In 1999, I first visited the Moken sea nomads/sea gypsies in Ko Surin Marine National Park in Thailand.
I had been recording indigenous music around Asia for the British Library for some years.
Thailand had not been on my usual routes, I spent most of my time in India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 90s. But I got a job with Rough Guides, researching the first edition of their Southeast Asia Guide and Ko Surin was my last destination on a crazy, work intensive, party intensive 10 week trip through the kingdom.
Aroon Thaewchatturat who lived with the Moken at the time, introduced me to sea gypsies’ chief Dunung. I duly recorded the Moken’s songs, traveled with the incredible Moken on their boats, through the jungle and even went hunting with Dunung.
Most importantly, Aroon and I stayed in touch and eventually got married.
Today I noticed that the CD of the Moken songs – Moken: Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea – our very first collaboration (she took the amazing images in the CD booklet as well as the CD cover of Dunung spearing his dinner) is still available and you can listen to most of it here.
The owner of the record company that took the plunge with the Moken, Topic Records’ Tony Engle told me in 2000, when we were mastering the record, “This is by far the most uncommercial record I have ever released. But I love it.”
While the Moken survived the Tsunami and rescued almost a 100 tourists from the deadly waves, the relentless pressure from the Thai government, NGOs and academics to assimilate has all but destroyed their traditional way of life. Some of the Moken women on Ko Surin now clean the national park’s toilets, others work in 7/11s on the mainland and beat their wives. So it goes.
For an idea about Moken life today, check out this great article Moken nomads leave behind their ‘sea gypsy’ life for a modern existence by Kate Hodal published in The Guardian.
Listen to the Moken here and buy this beautiful ethnographic testament to a culture in rapid decline.