There are about 3,000 sea gypsies in the South East Asia. The majority of them are living along the Andaman coast in Thai waters and a few are on the other side of Thailand in the Gulf of Siam. They are a fascinating group of semi-nomadic people that are tolerated in Thailand. Recently, they have changed their isolationist tendency and it is possible to see the sea gypsies in Thailand.
The sea gypsies refer to themselves as the Moken. Three centuries ago a tribe fled political unrest in Indonesia. They developed a nomadic life, living on boats and spending limited time on shore to trade and supplement their diet with a small amount of agriculture. The Moken speak their own dialect and have their own culture, festivals and religious beliefs.
They were useful to the Thai authorities during the period of British colonization in the area. The Thais encouraged the ‘chao le’ (sea people) to settle in Koh Lipe and Koh Adang to strengthen their territorial claims to the region and stop the British annexing the islands into the British Empire.
Once they served their purpose the Moken were betrayed as the Thais set up Turatao National Park and made fishing illegal. Although the Moken aren’t arrested for fishing they have never been granted an official right to fish the waters.
There are Moken villages in Koh Lipe that are open to the public. Moken women can sometimes be seen working in restaurants; and the men often take tourists out in their boats to popular snorkeling spots. It is interesting to note that tourism makes up an important part of the income for the Moken.
In the Gulf of Thailand the Moken are found on one island in the Ang Thong National Park. Here they are visited by tour groups and make a small income from selling souvenirs and cold drinks.
Just off the coast of Taling Ngam on Koh Samui. There are five small islands that are exclusively inhabited by Moken. Tour groups visit the islands and are allowed to watch them shin up bamboo poles to reach birds’ nests. These nests are collected and sold to Chinese traders who in turn make good money selling them in Hong Kong as the main ingredient for birds’ nest soup.
The Five Islands Tour vacation and Ang Thong National Park are some of the best chances to see traditional Moken culture. They make fascinating day trips that help to make money for the Moken so they can keep their small community together.