea at night, which seemed to say out loud "We are living in our kabang, we are living for our life."
Tat and the boys
The Moken people aren't often willing to meet any stranger, so they have tried to hide themselves from the outside world. However, they have no place to hide in the modern life now. The number of nomadic Moken is dwindling away. This makes it difficult for them when still holding their wandering life of the nomadic.
Tat is burning the hull of his kabang to waterproof the boat
The Moken people aren't often willing to meet any stranger, so they have tried to hide themselves from the outside world. However, they have no place to hide in the modern life now. The number of nomadic Moken is dwindling away. This makes it difficult for them when still holding their wandering life of the nomadic. The authorities allowed mass fishing and carried out the assimilation of land so as to impact on their freedom, culture and natural life, and make them become dependent and isolated. Tat and Sabai seem to be the last ones.
Cooking the family dinner
Sabai and the boys
In late 2014, I came back here to find Tat's family. They lived in a hut on Au Bon Yai instead of at sea. I think I had been lucky enough to experience their life before. Unfortunately, Sabai couldn't see well anymore, so she often stayed at the hut. Their three boys went to school. They were excellent in class, but did not forget how they grew at sea. These boys and their friends went fishing when the lessons were off. Their sons preserved the Moken life like that now. However, I still am afraid of the disappearance of the unique cultures in the world.
Au Bon Yai - the Moken village perched on the edge of the rainforest
Tat's family at night
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