Learning from the Moken Sea Gypsies

Posted on: January 15th, 2013 by bodhi

Elders of the Moken sea people

or what we do outside Our Jungle House with Andaman Discoveries

 “Where are you from?, we asked the guides from the village. “From the Moken” they said. Patiently we asked again: “Alright you are Moken, but… where are you from?” Their answer remained the same: “From the Moken”.

Eco friendly places and Community based initiatives are part of the vision for sustainable and respectful travel in Thailand. Our Jungle House manager Bodhi and his volunteer team spend their free time outside the jungle in cooperation with local communities at the Andaman coast. Together with Andaman Discoveries, an award winning responsible organization for community based tourism, they have started to work with the Moken Sea Nomads on the Surin Islands.

After a bumpy hour and a half ride on a speedboat and another short ride on a long-tail we finally arrived at the Moken Village on a Surin Island off the North Andaman coast of Thailand.
 Andaman Discoveries founder Bodhi Garret was leading the pilot tour organized for our guests (writer Oliver and photographer Catherine) from the BBC’s Lonely Planet Magazine.

Moken Sea Gypsies Boat

Bodhi has known the Moken sea gypsies for some time now and the respect he has for them is mutual and evident from the way they greet each other with friendly smiles and warm hugs.

Not many ‘farang’ speak Thai with ease like Bodhi does and are able to communicate directly with the indigenous peoples from this region. We all felt very privileged to be part of the pilot tour, which was meant to establish AD’s ‘Life of the Moken Sea Nomads’ program;  a responsible and ethical alternative to the tours, that have been operated on the islands so far.

The Moken sea gypsies have been of increasing interest ever since the tsunami struck this region and these nomadic sea faring people had to make a more permanent settlement on the island. 
It is no wonder that for us the question ‘where you from?’ seemed like a logical one, but the answer we received showed just how our perception of one’s origin was limited to only indicate a place. As the Moken guides showed us around their village and gave us a glimpse of their world, it became clear that their answer to this question carries the meaning of the people they grew up with and the values they learned, rather than a physical location.

Moken Boat

Traditionally, the Moken sea gypsies traveled to coastal and island areas in the Mergui Archipelago by their “kabang” (boat), which served both as a home and means of transportation. They would spend seven months fishing during the dry season and take refuge on land during the monsoon. As an ethnic minority in Thailand they are struggling to keep their legacy alive.

The Moken guides led us through their village, shared stories of their lives, and gave insights into their struggles and dreams. On the “Chok Madah” Nature-Culture Trail through the jungle behind the village, they showed us various types of plants and trees that they use in daily life; edible herbs, healing plants and woods used for the construction of their huts and boats. In Moken language, Chok means a small bay, and Madah is the name of a local man who anchored his boat in the bay to gather shellfish and forest products. The Moken who now live a semi-nomadic life have used this foraging trail for generations. Twenty stations with interpretive signs are placed along the trail, providing information on specific topics and insights into the world of the Moken.

Moken sea gypsies playing at beach

On our second day we set off on a long tail boat for a snorkeling dive, at a site known as Nemo bay, frequented by the beautiful clown fish of that name. To observe our Moken guides while snorkeling was an experience in itself, never have I seen a human being move with such grace and serenity in the water. They dipped and dove effortlessly pointing out hidden natural wonders such as the moray eel. Back on the boat Pi Tao, an Moken elder with a peaceful smile, had just finished brewing delicious coffee for all to enjoy.

A couple of days in the company of these kind hearted and warm people inevitably makes one appreciate their culture and wonder about their future. With no written language, their children are taught to speak, read, and write in Thai. This raises a challenge for passing on the traditional
Moken language and knowledge to future generations.

Moken sea gypsies familiesWe spent the night in bungalows on one of the smaller northern islands. The landscape was hauntingly beautiful, the setting sun providing a spectacular background to the mangroves on the beach.

The AD tour is specifically designed to take into consideration the Moken’s wishes, encouraging respectful and meaningful encounters between tourists and Moken people.
Upcoming tours will allow guests to take home not only picture souvenirs but also lasting memories. The hope is to foster a new understanding between the Sea dwellers and us as there is much to learn from them.

Spear fishing w/ Moken sea gypsies
You can participate in various activities in which your Moken guide will show you how to spear hunt, row a traditional Moken boat (which is an artform in and of itself), weave small items out of pandanus leaf, and learn about the magical, hidden underwater world. You will also learn about their mythology and beliefs; as animists the Moken worship and believe in the spirits of nature.

Our adventure came to end but we know that we will return one day and hope to share this beautiful encounter with other likeminded people who want to experience the Moken sea gypsies’ culture and make a much needed contribution that will directly benefit the people you visit.

Find more information under: Andaman Discoveries, North Andaman Community Tourism (N’ACT),
and soon www.mokenislands.com.

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