Thailand's 'sea people' adapt to life on land after centuries of nomadic living


Ko Surin, Thailand (CNN) — These times, Salamak Klathalay, like most of us, lives in a home, on land. But this is a somewhat new practical experience for the 78-calendar year-old.

“As a kid, I lived on a boat part of the 12 months and on land component of the 12 months,” Salamak tells me from his residence on Ko Surin, an island-sure national park in Thailand’s south.

“We would go to land during the monsoon period to search for tubers. Just after that, we would go back to our boats.”

Salamak is a member of Thailand’s Moken ethnic team.

Also known as the “sea gypsies” or chao ley — Thai for “sea folks” — the Moken lay claim to an astounding listing of characteristics. They are 1 of the only teams of humans who, historically, lived predominately at sea, in houseboats known as kabang.

These expertise had been honed more than hundreds of years of nomadic living — sailing, hunting and collecting between the islands of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago and Thailand’s higher Andaman Sea coast.

Tsunami forces Moken on to solid land

The Moken village in Southern Thailand’s Mu Ko Surin National Park.

Austin Bush

This exceptional life style finished abruptly in 2005, just after the prior year’s tsunami. The Moken emerged from the catastrophe just about completely unscathed, relying on traditional knowledge that taught them to seek out increased ground to prevent the wave, but the Thai federal government ordered them to relocate to reliable land, in a makeshift village in Ko Surin Countrywide Park.

In the many years considering that, Thailand’s Moken have, much more or a lot less, tailored to a fairly contemporary existence. The 315 persons who make up the village are living in basic wooden and bamboo homes outfitted with photo voltaic panels and managing drinking water. And for the to start with time, they have obtain to a fairly standard supply of profits in the kind of tourism.

“The village makes profits from promoting things to travellers or primary boat excursions,” claims Ngoey Klathalay (all Moken share the exact surname), the village head, who tells me that on an common working day as a lot of as 100 men and women could pay a visit to his village.

A 2019 fireplace that wiped out half of the village was however a further devastating blow to the neighborhood. But the pandemic, which has closed Thailand’s doors to intercontinental tourism, stripping the Moken of what was nearly their only source of income, may possibly show to be an even bigger obstacle.

Hook Klathalay on the deck of his houseboat.

Hook Klathalay on the deck of his houseboat.

Austin Bush

But if you will find one team that has the techniques to survive in tricky periods, it is really unquestionably the Moken.

“I really don’t have a dwelling! I have lived on this boat for two years now,” says Hook Klathalay, Ngoey’s brother, who estimates that he is the only Moken in Thailand who lives on a boat entire time.

At 35, Hook is amongst the last of the technology of Moken who grew up at sea. When he was five, his mother and father moved to land so he could get an training.

But as an grownup, Hook felt the pull to return to a regular Moken lifestyle, a journey that is portrayed in the 2015 documentary, “No Phrase for Fear.”

For Hook, the initial step in this process intended creating a boat. Typically, Moken boats have been hollowed out of significant logs, but national park regulations protect against the Moken from reducing down trees.

So with economical guidance from the filmmakers, he made a boat that blends Thai and Moken factors: crafted with planks and a longtail motor but also equipped with a Moken-type roof and a mast on which to raise the regular pandanus leaf sail. The boat has seemingly served as an inspiration for other Moken, and in the yrs due to the fact, a person extra has been created.

“Other Moken informed me that they want to reside on a boat, in the ocean,” Hook suggests, introducing that the pressures of the pandemic have also brought about the Moken to reassess their way of living.

“They want to be totally free, like me.”

“We stay working day to day”

Spend some time on Hook’s boat and it would not choose extended to see that his existence revolves all-around the hunt. Even though we chat, he mends a web and lowers baited hooks into the h2o. 1 morning, I see him treading via shallow water with his son and a three-pronged spear, scanning for fish.

A further evening, in mid conversation, he leaps to the bow of his boat and casts a net into the h2o.

“As extended as we have some rice, we can uncover the rest of what we have to have to live in the ocean,” suggests Hook, who estimates that the greater part of the food that he and his spouse and children take in he catches himself.

Hook estimates that he catches more than half of the food that his family eats.

Hook estimates that he catches extra than half of the food stuff that his family members eats.

Austin Bush

Hunting is strictly prohibited in Thailand’s nationwide parks, but officers have allowed the Moken to fish, hunt and gather if they use regular methods, and only for their have usage. This has proved to be a lifeline for the Moken in the course of the pandemic.

“Covid has had a massive effect on the Moken,” Hook says. “In advance of, the Moken earned funds by encouraging out on boats or carrying out odd employment at the nationwide park, but these positions are absent now. And the Moken usually are not Thai citizens, so they never get any assist from the govt.”

To witness Moken-design self-sufficiency firsthand, I talk to Ngoey to consider me along on a hunting vacation. We jump in a boat and he heads to a little, rocky outcrop the place a handful of Moken are chipping away at shells with a knife-like metallic device, accumulating fingernail-sized oysters.

While bold, impressive feats this sort of as spearfishing, remarkable underwater vision and the capability to hold one’s breath have arrive to dominate well known depictions of the Moken, it does not just take extensive to see that the bulk of the standard Moken food plan arrives from the comparatively mundane gathering of things this sort of as shellfish, crustaceans and tiny fish.

Members of Thailand's Moken ethnicity collect oysters on a small island in Thailand's Mu Ko Surin National Park.

Users of Thailand’s Moken ethnicity acquire oysters on a tiny island in Thailand’s Mu Ko Surin Nationwide Park.

Austin Bush

“We dwell working day to day,” Ngoey suggests. “If we run out of food, we have to come across a lot more the future day we you should not have fridges!”

The sea just isn’t the only source of food for the Moken. On a further day, I accompany Ngoey and his wife to a wooded island in which we dig in the sandy soil for edible tubers.

In the times just before rice was commonplace, taro and yams had been the key supply of carbs for the Moken. We return to the village with a style of tuber that the Moken phone marung. Boiled and peeled, they have a texture and flavor that reminds me of drinking water chestnuts.

“I have not eaten marung in 10 or much more yrs!” Ngoey tells me, obviously feeling a feeling of nostalgia.

Right before leaving Ko Surin, I question Ngoey how he thinks the Moken have fared all through this time.

“Due to the fact Covid, our cash flow has been lowered, but in my feeling, not by a ton we’re not despairing, we’re not starving.

“For a long time, we didn’t rely on tourism, we have only had it for a few a long time. But we are going to often have the sea.”

Prime image: Salamak Klathalay employs a stingray tail to sand a pair of home made picket swimming goggles.



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