The Moken people of Mergui

May 15, 2019 | News

Photo Credits: Patrick Jeppsson

Oh, how wonderful the mornings are in Mergui. When visiting this area, our typical anchorage is a bay with crystal clear water and perfect white beach sand, separating the ocean from the forest of the island.

A small layer of dew on the boat deck and the cool morning air creates a freshness and strong energy, setting the mood for the day to come.
If you peer towards the beach it’s not uncommon for you to see small boats with the Moken people getting ready for today’s work. Fishing nets, beautifully crafted harpoons, dive googles and fresh water is all loaded on the wooden boats.
This is a perfect time for you to get into one of our kayaks and experience something truly special. Ask our crew for some fruit to bring along as a gift, as communication will be limited to body language.

A big smile will get you far with these friendly people. Calmly approach their boats and you will be greeted with a similar smile. Point to your camera as a question beforehand, as to get the approval whether you can take their picture.
We can guarantee you one thing already, if they agree.
There will be huge laughs when you show them the pictures on the camera display!
Meeting the Moken people creates connections that you will carry with you together with a longing to return to the Mergui Archipielago once back in the Western world.

This fascinating and unique tribe of maritime nomads, the Moken people of Mergui, exists a cross the whole southeast Asian ocean.

There are 3 distinct tribes, the Moken of the Mergui Archipelago, the Moklen of Phang Nga province, and the Urak Lawoi, living southward of Phuket, in Satun. Together, these tribes are commonly called the Moken people.
These fascinating people are said to have migrated from China to Thailand, Burma and Malaysia around 4.000 years ago.
For most of the year, the Moken people are migrating in flotillas between islands according to factors such as subsistence needs, wind patterns, security concerns and disease.

Let us dive a little deeper into the culture and history of the Moken people, as you then will have more knowledge beforehand when you one day choose to sail to the Mergui Archipelago onboard the AJAO Luxury Yacht.

Living in harmony with their environment

One of the most interesting facts about the Moken people, is that they don’t believe in the concept of possession. They simply live in such a harmony with each other, that it is unthinkable for them, not to share everything with each other.

On top of having no concept of possession, they live in a maritime existence that recognizes no national boundaries, sailing around the southeast Asian oceans, living from the treasures the ocean provides them with.
They are simple, yet very happy people.
Socializing is a big aspect of their culture, as they do not have any form of written language, passing down their history in stories the elders tell the youth.

The Moken people have a great understanding and respect for their environment and natural resources.
While they used to be hunter-gathers, trading many of their goods, such as shells, sea cucumbers and fish for rice and other purposes, they use over 80 plant species for food, medicine, shelter, handicrafts and other purposes. It is common for their children to give gifts to travelers sailing on the AJAO.

With the influx of other peoples in the entire Southeast Asian region, the emergence of various empires, the period of colonialism and the emergence of today’s states, the sea-nomads repeatedly experienced restrictions on their nomadic way of life. The Moken settlement area eventually concentrated in the eastern Andaman Sea, from present-day Myanmar in the north to Thailand, and Malaysia to the Indonesian islands in the south.

Photo Credits: Patrick Jeppsson

Although many Moken even today live semi-nomadic on their boats and the islands of the Andaman Sea, the freedom of movement is very limited. In Thailand, in the past, they have been urged to settle down. The traditional nomadic way of life was however best achieved by those Moken people who live in the Mergui Archipelago, which is located in southern Myanmar. Their number is estimated at several thousand. However, the government of Myanmar has also begun to urge the sea nomads to settle on the island of Pu Nala. Only a few Moken people however are in possession of passports of the countries in which they live; the majority is considered stateless.

Living on the oceans

A central role in the life of the Moken people, just like it is with us on the AJAO Motor Yacht, naturally play on their boats, which are called Kabang. Those are not only the vessels they are traveling on, it is also where they live. That is including the kitchen, sleeping area and living room

In groups of about six to ten boats, each of which houses a family, they move from island to island. The sea-nomads spend about eight months of the year on the sea.
Only during the monsoon season, which occurs, regionally different, between June and November, they colonize the island coasts for a few months.
This time is then used to repair the boats and, if necessary, build new ones.

Traditionally, building boats, working together, fishing with nets, spears and traps and diving for shells, sea cucumbers and other seafood are considered as being tasks for the men.
The women on the other hand care for the children and the shelters on the coasts of the islands. However, many women also help the men to fish, dive and spear fish. The Moken people’s ability to dive is truly fascinating. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are; everybody dives and contributes to the daily catch. Their equipment are simple goggles, or, in many cases, no goggles or other equipment at all. Research actually shows that the Moken children can see twice as good underwater as European children of the same age!

Their livelihood still mainly stems from the sea. In addition however, they also use a variety of plants as food, medicine, building material and for the production of household items, musical instruments or tools, which even resulted in some kind of makeshift concert for travelers of the AJAO once or twice. A very joyful sight indeed.

Above all, fish and seafood are used for own consumption, surpluses are used to sell in markets. Rice, oil and gasoline are bought for the increasingly popular engines of boats, nets and everyday objects.
In addition, income from tourism, which is just starting to grow in this region, is also gaining importance, and since the Moken are not exactly shy, they try to merchant with AJAO travelers, in a very delightful and playful way, which always end with everybody laughing; and many celebrations with the Moken have started that way.

Photo Credits: Patrick Jeppsson
Photo Credits: Patrick Jeppsson

The modern day Moken people

Problematic, as almost everywhere, where state authorities try to regulate the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples, are the living conditions of those who gave in to the pressure and settled down.

The loss of the traditional way of life often goes hand in hand with the loss of one’s own culture and the gradual assimilation to the majority peoples of the region. Attempts to integrate the children of Moken in the state school system failed so far, as the children usually prefer to go fishing with the adults.

A particular problem is the handling of unscrupulous business people who bring tourists to their settlements on buses or pleasure boats in Phuket, as if they were zoos for humans.
Since 1997, the Andaman pilot project of UNESCO has been founded, which is designed to help the Moken preserve their traditional way of life and adapt in a way to the changing conditions (government regulations, tourism, etc.) that preserve their culture and knowledge of the sea and local nature. The aim is not only to enable the Moken to regain extensive self-determination, but also to use its knowledge of nature for the sustainable development of tourism in the region.

An existential problem for the Moken, as well as for all the sea nomads in the region, is the gradual withdrawal of their livelihood, the fishing, by the competition of the big fishing fleets. The trawlers move their fishing grounds from the high seas ever closer to the coasts, in the traditional fishing grounds of the sea nomads, and make it increasingly difficult to bring even rich catches.

Thanks to private donations and the support of UNESCO and the Supreme Council of the Buddhist religious community in Thailand (Sangkarat), the Moken, who fled to the mainland during the severe Tsunami in 2004, were able to return to the islands in January 2005 and be supplied with the necessities (tools, kitchen utensils, and more). The pile huts, which are renewed annually, could be rebuilt within a few days. The main problem was to replace the destroyed boats.

Religious beliefs and culture

The Ethnic Religion of the Moken is animistic, determined by the belief in nature spirits and the spirits of the ancestors.
Shamans are in contact with the spirit world, making prophecies and above all, the healers of the community.
The most important festival of the year is the Ne-en Lobong, which is centered around the Lobong, stakes that house ancestral spirits. Relatives and friends from far away areas come together for this celebration. The work is suspended for three days and nights. Instead, there is fasting and singing. Dancers put themselves in a trance. Finally, a small boat, the Lajang, is sometimes brought to the sea to carry off misfortune, illness and evil forces.

Meet the Moken people with AJAO Cruises

The Moken are very friendly and curious people and a lot of our guests on the AJAO Motor Yacht have expressed that meeting them has been considered highly wholesome and delightful. You can expect to meet these good-hearted nomads on your cruise with the AJAO, if you choose to set sail to the Mergui Archipelago. Some would even call them a highlight of the trip, together with all amenities of the boat of course. It is like seeing a village in the ocean, quite marvelous.

If you should have questions about the AJAO and its services, amenities and opportunities, feel free to send us an e-mail to office@ajaocruises.com.

We are looking forward to your e-mail!

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office@ajaocruises.com
+66 (0) 76 283 445
9/52 Moo 9, Chaofa East Rd., Chalong, Muang,
83130 Phuket, Thailand
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