The Sea Gypsies of Surin – A Different Way of Life, but How Long Can It Last
One of Thailand’s most loved destination, Koh Surin National Park is home to a paradise of fine white sandy beaches, thick jungle, crystal-clear waters and extensive coral reef, perfect for snorkelling and bursting with vibrant fish and colourful corals.
It is also home of the Moken Sea Nomads, a fascinating and ancient nomadic sea people who have lived between the Mergui archipelago of Burma and the islands of Thailand’s North Andaman coast for thousands of years. Their epithet is…
“The Moken are born, live and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea.”
In their handmade wooden kabang boats, the 200 to 300 Moken sea gypsies of the Surin Islands used to travel between the 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago. When they lived more nomadic lifestyles, the Moken lived on their kabangs and built makeshift shelters out of local resources like palm-like pandanus leaves during the rainy season. They currently spend the entire year in these stilted huts.
The Moken are well known for their prodigious free diving skills, which include going down to depths of at least 15 meters, holding their breath for extended periods of time, and using harpoons to spear fish and sea cucumbers. Additionally, they use beaches and coves for food, going there at low tide when the shoreline is exposed, and the shells are above the water.
Many customs, such as scavenging for food, are still being passed down to today’s Moken children even though they are being reared on land as opposed to their parents and grandparents who lived in kabangs.
Their past is a little bit mysterious. Although many academics think they originated in India, it is widely believed that they were originally from Indonesia. They have no written language and no known history, yet they speak a distinctive language that substantially borrows from both Malay and Thai.
But the Moken’s way of life has become harder over the past few decades. Many Moken have had their travels restricted because they lack national citizenship, which is a difficult human rights problem. Since the tsunami of 2004, the Thai government has mandated that the Moken people of the Surin Islands reside in a single settlement, Ao Bon Bay, on Ko Surin Tai, the second-largest island in the archipelago.
The Moken are the last remaining maritime nomads on Earth, and they have lived this way since the Stone Age thanks to a culture that emphasizes sustainable contact with all marine ecosystems.
They show the ocean the respect, let’s do the same for them.
If you would like to learn more or visit this beautiful place and meet these fascinating people, drop us a line to discover more.
The Surin Islands, an archipelago of five islands situated 60 km from the Thai mainland, is the perfect diving destination from Phuket. Being part of the Mu Ko Surin National Park, the islands and their surrounding waters are the habitat of a beautiful fauna : hawksbill and green turtles, Bryde’s whales and more than 57 local bird species.
You will also find there Richelieu’s Rock, located 10 km southwest of Surin, which is considered one of the top 10 diving spots in the world.
Not only home of almost untouched landscapes, beaches and reefs, the Surin islands are also inhabited by the Moken people, also known as the “Sea Gypsies”.
Two small communities of around 150 people are living in the archipelago. Their knowledge of the sea enables them to live off its fauna and flora by using simple tools such as nets and spears to forage for food, which allows them to impact the environment more minimally than other more intensive forms of subsistence.
Furthermore, their frequent movement in kin groups of between two and ten families also allows the land to rest and prevents overuse. Moken are considered hunter-gatherers due to their nomadic lifestyle and lack of material good accumulation. They also believe strongly in the idea that natural resources cannot be owned individually but are rather something that the entire community has access to without restrictions. Their egalitarian society follows into their ancestral worship as they regularly present supernatural beings with food offerings.
For most of the human population, underwater vision is very poor for two different reasons.. This accounts for two thirds of the optical power with air as the medium. In water, the optical power with air and curved cornea pr is lost, meaning most are left with extremely blurry vision.
Moken children, however, are able to see underwater while freediving in order to collect clams, sea cucumbers, and more. They have actually been found to see better underwater than European children as their spatial resolution is more than twice as good. Other than these abilities, the Moken children had regular corneal curvature meaning that their eyes had not evolved to be flatter like many fish nor had their eyes become myopic as their vision on land is still clear.