Among the Moken, the Sea Gypsies of Myeik

The Myeik Archipelago consists of more than 800 islands of varying sizes, stretching from Myeik to Myanmar’s southernmost point at Kawthaung.

It’s 3 am, and I’m sitting on a freight boat off the shore of an island in the Myeik Archipelago as the crew sends signals to shore with a flashlight. Around five hours earlier, my guide and friend U Soe Khai (not his real name) smuggled me aboard, avoiding the watchful gaze of immigration officials at the Myeik Jetty. When I ask him why we had to do this, since my media permit gave me unrestricted access to the islands, he says: “This way immigration has no eyes and no ears.”

So began my six-day journey in search of the Moken, the elusive sea gypsies of Myanmar’s far south. The island, I later learned, is called Kristiang, and it is one of some 800 unspoiled islands extending from the town of Myeik all the way to Myanmar’s southernmost point, Kawthaung. The Moken, or Selung, as they are officially known, have lived among these islands and others farther to the south off the coast of Thailand for 3,500 years.

Despite their long presence in this area, however, the Moken are rapidly losing their way of life under pressure from the environmental impact of fishing and logging. To survive, they have had to adapt to modern life while still clinging to what’s left of their culture.

For most of the year, the Moken live at sea, on boats known as kabang that are carved from a single tree. Their entire lives revolve around these hand-hewn vessels, which are not only a means of transportation, but also their homes. And as the terms for describing the parts of these boats attest, they are seen almost as living things, complete with a mouth, cheeks, neck, shoulders, ribs and even anus.

Traditionally, when a couple decides to make a life together, the man was expected to build a suitable kabang and present it the father of his would-be wife. These days, however, there are few kabang left. The Moken no longer have access to the trees they need to build them, and they also lack the skills that were once their most important inheritance.

If the kabang is their home, then their backyard is the sea. The Moken are expert free divers, capable of remaining beneath the water’s surface for extended periods of time. By contracting the irises of their eyes, much like a camera lens, they also have a unique ability to double the accuracy of their underwater vision.

In the past, pearl farmers used the Moken’s diving skills to collect the rare gold-lipped oysters now raised in hatcheries. Reaching the wild oysters required the Moken to dive at deadly depths of up to 80 meters without proper equipment. Decompression sickness claimed many casualties among the Moken. These days, however, their services are no longer required. According to U Myint Lwin, a marine biologist and owner of the Orient Pearl Co., most people employed in this industry today are mainland Burmese.

U Myint Lwin (who also owns shares in a number of fishing companies) said that the degradation of the marine environment has hurt his pearl farms and depleted fishing stocks. But for the Moken, it has meant not the loss not just of profits, but of a culture that has supported them for thousands of years.

The morning before I was smuggled out of Myeik, I saw the effects of this steady erosion of traditional Moken values. A Moken family, waiting for high tide at the dock, invited me onto their boat and offered me beer and whiskey at 7 o’clock in the morning. The men were already drunk.

Ten years ago, 12,000 Moken roamed the Myeik Archipelago; now there are only around 2,000. One person I spoke to described the Moken as “useless,” and described them as “amphetamine users smuggled from Thailand.”

The shrinking number of Moken still living among the Myeik islands, and the decline of their culture, is inextricably related to the ever-worsening condition of the environment, which has been subjected to excessive logging and dynamite fishing, and to the pressure of resettlement and modern society.

As animists, the Moken have a deep respect for the ocean. During the monsoon season, they gather mainly on three islands for their annual celebrations. Traditionally, their spiritual life is led by shamans, but according to U Soe Khai, many have converted to Buddhism over the past 10 years. In their own language, they have no word for “worry,” but these days, they have good reason to worry if their culture will survive another generation.

U Soe Khai, who has worked with the Moken for 18 years and speaks their language fluently, called out a greeting as we approached Annawa Island, where some Moken have settled in a village called Langon. Usually shy and defiant, the Moken came out to welcome us in a couple of small canoes, each big enough for just one adult. They used plastic lids instead of proper oars.

Langon is nestled on a small beach of pure white sand, surrounded by pristine jade waters. The shore is lined with fishing boats, and there’s a small jetty. The island is mountainous and green and the houses are built upon the beach on stilts that are five to six meters high to allow for tidal influx. The entrances of the houses face out to the sea. A Buddhist temple dominates the village, but coexists with traditional Moken totems. The matriarch of the village, a cheerful 93-year-old woman, welcomed us to the village and the shy children followed us around, curious about our appearance. Like everywhere else we went around the Myeik Archipelago, the locals refused payment for anything, and we were treated to coffee, cigarettes, dried fish and fresh squid and oysters.

Despite the idyllic setting and the gracious welcome we received, however, it was clear that the island was no paradise. As I made my way down to the beach from the houses by the shore, I noticed that there was no waste or sanitation system in the village. There was garbage and human waste everywhere: the only garbage collector here is the tide.

People living in these island villages believe that the sea can absorb everything. Even though they tell us that turtles sometimes mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, contributing to the dramatic decline in the turtle population, no one here—Burmese or Moken—seems to understand the need to change their behavior or way of thinking.

With the destruction of coral reefs by dynamite fishing and the development of offshore gas fields, the sea that once provided so abundantly for the needs of the Moken is losing its ability to support life. This means that the Moken way of life is also in grave danger of vanishing forever. As the bad habits of “civilization” take hold among the Moken, that process can only accelerate, depriving the world of yet another culture that was once far more attuned to nature than our own.

13 Responses to Among the Moken, the Sea Gypsies of Myeik

  1. The natural beauty of Burma stretches way beyond Pagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay where most of the tourists go. I hope the pristine waters of the Mergui archipelago (and the rest of the coast line of Burma) will not be destroyed soon by greedy “aliens” (especially from a big neighbouring country). I also hope the Moken (or Salone) can preserve their unique lifestyle survive the onslaught of naked greed with dignity.
    By the way, are the Moken officially included in the 135 official ethnic groups of Burma (just out of curiosity, where can I find that list?)

  2. I do not know about the ocean around Myeik, but we were were very disgusted and disheartened to see the polluted waters around Manila. Human waste can be handled by the ocean. I hope they are not disposing plastics and glass.

  3. Thaks for this article – quite tragic.

  4. I think the Green Societies of Myanmar should seriously look into the issue raised by this article. The government is rather too busy to look after its own survival, and the affairs of crony businesses.

  5. Beautifully written and so said –

  6. Having read your article the part that stands out most for me is
    “No one here, Burmese or Moken, seem to understand the need to change their behaviour or way of thinking”
    Isn’t that part of the double edged problem in the decline of the Moken.? The need to continue the past n live in the present.
    From 10,000 to 2,000 in ten years

  7. The living standard of the Mokens needs helps from UN and other world organizations. From humanity point of view, they should be rescued from where they stand right now.

  8. Please help them!

  9. This is a truly wonderful piece! Jacques Maudy, this article has just intensified my dream to one day write about and advocate to preserve natural environments throughout Burma. After living in the Philippines and seeing the depleted and waste-filled water of some of the islands and coasts there, I do not wish this to be the future for the Moken and their islands. This article brings us one step closer to spreading awareness of such issues while there is still time to make significant changes to our living and consuming habits.

  10. I could not agree more with all the above responses to Jacques Maudy’s fine article for a wake-up call to preserve the lifestyle and culture of the Mokens ( Selun, Salone); “the need to continue the past n live in the present” as well put by Beth Jordan.
    I was camping on one of the islands (near Kawthaung) and toured the surrounding islands in November 2004 and met the Mokens for the first time, though I have heard about them in my youthful years in Myanmar. I came back to US and told the President of Foundation for the People of Burma (FPB, now Partners Asia) on which I am a Board member the same sentiments expressed in the responses above. As we were committed in other parts of the country, he said we’ll take a look at it in six months time. But when the Tsunami came a month later, FPB was there by Feb 2005, to provide immediate relief and educational program, such as supplying food, new boats, etc., and our President himself was on the islands organizing environmental projects such as picking up plastics, glass, etc. indicating that was not good for the welfare of their children which resonated with them , and instituted a medium range and long range planning for them. The updates of these activities will soon be on our Partners Asia Website for your perusal and your participation with us to achieve the goal you all wish to happen. I encourage Angie Oo to fulfill her dream, not one day, but right away to “write about and advocate to preserve natural environments throughout Burma” before time runs out.
    At the same time we can learn from this old Moken culture how to live in harmony with Nature for our own preservation for a long time to come. I remember that the Salones ( Mokens) were the ones who had the knowledge and understood what was happening just prior to the Tsunami waves in 2004 hit the beaches and ran up the hills, while some of the western and other tourists ran toward the receding water and lost their lives as a result when Tsunami came.

    With loving kindness, Maung Tin-Wa, Ph.D.

  11. I read about the Moken many years ago in a book written by an anthropologist in the 1950’s or even earlier. They were described as making their own boats, and having only temporary resting places on land, no villages. Women even gave birth to their babies on the family boat. They are also called “sea gypsies”, for their nomadic way of life on the water.- At that time this book was a real marvel to me.
    But I think this way of life cannot survive in the modern age.

    Recently I came across the Moken again in the English wikipedia when I collected information on the ethnic minorities of Myanmar (and the minorities of neighboring countries) It was in the official list of 135 ethnic minorities of Myanmar.

    The list has subgroups under the major ethnic groups as follows:
    KACHIN (12),
    – Kachin, Jinghpaw, Dalaung, Taron, Guari, Kha-hku, Duleng, Maru (Lawgore), Rawang, Lashi (La Chit), Atsi, Lisu

    KAYAH (9),
    – Kayah (Karenni), Pale, Zayein, Ka-Yun (Kayan, Padaung),
    Manu Manaw, Gheko, Yin Talai, Yin Baw, Kayin-pyu (Geba Karen)

    KAREN (11),
    – Kayin (Karen), Pa-Le-Chi, Mon Kayin (Sar-pyu), Sgaw,
    Ta-Hlay-Pwa, Paku, Bwe, Monn pwa, Monne pwa, Shu (Pwo)

    CHIN (53),
    – Anu, Anun, Asho, Awa Khami, Bre (Ka-Yaw), Chin,
    Dai (Yindu), Dim, Eik-swair, Gunte (= Lyente), Guite, Haul-ngo,
    Ka-lin-kaw (Lushay), Kawng Saing Chin, Kaung-so, Kebar, Khaw-no, Kwang-li (Sim), Kwel-shin, Kwe-myi,
    Lai (Hakha Chin), Lai-zao, Law-htu, Lay-myo, Lhin-bu, Lushei (Lua shay), Lyente,
    Magun, Malin, Marama-gyi, Matu, Meithei (= Kathè), Mgan, Mi-er,
    Naga, Ngorn, Oo-Pu, Panun, Rongtu, Saing-Zan, Saline, Sentang,
    Tanghkul, Tapong, Tay-zan, Thado, Tiddim (Hai-Dim), Torn (Tawr),
    Wakim (Mro), Yin-Gog,
    Za-how, Za-hyet (Zanniet), Zi-zan, Zou, Zo-pe, Zo-tung

    BAMAR (9),
    – Bamar (Burman), Dawei, Beik, Yaw, Yabein, Kadu (Kado),
    MOKEN (Salon, Salone), Ganam, Hpon,

    MON (1), – no subgroups ????

    RAKHINE (7),
    – Rakhine (Arakanese), Kamein, Khami, Dai-gnet (= Chakma), Miram (Mara), Mro, Thet (= Chak)

    SHAN (33)
    – Shan, Danow (Danau), Danu, Intha, Pa-o, Khamti Shan, Khmu (Khamuh), Kwi, Kokang, Lahu, Palaung, Shan Gale, Shan-gyi, Tai-loi, Tai-Lem, Tai-Lon, Tai-lay, Tai-shon, Taung-yo, Wa (Va), Yao, Yinkya, Yin-net, Yun (Lao), Man Zi, Pyin, Eng, Son, Kaw (Akha, E-kaw), Maw Shan, Maing-tha, Hkun (Khün)

    together 135.

    Not recognized officially but also living in Myanmar are the following 7 groups: Sino-Burmese, Indo-Burmese, Anglo-Burmese, Gurkha, Panthay, Rohingya, Pakistani.

    It is well known that the minorities of Myanmar are often found on both sides of the international border. It is also welll known that the mainland of South East Asia is the home of a large variety of different peoples that have come here SINCE THE LAST ICE AGE about 10.000 years ago, at first from the south (as the land between the islands of modern Indonesia was flooded by rise of the ocean level), later from the north (as China became more and more densely populated, and the Han Chinese consolidated their empire.) The variety of different ethnics is also great in North-east India (in British India this part was called Assam province, but now it is divided into eight different federal “states” of India), in Yunnan, and in Thailand and Laos. These ethnics are often related to the ethnics living in Myanmar.

    When we compare the names of these groups, it becomes clear that the official list of 135 ethnic minorities in Myanmar is just a haphazard collection of names. The list needs to be REVISED in consultation with qualified anthropologists.

    Some ethnics in the list may be identical, because they have more than one name. Some of the 53 ethnics grouped under CHIN may be just clans belonging to the same tribe, not different ethnics. Sometimes related ethnics are grouped together, sometimes they are not related but live closely. together. Some names are placed in the wrong group.

    I think that the MOKEN are a very ancient people living among the islands thousands of years and that they may be related to the seafaring peoples of the Malay Archipelago and the Pacific Islands. It is not likely that they are related to the Bamar, because the Bamar came to Myanmar from the north much later in time and riding on horses, not in boats.

    The Karen and the Mon also probably live in Myanmar longer than the Bamar. The Chins and Rakhine and Bamar may be more closely related than the other ethnic groups and may have come about the same time. (Their languages are closely related). Rakhine/Arakan has a much longer history with ancient kingdoms, but what kind of people lived there in the Dhanyavati Era?

    The Shans came to Myanmar only at the end of the Pagan Era (Shan States were originally not included in realm), but in the Middle Ages they spread far and wide all over Myanmar, in the west as far as Assam, in the east as far as Laos, in the south as far as Martaban (Wareru) and Ayutthaya. In the 16th century (King Bayint-naung, Toungoo dynasty) the whole north were just Shan States. The Kachins came to the country only afterwards

    What is now Myanmar is basically the country conquered by the Konbaung dynasty in the second half of the 18th century (except small parts in the north and the east, which are now in India, China, and Thailand). In the Middle Ages (260 years ago) it was divided into three or more different realms: Ava/Innwa, Rakhine/Arakan, Toungoo, and Bago/Pegu/Hamsavati. Many different peoples live in Myanmar now, that is why stable peace and harmony can only be reached by flexibility, negotiations, a federal structure, give and take between the different groups.

    To build a prosperous future for the country, allowances also have to be made for change in the existing structure of the population. Change will happen, whether we like it or not. If we accept that with pragmatic wisdom, we can prepare for it better. – This is not the same as allowing unlimited illegal immigration from neighbouring countries.

  12. Great article. It very hard to find information as this good about Myeik archipelago.

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