Imagine waking up to the sound of water lapping along the shore, a picture-perfect beach outside your window. The shallow sea is a mesmerizing aquamarine. There are no cars, no commercial fisherman, no loggers to threaten this paradise.
This was my reality for three days, as I visited the island national park of Ko Surin in southern Thailand. Yet for the Moken people who live there, it is a mixed blessing, as they must share their paradise with boatloads of tourists who arrive each day for six months. The majority of these tourists learn little about the Moken’s way of life, stopping for half an hour in their inappropriate bikinis to take photos of the picturesque village. I was one of the lucky few, having come with Andaman Discoveries, an organization whose mission it is to partner with communities to help them to benefit from tourism. As such, I was privileged to spend much of my time with both a Moken guide and a translator, learning about the culture and getting a taste of their way of life.
The Moken are a seafaring people who have been living in the Andaman Sea for thousands of years. Traditionally, they lived on houseboats during the dry season, only settling on land during the monsoons. With their exceptional knowledge of the sea, 100% of the Moken survived the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them highly educated, yet unable to read the signs of imminent danger that the Moken had passed down orally through the generations. After a short stay on the mainland, they returned to Ko Surin and rebuilt their village, combining two former communities into one.
Because their home is a national park, the Moken have been forced to change some of their age-old traditions. They are not allowed to cut the trees they would need to build their houseboats, nor are they supposed to fish in the sea. The national park staff hires many Moken for menial jobs at low wages to help support the tourist economy. The community-based tourism project I had joined offers a more empowering way for them to adapt to this new reality.
The first morning I visited the village it was unusually windy. This was a good thing: despite our boat rocking wildly on the waves, it meant my guide Nuoy was able to raise the sail of the houseboat on which we traveled and shut off the motor, inviting me to steer as we sailed towards our destination.
The village was a fascinating mix of old and new. The homes were made of bamboo, with thatched walls and roofs. Conspicuously absent in Nouy’s home were any beds or even mattresses; I was told they lay out sleeping mats at night. Yet surprisingly, despite the absence of regular electricity, his living room contained a large stereo system and a TV!
Nuoy introduced me to his wife and baby son relaxing in the shade under a neighbor’s house, then showed me the village. We saw a Moken spirit house flanked by two poles, where every year during the fifth lunar month they host a festival to welcome their ancestors. We spoke to a man carving a turtle out of wood, and passed many Moken selling small handicrafts. We saw the latrines as well, a set of 12 communal stalls at the back of the village installed by Plan International, an NGO I’ve been supporting for years. There are a total of 24 stalls for 315 people; apparently these can get quite crowded in the mornings! There were plans for more stalls, but the money ran out.
We saw other Plan gifts, too, such as a building housing a nursery and a library, with a storeroom full of puzzles, soccer balls, and other educational supplies. A government-sponsored health clinic, closed that first day, boasted large solar panels and a satellite dish. Apparently every family had also been given small solar panels and a battery, Nuoy told me, but many of the batteries had failed after a few months. Thinking of the lack of proper e-waste disposal – there was simply a large pile of trash behind the latrines – I wondered about the net impact of the well-meaning gift.
One of the most meaningful interactions was a visit with a blind woman, a singer, who sang us several Moken songs while her husband played the drum. The woman said the second song was about me; apparently, it is common to make up words while performing. Unfortunately, few of the young people are learning this skill.
After lunch – a picnic of fried rice we had brought from the National Park – I gave a short cultural presentation to a group of children. I’m not sure how interested they were – they didn’t engage in much discussion about it – but it was still a memorable authentic interaction. The children were not at school that day as all three of their teachers were off island; apparently theirs is an “informal education” without regular hours.
I next had a lesson on how to make a bracelet out of pandanu leaves. Preparing the leaves from the forest is a lengthy process; thankfully, the actual weaving was easy to pick up. While weaving these leaves was part of Moken culture, a university professor had recently introduced chemical dyes for them to “beautify” their handicrafts and make them more appealing to tourists.
Our last activity in the village for the day was a walk along a path behind the village, where Nuoy explained the uses of many plants. There was bamboo, pandanu leaves, a tree whose sap looked like blood, several trees with delicious fruit (not currently in season), and root vegetables that they could dig up during the rainy season. The view was especially beautiful from up there.
The next day, I tried a couple more traditional activities: rowing a boat (their actual boats are much narrower) and spearfishing from the shore (with a bamboo stalk as the target). Both were quite challenging!
After each visit, there was the opportunity to snorkel in the crystal-clear water. There was coral tipped in bright blue and schools of fish of all sizes and colors. Among other things, I saw a family of clownfish swimming in and out of an anenome, a manta ray on the sea floor, and several varieties of turtles. Nuoy said the coral is much healthier now than it was ten years ago, but doesn’t know what caused the recovery. I wondered if it had been affected by the protection of the National Park, although the park has been open since 1981. It’s a mixed blessing, it seems; the protected status prevents fishing and logging practices that could destroy the Moken’s way of life, yet at the same time, it curtails the Moken’s autonomy and forbids them from using those same resources.
You can find out more about the Moken here. There’s also a documentary film entitled No Word for Worry, next on my list of what to watch!