Witnessing the Last Days of the Nomadic Moken Sea Gypsies

For the last few years I have taught on my plant courses about the Moken sea gypsies, and the extraordinary relationship they have with their environment.

Little did I realise that I would ever get the chance to meet them. I had tried back in the Winter of 2015 while visiting Myanmar formerly Burma, but the restrictions on travel by the military government forbade.

The only official way was with an extremely high end sailing cruise that included a visit to the Moken village on the Mergui Archipelago.

This is Misiat, the last of the Koh Surin Moken through whom the spirits still speak. The power to receive spirits is passed down through the generations. The full moon in April marks the end of the Moken year, and the start of the new cycle. Only she can see the ancestors.

Often times these tours do nothing more than line the pockets of the tour operators, never giving back to the local people or cultures they ‘feed’ from.

Of course the argument is that tourism of this kind generates business and money for local people.

While this is true, it does so only to those who conform to fit in with the dominant nation-state culture.

I do not see SE Asia as becoming Westernised, it is simply becoming modern.

By which I mean the usual chasing consumer dreams of affluence, the ubiquitous ever pervading presence of electronic technology, which in reality often leads people who aspire to this lifestyle into debt and economic servitude. And working all the hours they have for the invisible masters of corporatism.

The old ways get lost and forgotten in the pursuit of money, which usually ends up being greed.

And with that, some of the world’s most beautiful environments are turned into nothing more than entertainment parks and culturally devoid ghettos showcasing yesteryear, and what once was.

The ultimate destination for ‘point and click tourists’ too lazy or with not enough time out of their lives to figure out how to travel independently.

Hence the rise of the ubiquitous tour operator. You don’t meet a culture from the top of a high-rise hotel, or do you?

Koh Surin Moken Children

A part of me wonders if this is simply how all cultures have evolved?

The past gives way to the modern, which in turn becomes the past as the new modern, in whatever shape that appears supersedes what has gone before.

From rain forest civilisations of the Mayans in Mexico to those of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, through to the forests of the Congo in West Africa, humans have sculpted and ‘managed’ the deepest jungle and earth’s numerous landscapes for thousands of years.

There never has been such a thing as ‘pristine wilderness’.

For if there had been, it would be as if the world had been frozen in time, fixed and made static at some point.

Nature is evolutionary and permanently on the move. We often forget this in our romantic worldview of bygone times, and particularly when it comes to traditional cultures.

Moken village on Koh Surin Moken

Now those old, ancient cultures have vanished and been reclaimed by forest. The re-greening of past great empires.

Nature always recycles and takes back what humans try and carve out as something wholly ‘human’. Those spaces that we try and insulate ourselves from the wildness of the world.

Maybe that’s why we have tried to destroy the last vestiges of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. They remind us of our wild side, something that we obviously deeply fear.

For in many respects they are free, until we coerce them to be settled, knowing that the only outcome is a destruction of their nomadic way of life, their stories and way of being in the world.

Regardless of our worldview, doing so is a continuous act of slow genocide, masked by tourism from which these ancient people have no escape.

Moken Old Woman

Their stories as old as the dawn of time get forgotten as their youth are forced into modern schools that do not allow them to speak their own language, celebrate their heritage.

Their children are removed from their cultural environment, thereby sealing the fate of these often gentle people, as they are gradually absorbed into modern dominant culture.

The old stories get forgotten.

Stories that used to pass on the ancestors knowledge, values and cultural perspectives. The close family networks get replaced by state sanctioned mediators; the new order that settled, static people accept.

So when planning my 2016 visit to Thailand, I asked a friend of mine who lives in Northern Thailand and who works with Burmese refugee children whether she could recommend anywhere to go that fitted in with my approach to travel.

Which is one of listening and learning from local people, and helping out in return in whatever small way I can as their guest.

The question that I always ask myself is “How can I give back?”, and by that I don’t mean simply leaving a tip after a meal, or buying a t-shirt or souvenir.

Moken Community Leader

And so my friend told me of a ‘travel company’ that was created as an offshoot of the December 2004 tsunami crisis. I was sceptical, but my friend had recommended them, and I trusted her integrity.

And so I went online to find out more about the elusive Andaman Discoveries.

Andaman Discoveries was birthed out of the former North Andaman Tsunami Relief, and is continuing its work as a social enterprise, seeking to serve the needs of local communities.

As you can imagine, when this project was started many of the Moken expressed concerns that tourism would undermine and even threaten their culture and undeveloped coastal region.

Find out how these concerns where addressed.

Although I only visited for brief few days, it was enough to give me a momentary glimpse of the problems the Moken face since being forced to be settled.

I visited not in a group, but just myself and my partner with our Moken guide ‘Nin’ and Thai translator Pi Tui.

The wonderful, quiet Ning, my Moken guide.

No longer are the Moken able to be nomadic seafarers, and instead have been forced to be settled on the Mu Ko Surin National Park.

Their traditional culture and way of life slowly being integrated with the dominant Thai culture, and in a short breath of time, to be forgotten, as so many traditional cultures have been forgotten.

No longer are they able to hunt for fish using traditional methods, as limits have been placed on their activities.

No longer are they able to make Kabang boats from the trees of the islands due to conservation restrictions. These boats are where they would traditionally spend their whole life. You can learn more about these amazing ocean-crossing sailing boats here.

These ill thought out conservation restrictions have been dreamed up by their Thai masters in far distant cities. Never once consulting with the Moken themselves, the very people who instinctively know about conservation and local ecosystems better than anyone.

As Survival International have recently started campaigning for, we need to understand that in order to develop effective conservation models that Parks Need People.

And unless we start acknowledging this, the existing models will continue to fail until, and only until, we start talking to the very people who have lived in the forests or on the oceans for thousands of years.

Those whose knowledge of ecosystems goes so much deeper than any self-proclaimed academic, conservation ’expert’ or organisation could ever hope to master in a life time.

But politics aside, I was visiting the Moken to gain some understanding of their knowledge of the ocean, worldview, and more specifically their plants.

Although ocean-dwellers, during the monsoon they would temporarily park themselves on land to repair their kabangs, and wait out the monsoon storms.

While on land they have over the years developed an intimate understanding of the use of plants as food, medicine and utilitarian uses, so this is what I was most intrigued about.

Natural Water Babies : Moken Children Of Koh Surin

One of the things that shifted my rather naive understanding of traditional cultures, is that the Moken live by different ways when it comes to their worldview, one that appears different to so many earth-centric traditions.

  1. They have absolutely no concept of time. Yup, they don’t even count moon cycles, which seems pretty out there considering they are sea-faring people.
  2. They don’t have initiation or ‘rights of passage’ ceremonies to celebrate the transition from girl to woman, or boy to man. None at all according to my Moken guide.
  3. The Moken have no written language, so all their knowledge is past down orally. I met a Thai linguistic researcher who was helping them record their language phonetically before it gets lost, so some of the plant names below contain Moken phonetic language.

Just those bits of information have had me pondering for many a month. But in reality it is the lack of a total understanding of linear time that has me foxed the most.

It’s a bit like saying “don’t think of a pink elephant”, you can’t un-think one once its been suggested can you? Well I can’t once its put into my head.

So one day, after meeting a few members of the village, Nin decided to take me on a plant walk.

Below you will find a list of the ones we covered, but you need to understand that the Moken operate in a super, super slow way.

My partner now refers to it as ‘Moken Time’.

So we covered a few plants in the very limited time we had together, and not as many as my info-hoarding head would have liked.

I have initially been asked to return at a later date to help with fully recording their plant knowledge. Whether anything will come of this invitation is hard to say at this stage.

It is simply sufficient to tell you that the Moken deeply impacted me.

Their struggle with being forced to be settled, their graceful, peaceful way of life, their vast knowledge of how intimately they are embedded with their environment, and their deep understanding of this world that far surpasses anything I have experienced or expect to experience, makes me realise just how deeply disconnected from the earth I am.

How these quiet ocean wanderers have so much to teach us, and yet there is so little time left for us to listen and learn from them.

Contrast : The Ancient and Modern

Plants Used By The Moken Of Koh Surin

Botanical: Dinochloa scandens
Family: Poaceae
Moken: Ka-OonYiHang
Thai: Unknown
Common: Climbing Bamboo
Use: Young shoots eaten as a vegetable. The mature culms are used to make baskets. The liquid that exudes from freshly cut culms or internodes is used as eye drops. [Prosea]

Botanical: Dendrocalamus asper
Family: Poaceae
Moken: Ka-Oon Batung
Thai: Phai-tong
Common: Wild Bamboo, Giant Bamboo
Use: Used as raw material for the Moken’s tools; handles for spear and harpoon. The bamboo is split into lath floor for their boats and houses. In the old days every boat had to carry bamboo containers to carry fresh water while out at sea. Young and tender shoots are consumed as a vegetable.

Botanical: Knema globularia
Family: Myristicaceae
Moken: Ka-e Dalak
Thai: Ton Lued
Common: Blood Tree
Use: The wood is used to make oar and planked flooring. Also medicinal plant used to treat dermatosis [Wiart 2006].

Uncaria lanosa var. korrensis

Botanical: Uncaria lanosa var. korrensis
Family: Rubiaceae
Moken: Ja-wiek
Thai: Yan Kiew Khob
Common: Biting Fang Vine
Use: Moken believe that hanging a Ja-wiek stem on the entrance to a home or tucking it into the waist when going into the forest will protect the wearer from snakes or other poisonous bites. The Moken believe that Ja-wiek’s little stem with fangs will scare away snakes other biting animals.

Botanical: Colocasia esculenta
Family: Araceae
Moken: Bilak
Thai: Bon
Common: Elephant Ear
Use: Sticky sap causes itching. The Moken do not eat this plant as it irritates the mouth and throat. However in other parts of SE Asia it is cooked and eaten, but requires proper processing to make it edible.

Botanical: Calamus godefroyi
Family: Arecaceae
Moken: Kwai Boo Bon
Common: Water Rattan
Use: The Moken split the rattan into thin hard strings and sew pandanus leaves to make a roof or sail for their kabangs, which can be rolled up and moved.

Botanical: Unknown
Family: Unknown
Moken: Yaning Kae-pa
Common: n/a
Use: The fruit of this tree is dark purple, like the colour of mangosteen peel. The tree yields fruit during November to June. The Moken pound the peel and apply the juice to heal blemishes on the face and parts of the body that are exposed to intense sun.

Botanical: Dialium indum
Family: Leguminosae
Moken: Lukyee Pa or Buwak Yi-ngin
Thai: Makham-thet
Common: Keranji
Use: Fruit bunch is edible when ripe; the flesh inside is brown. The taste is sweet/sour. The tree only bears fruit once it has reached 30 years or older.

Botanical: Pandanus tectorius
Family: Pandanaceae
Moken: Jakae Kadong
Thai:
Common: Pandan, Hala,
Use: Leaves are cut to make mats, baskets, containers or are sewn together to make large pandanus sheets which are used as sails, roofs or walls.

Botanical: Manihot esculenta
Family: Euphorbiaceae
Moken: La-ang
Common: Yam, Cassava, Manioc, Sweet Potato
Use: Before rice was eaten regularly the Moken ate La-ang as their staple starch food. Moken children love it grilled. Eaten a lot during rainy season when the rice supplies run low.

Botanical: Borassodendron machadonis
Family: Arecaceae
Moken: Unknown
Thai: Shiliak
Common: Crying Elephant Palm
Use: The leaves are woven to make roofs for Moken houses.

Botanical: Ceiba pentandra
Family: Malvaceae
Moken: Unknown
Thai: Unknown
Common: Kapok Tree, Silk Cotton Tree, Buttress Root
Use: Tender leaves, buds and fruits are eaten, they are mucilaginous. Seeds have been roasted and ground and eaten in soups as well as being used as a flavouring or fermented into kantong. Seeds are also pressed for a tasty cooking oil. Blanched flowers are eaten with chilli sauce. Wood ash is used as a salt substitute [Facciola 1998].

Botanical: Schumannianthus dichotomus
Family: Marantaceae
Moken: Katieng or Khla
Thai: Khla
Common:
Use: A decoction of the rhizome is made to treat skin diseases, fever as well as reducing body heat [Maneenoon 2015]. The Moken cut and weave the soft peel to make the sides of their traditional kabang boats. This craft practice is dying out as the knowledge of how to do this is being forgotten.

Botanical: Vitis spp.
Family: Vitaceae
Moken: Koyang
Thai: Unknown
Common: Valley Grape
Use: Moken use the leaves to give a sour taste to their dishes. When the leaves are cut they grow back again so they have a ready supply available.

Botanical: Lepisanthes rubiginosa
Family: Sapindaceae
Moken: Ta Ngad
Thai: Kam Chat or Ma Huad
Common: Unknown
Use: The fruit is dark purple but tastes acerbic and sour. Moken like to eat Ta Ngad leaves with chilli paste.

Barringtonia asiatica

Botanical: Barringtonia asiatica
Family: Lecythidaceae
Moken: Unknown
Thai: Gik
Common: Barringtonia, Fish Killer Tree, Sea Poison Tree
Use: Young leaves and shoots eaten raw. The young flowers can also be eaten. Young fruit has been recorded as being eaten, but only cooked as a vegetable. The plant contains saponins which are destroyed by cooking, hence its use as a fish poison. The seeds are toxic, however they have been eaten in the Andaman Islands, as well as in Indonesia.

Botanical: Scaevola taccada
Family: Goodeniaceae
Moken: Unknown
Thai:
Common: Beach Naupaka, Beach Grape, Beach Cabbage
Use: Juice of the white fruit used for sore eyes. Fruits eaten occasionally.

Botanical: Ipomoea pes-caprae
Family: Convolvulaceae
Moken:
Thai:
Common: Beach Morning Glory
Use: Used on jelly fish sting and sand fly bites.

Botanical: Uncaria tomentosa
Family: Rubiaceae
Moken: Unknown
Common: Cat’s Claw
Use: Eaten raw for energy. Tastes bitter.

Learn More About The Moken

References

Anon (n.d.) Plant Resources of South East Asia. [online]. Available from: http://www.proseanet.org.

Anon (n.d.) Hawaiian Ethnobotany Online Database. [online]. Available from: http://data.bishopmuseum.org/ethnobotanydb/ethnobotany.php

Facciola, S. (1998) Cornucopia II: a source book of edible plants. Vista, CA: Kampong Publications.

Maneenoon, K. et al. (2015) Ethnomedicinal plants used by traditional healers in Phatthalung Province, Peninsular Thailand. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.

Wiart, C. (2006) OCLC: ocm62661761. Medicinal plants of Asia and the Pacific. Boca Raton: CRC/Taylor & Francis.

2 thoughts on “Witnessing the Last Days of the Nomadic Moken Sea Gypsies”

  1. Hi Robin,

    Let me start by saying it’s the third time I’ve came back to this article. Every time I read it, even though I’ve read it before, I can’t avoid feeling both a tremendous fascination and a deep sadness. I feel transported to SE Asia and the increasingly rare unspoiled pockets, jungle treks with the natives and the more remote places where few tourists (still) venture. And I imagine myself living in these almost lost ways of freedom and devoted connection to our surroundings. My urges to return start creeping beside this wall of western life commitments, chains of corporate slavery masked as safety. The sadness hits with fear, not just selfish fear that this urbanite converted to some sort of enlightenment may never contact with these people and their ways, but a true fear that these people who could teach us so much will eventually loose their ways, and when they do, we will all loose.

    The thing that puzzles me about your report is their alleged lack of concept of time. That I’m always skeptic is just a bad habit, consequence of decades learning how to filter (mis)information, please pardon me if I sound difficult. Ancient and knowledgeable civilizations who had deep connections with the natural World always had a profound knowledge about the sky, the astros and some sort of time and space navigation method (think Vedic knowledge for exemple). I’m aware that schematic time counts are strongly derived from settling down and developing agriculture and the dependence on the seasons. But I would assume that despite being nomads, by being in communion with nature they would observe some sort of patterns and seasons develop. That they stayed isolated from external influences for so long and didn’t develop a written language would make their concept of time different to ours, and perhaps difficult for us to understand or even realise. As I admit being guilty of owning a pink elephant, I wonder, would their elephant just be coloured in a different hue? The caption of the first photo reads “The full moon in April marks the end of the Moken year, and the start of the new cycle.” So, there is some concept of time, or cycles, maybe just not to the unnecessary extension of counting fictionary hours and minutes. And somehow, if not counting in the way we do, theres is a way to realise moon cycles. Or maybe I’m just misunderstanding your text.
    Would you be kind to share all that you learned about their (lack of) concept of time, and their Moken years/cycles?

    Hope you continue to write with the same drive that inspires us so much.

    Warmest regards,
    Fabio

  2. Hi Robin,
    Thank you for your kind feedback. that’s a great story.
    We are pleased to hear that you had a fantastic experience with us and we hope that we will be able to welcome you again at Andaman Discoveries and in the beautiful area of Southern Thailand in the near future.
    Best regards,
    Tui

Leave a Comment