Our ocean, with its awe-inspiring power and grace has captivated the imagination of generations. Many have chosen to explore it by living at sea for months at a time. There are certain societies that took to the sea hundreds of years ago and have not come back since. These societies who offer us a time-machine connection to the past, are disappearing. The Moken people of Koh Surin are one of these societies. This is the story of the Moken of Koh Surin, Thailand.
Getting outside of the Andaman bay to the west lays a beautiful group of islands, just north of the Khao Lakmainland. These are The Surin Islands, home to a small village of Sea Gypsy people called the Moken. Although these islands have been seeing a rise in tourism from nearby places such as Phuket and Khao Lak, they still retain their charm and natural beauty. The Surin Islands have wide beaches, high mountains and plenty of fish, which is why the Moken people have used it as a home for generations.
We made the journey last month to visit these amazing people. We saw how they live, and how they are rapidly changing with the huge influx of tourists coming to Thailand.
Leaving Krabi, in the wake of the sunrise, we drove deep into the countryside, passing by Takua Pa (March’s feature story), various markets, and the rubber and palm plantations that make up the environment of southern Thailand. We emerged from the jungle at the small port town of Korabori where one can catch a boat to a cluster of local islands including our destination, Koh Surin. Looking around, we are intrigued to see that a significant number of the people walking around the port town seemed to have a white layer over their eyes, it looks like a milky white eyelid that is resting on top of the their pupils.
Boarding our wooden long tail boat and meeting our captain, we set out into the mangrove tributary waters that stretch into the mainland like the ocean’s fingers. There were small pencil-like fish jumping from the water, their noses pointed like a paintbrush handle and a small bubble on the end that seemed to light up with the reflections of the sun. Arriving at Koh Phra Thong, we felt we were at an island reminiscent of Koh Phi Phi as it was 30 years ago.
A small concrete road just wide enough for a truck with each of its tires half on the pavement traverses the island. The road connects the various single locations throughout the island. There are no large stretches of civilization anywhere on the island. As we progress further from the beach it is as if we are transported to The African Savannah. There are dry yellow grasses and trees extending close to the ground and the air is crisp and dry. I expected to see a zebra or giraffe grazing by the edge of the road.
According to our guide Khun Ned, one of the main attractions of Koh Phra Thong is bird watching, for this place is still relatively uninhabited and hosts a large population of endemic birds. “We can go bird watching if you like”, Ned shouts over the roar of the truck as we barrel down the tiny concrete road.
The road ends after about 15 minutes on the western coast landing us at The Phra Thong Nature Resort. This lovely small resort, just a short 300 meters from the beach, reflects the calm, peaceful beach-oriented feeling of the island. The owner and manager Karen Spackman, comes out of the reception area to give each of us a warm welcome and usher us inside where ice-cold refreshing drinks await.
Dropping our bags off we launch for the sea, dashing into these refreshing waters which are slightly colder and much clearer than those of the Andaman Bay.
The next morning, we make our way to the beaches edge. This is what we’re all waiting for – the chance to meet and talk with the elusive Sea Gypsies also known as “The Moken”. Boarding the boat, we roar off into the open ocean.
Arriving some 40 minutes later, we were greeted by crystal clear water with hues of white teal and deep blue. I have seldom borne witness to such beauty. The hills that surround The Surin Islands extend up from the beachfront displaying a perfect tropical paradise. Plunging into the reef below we’re greeted by a range of fish from tangs and butterfly fish to the classic clown fish making homes in the various anemones.
As we later arrived at The Surin Island National Park, we were shown our future homes of simple camping tents, only meters from the waterline. We were now thinking of the blissful evening ahead for us – going to sleep listening to the ocean waves lapping at the shores.
Now the much-awaited moment is at hand, when Khun Ned comes and tells us; “Okay, it’s time to go and see the Moken people, are you ready?” A national park-owned long tail boat sits, waiting to take us to the village across the bay. Upon entering this bay, which is home to the Moken people, we notice a number of small fishing buoys, bobbing along the surface. There are also a number of men slowly searching the bay and the coastal areas, for what we assume are fish.
Khun Ned explained to us that during the tsunami of 2004, this area was hit very hard. For the Moken however, because of their deep connection with nature, they were able to read intrepid signals that both the sea and the fish gave, weeks in advance of its arrival, to warn them of the impending disaster. Even though the Moken live on a deserted island and with no protection, not a single member of their community was lost or killed during the devastating event. With all the technology and comforts of modern society, it is interesting that so many civilians were lost during the tsunami. It makes one think that maybe all this technology to ‘make our lives easier’ is actually making us weaker.
Walking through their village, we see many members with the same white covering over their pupils like we had noticed at the pier. “Are these people the same?” I asked Khun Ned, “Yes” he answered, “The white on their eyes is a gelatinous layer formed from the generations of Moken living at sea. This white stuff actually allows the Moken to see underwater, the same way we see on land. They have evolved to fit their environment.
With increasing tourism in the area many of the locals in this village are leaving to find work. Many of them can work as long tail boat drivers, guides, cooks etc. The numbers in the community dwindle from around 250 during low season (no tourism), to around 130 in high season (tourist season). This means the vast majority of working aged men are leaving for work. This is kind of ironic, as they cannot do anything with the money they earn form working – they cannot eat it, they cannot cook it, they can only buy material objects from our society. This begins the cascading effects of becoming assimilated to modern day civilization.
“The Moken are slowly dying out” Khun Ned tells us. “The government restricts how much they can fish every year, which puts pressure on them to get their food elsewhere. I don’t think the Moken – as we see them now – will be around for more than 5 more years if things continue at their current rate.”
The Moken are a secluded group of impressionable people with growing ties to modern day society. These ties are affecting their way of life and altering their society, as we know it. Anyone wishing to visit them and learn from this vanishing society should do so with this in mind. When visiting, always ask to take photos and be mindful of what you wear and how you conduct yourself in front of your hosts.
Anyone interested in visiting this fascinating group of people can do by contacting a representative at: