From the Archives: The Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea – A British Library Project



When I first traveled around Asia in the early 1990s, I collaborated with the British Library on a long term recording project of indigenous music from the region.

Hundreds of hours of recordings from Pakistan to the Philippines resulted from these travels and they are now deposited with the British Library’s International Music Collection part of the National Sound Archive.

Some of my recordings are still available… including this CD of the music of the Moken – The Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea.

The Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea have been sailing up and down the west coast of the Malay Peninsula for hundreds of years. Traditionally living on their Kabang (self contained houseboats) and trading sea slugs, pearls, shells and bird’s nests for life’s necessities, many sea gypsies have now begun to settle permanently, and abandon their nomadic culture. Some like the Moken, continue to move between the islands, their ocean territory becoming ever more threatened by expanding tourism in Thailand and political repression in Myanmar. The Moken’s music collected on this CD, recorded on a deserted beach between surf and jungle, is wild and unpredictable, full of warmth and drama and yet as detached from our world as their hard, uncertain sea-faring lifestyle.

I am rerunning the very first text I wrote about the Moken here, the liner notes for the above CD.

The Moken: Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea

*Reprinted with permission from the British Library National Sound Archive International Music Collection and Topic Records, UK

Stretching from the Bay of Bengal between India and Burma (now Myanmar), past the Andaman and Nicobar Islands all the way down to Sumatra, the northern part of the Andaman Sea remains one of the most remote and inaccessible stretches of tropical ocean to be found anywhere north of the equator.

This beautiful area has a rich history of maritime trade, mysticism and piracy, which continues to this day. Economic development, infrastructure and tourism are still in their infancy in many areas, and this has given some of the inhabitants of the islands along the bay’s east coast an almost unique opportunity to hang on to their traditional ways of life: a final frontier, devoid of the benefit, temptations and curses of the modern age.

But it is the ocean that has been home to a mobile community, afloat and separate from affairs on the mainland for hundreds of years – the sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea. The nomadic communities are great survivors from another age, numbering around 5000, living somewhere between the Mergui Archipelago off the Burmese coast and the Malaysian border, 800 km further to the south. Despite great political upheavals that have taken place during the last century –colonial influence (largely in the form of British Christian missionaries, trying to convert them, without much success), the Japanese invasion during WW2 and political turmoil, instability and repression in Myanmar ever since – the sea nomads have survived, just.

There are sea gypsies all over South East Asia, the largest group being the Bajau, who are scattered across the South China Sea, primarily in Indonesia and the Philippines. Whether all these communities have a common definable origin, as a geographical area or a race, is unclear. Linguistic and cultural differences including different boat building and fishing techniques, as well as sheer distances between communities, point perhaps to a variety of origins. The degree of mobility, the amount of contact with coastal populations and the communities’ absorption into those cultures, as wellas the attitudes to their natural environment, the sea, differ greatly from group to group.

The sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, five distinct groups in all, are called Chao Ley (man of the sea) or Chao Nam (water people) by the Thais, Selung or Salones by the Burmese and Orang Laut by the Malays. To illustrate some profound differences between these groups, we need only look at their relationship to the sea and how they gain a livelihood from it. The Urak Lawoy, for example, who live in the south of Thailand, fish with hook and line in deep waters, racing across the open sea in hot pursuit of swarms of seagulls who are usually themselves in hot pursuit of great shoals of tiny fish, driven to the surface by larger fish. The Moken on the other hand, prefer not to fish at all, unless absolutely necessary, an anomaly, it seems, for people who are so dependent and so in tune with the sea. When they do hunt, they use only harpoons. They don’t preserve or store their catch, which causes terrible problems of malnutrition during the rainy months but ensures their continuing nomadic existence. On the other hand, they are excellent divers. With crude goggles, made from two small circulr pieces of wood and lenses fashioned from old glass, they descend down to over twenty metres to collect sea slugs, pearls and shells.

The Urak Lawoy, The Moken and other nomadic groups are becoming more and more assimilated into contemporary Thai society. Many now work on coconut plantations or as fishermen. These groups are known as ‘Mai Thai’ (New Thai). As the sea gypsies don’t have to marry within their own communities, cultural dispersion is a fact of life. The change to engine-driven boats has also opened up the world for these nomads: distances have shrunk, time itself has taken on a different meaning.

The Moken

Comprising over eight hundred islands, the Mergui Archipelago (Myeiku Kyunzu) in Myanmar and the SurinIslands to the South, across the brder into Thailand, have, until recently, been closed to foreigners since WW2. Because of the archipelago’s virtual isolation, the islands and surrounding seas are alive with an incredible diversity of wildlife,flora and fauna.Today, this area is home to several Moken communities.

The Moken are Austronesian or Malay. Their migration first started out from the Riau-Lingga Archipelago, which lies between Singapore and Sumatra. Whether the reason for their rootlessness was the pressure from Islam and exploitation by other more violent populations or authorities around them, who enslaved them and plundered their plantations – nomadism as bare necessity for survival – or whether there are other cultural reasons for this mode of existence, is hard to ascertain. Perhaps there are deeper reasons for their continuing refusal to take up agriculture, depite the fact that the Moken have the technical know-how to grow rice.

Among the decreasing numbers of boat dwellers today, the Moken communities consist of scattered groups composed of families whose members often return to a common anchorage site or settle on certain beaches semi-permanently or for the rainy season when the sea is too dangerous for the kabang (houseboat). Such communities are generally made up of several smaller family groups. These usually comprise two to six closely related boat-dwelling families. Their members regularly fish, collect shells and anchor together, often sharing food, labour and other resources. Relationships are maintained through intermarriage and visits between groups. Each houseboat usually shelters a nuclear family, with perhaps one or two additional family members. The Moken kabang I saw around Ko Surin were no longer than eleven metres and no wider than around two metres. In the center of the deck a collapsible roof made of leaves gave some protection from the elements. When out on the sea, the family does their cooking here too, by first spreading sand across the deck made from split bamboo to make sure it doesn’t catch alight, then lighting a fire in a triangle of three stones, onto which a pot can be placed. Thus the family/kabang forms an independent economic unit.

The Moken used to rely on the taukays, Chinese traders, for food and other supplies including opium, trading sea slugs, shells and pearls in exchange. Traditionally this was their only voluntary contact with outsiders. By fulfilling their function as bridge to the outside world, the taukays safeguarded the Moken’s continued freedom, Today the taukays are replaced by national park and government authorities, and control of the contact is out of the Moken’s hands. They are dependent on fresh water and beaches to collect food, and they also make use of a great number of plants from the forests. But as they own no land or property, and as they are strictly non-violent, coastal populations and landowners tend to chase the Moken communities of valuable islands. In Thailand, assimilation is actively promoted by the government, and so the truly nomadic flotillas are becoming increasingly marginalized, with fewer and fewer places to go that have not in some way been developed by local people or as tourist resorts. On Ko Lanta, an island south of Phuket, the Thai government attempted all sea gypsy communities during WW2 in order to ensure the island would be seen clearly as Thai by the advancing Japanese troops.#

The Moken of Ko Surin

Ko Surin is a group of five small islands in the Andaman Sea, sixty kilometers off the Thai coast and just south of the Mergui Archipelago. They are entirely covered in primary rain forests. A national park since 1981, theSurin Islands are famous for their beautiful coral reefs. The Ko Surin National Park authorities are aware of the negative impact tourism and overfishing has had both in the Gulf of Thailand and all along the country’s west coast, und studies into how long the natural tranquility of this last frontier can be protected from the pressures of tourist development are under way.

The sea journey to Ko Surin from the Thai coast is dramatic; waves are high, and boats are flimsy wooden affairs. Between May and November, the islands are almost completely inaccessible due to heavy rains. I arrived on a national park boat, after a grueling ten-hour journey and having to turn back to the coast once due to bad weather. Because of these delays, it was dark by the time the waves calmed, the diesel engine cut down from a shrill howl to a soft tut, and the boat slid into the calm shallow waters between Surin Nua (north) and Surin Tai (south). We dropped anchor under a spectacular cloudless sky, the low hills of the islands rising like dark, conical shadows out of the Andaman Sea. There was no artificial light anywhere but for a strong search-beam, mounted on the front of the Park’s long-tail that had come out to the boat to pick up a handful of soaked and tired passengers. Overhead shooting stars were chasing each other across the firmament and it soon became apparent why no boat could land on the island. There s no jetty and the sea around Ko Surin is shallow, dotted with clumps of coral, that rise from the sandy sea floor, dangerous obstacles for any passing ship. In the tail-spin of the long-tail, fluorescent plankton churned like blue fire. On Ko Surin, there are no shops, no vehicles and electricity to detract from the singular silence that falls upon the islands once the boat engine has been cut.

There are two Moken villages on Ko Surin. How long they have been there is unclear. Some records indicate at least 200 years. In the past, the Moken resided primarily on their kabang. Every time a marriage took place, a new boat would be built. As opportunities of moving around freely amongst the islands on the Andaman Coast are rare now, remaining on Ko Surin is becoming more and more of a reality for the sea gypsies. If the army in Myanmar catches Moken on their boats, they are often forced into unpaid hard labour on the islands. Travel across the border between Myanmar and Thailand is, thus, limited despite strong family ties. The proximity to the National Park guarantees some protection for the Moken from fishing boats and pirates. The Moken still go on occasional trips into Myanmar to visit relatives, and from time to time, groups will cross from Myanmar into Thailand. Some of the Ko Surin Moken move to Yan-Shiek, an island across the border in Myanmar, for weeks or a month at a time, but usually it is only the men gong on fishing expeditions. Others have left for other islands in the Mergui Archipelago, though again not permanently. There are also some contacts with the Moklen and Urak Lawoy to the south.

The people in the two villages on Ko Surin are related. They are close and visits are frequent. The reason for the existence of two villages seems to be the limited beach space in both localities. Should there be a quarrel in a village, one party will move out temporarily and set up camp on another beach until things have cooled off.

The Moken marry young, between the ages of 14 and 17. They are monogamous but divorce is known. In order to marry, a Moken must know how to collect the food necessary for their survival, how to dig for yams and catch fish, collect sea shells and sea slugs. Some Moken marry for love, other unions are arranged, though always with the consent of all parties. Families on Ko Surin are not big.

Infant mortality is low amongst the babies but as high as 50% up to five years of age. If the children survive beyond this age, they are usually strong and healthy. In dire emergencies the National park boat will take an injured Moken to the mainland, weather permitting. Occasionally the Thai health service makes an appearance on the islands, giving medical advice to Moken residents there.

The Moken have knowledge of almost 150 species of plants, 80 for food alone, almost thirty with medicinal properties. All but a few plants are harvested for use in the village only, except for one plant family fro which they make mats and baskets to sell. Collecting yams, the Moken’s main food source on land, is laborious work as the roots are long and the women have to dig up to two metres into the hard forest soil to extract them. The day after such a gathering excursion is usually a day of rest. The women will sit around the village, relaxing, and again their different attitude to time becomes apparent: tomorrow is another day for work; today is a holiday, an occasion to sit back, smoke, and sing and dance on the beach.

All around the islands, the Moken have set up totem poles called Lo Bong. Visitors to the Park headquarters, the old burial grounds, will find them on the beach there. Usually these totem poles are set up on the dividing line between jungle and beach. Ancestral ceremonies are sometimes held here, featuring chants and offerings. A type of shaman acts as a sort of medicine man, although he is not necessarily the most knowledgeable man on plants with medical properties. He is said to be able to make contact with the spirit world when a person is sick. The poles are a contact point between spirits, ancestors and the shaman. Much of the confusion of visiting missionaries at the beginning of the 20th century, the Moken do not believe in God, and do not think of an all-creating omnipresent force. They do not have a spiritual advisor or priest but they have a strong connection to the natural spirits of island and sea and to their own ancestral spirits.

Dunung’s Village

The Moken village of Surin Nua is a rag-tag collection of small huts, standing in rows on stilts in the surf, which is gently pounding a small curved beach. A river meanders down from the forest that rises as a soid wall of dense foliage behind the village. The water is turquoise blue, very shallow in the approach to the beach, dotted with coral formations.. Sea eagles usually circle above the village. There is no electricity, no facilities, just a village caught between ocean and jungle. Every family on Ko Surin has their own hut. These are not too solidly built, as I once found out arriving at the village for a trip into the jungle. Our trip was canclelled as Dunung and his sons were busy rebuilding a hut that had collapsed in a storm the night before. The Moken huts need to be maintained throughout the year and they are rebuilt from scratch every two years.

I was first taken to the village in a national park long-tail boat and found the beach almost deserted. A few women were weaving baskets, sitting on the beach, in the shade of their huts, none too perplexed at my appearance.

The children of this small community of just 162 people (66 males, 96 females (Feb 2000)) were playing on the edge of the forest, picking and eating unripe mangoes and chasing the dogs and chicken kept by the Moken, both in the village and on their kabang.

The Moken are smaller and darker skinned than their Thai neighbours and many have a reddish shine in their hair. There is no identifying Moken fashion here, and no great expression of an ancient culture. Life on the sea is too unpredictable and rough. But clearly, this is not Thailand. The women are dressed in sarong, as are some of the men, although most now wear shorts.

Toe, a young man of around 25 years, welcomed me and we sat waiting for some time, watching small waves break underneath the huts until Dunung, the tentative chief, arrived. It was a lucky day, as he had caught a great fish with his harpoon and proudly jumped off the tiny boat he was traveling in. shouting for us to come and have a look. Dunung is about 50, small and wiry, with slightly graying hair and a broad, sly, yet incredibly open and welcoming smile.

The boats that the Moken use for short distances around the islands are cut from a single trunk. Only two or three people find room on a narrow rattan deck and the rower has to stand up, two paddles hooked onto two flimsy vertical sticks that are let into the sides of the boat. Movement is very slow and passengers must keep absolutely still if they don’t want sea water pouring over the sides This I discovered when Toe, who turned out to be one of Dunung’s five children, gave me a lift back to Surin Tai, a journey that takes ten minutes in a motorised long-tail an hour in the small Moken boat.

Although Dunung is not officially the chief (the last chief, Da-Ke, died a fewyears previously), major decisions, especially those to do with outsiders, the Park authorities and visitors, are left to him. The others refuse the responsibility and say it is al up to Dunung. So it was Dunung who gave me permisiion and the opportunity to record the music of the Moken.

In the evening I was back, made welcome by a fire on the beach, the village’s finest singers gathered in a circle halfway between jungle and sea shore, other villagers standing shyly in the shadows. Fruit bats were drifting amongst the trees over our heads and out over the ocean only to return to the canopies. Dunung introduced me to Tawan, a young woman of about thirty, recently widowed with three children (the Moken do not count their age and have no idea when their birthdays are), and Ko-Yang, a lady of about 55, widow of the former chief Da-Ke, who has four children. The third singer’s name is Door-Ar. She is about 40, with one daughter in Ko Surin and other family members settled somewhere else.

The Songs

The Moken were laughing, smoking (all the women smoked like chimneys, cheap Thai tobacco rolled into newspaper), cracking open a bottle of Thai whisky and debating in great detail what they were going to sing. Right in the idle of an animated conversation, Ko-Yang began feeling her way through a first song line, before Tawan launched into the melody proper of the first song –lu iu ma you, translating as ‘brother and brother’. Against a simple, very fexible rhythm, her harsh, singular and yet beautiful voice rose over the talking, the sea and the jungle.

The songs of the Moken are not tightly structured affairs. Drum beats and verses come and go, halt and start again. There are no exotic instruments in evidence here, a single plastic barrel, used by local fishermen to store their catches in, serves as a drum, played mostly by Dunung nut occasionally by Tawan or Ko-Yang too. A rich stream of communication between the performers runs through the music. While for the most part, Tawan and Ko-Yang exchange verses, as in a duet, Dunung always in the background, humming along quietly, throwing in bits of lyrics when the other two singers get stuck, or firing up the small crowd around the fire into clapping along to the music. Occasionally Door-Ar sings a few lines. Sitting on the edge of the circle, her voice drifted into our midst, disembodied, yet part of the songs. Beyond the ring of fire, young women, their faces painted white, dance across the sand in time to the music.

The songs of the Moken draw on their experiences, their daily lives and actions, the lives they lead in relation to their natural environment. They sing about chicken and lobsters, about watching sea gulls searching for prey, the moon and the stars above their heads, a bout digging for yams in the forest, and, of course, about their relations with each other –‘be happy at home, seeing the woman is happy’ is a typical song theme. None of the songs related to anything outside their immediate island experience.

The Moken language sounds like a curious melodious sing-song when spoken, harsher when sung. Tawan, smilingly, interjected a youthful intensity into the music, matched by the laid-back, almost lazy, voice of Ko-Yang. Often the two women faced each other while singing, finishing lines for each other, or sending signals of encouragement or competition.

The Moken sing to entertain themselves and to carry on handing down stories of their experiences from the past as well as the present that reflect their culture. Thus I was presented with a fluid yet vibrant musical history of the Moken.

The Future Is Now!

Once the Moken here made a living harvesting sea shells of the ocean floor and selling the to the few visiting tourists. But since 1997, they have been banned from making any more sales, as he taking of the shells has a negative impact on the environment of the National Park. This has effectively phased out one of their main sources of income, and since the Moken need hard currency to pay for the diesel for their boats they have become more dependent on government hand-outs. These days, it is the National park supplying them with necessities, and if they have money, with whisky and tobacco, mass-produced sweets and snacks.

The temptation of the modern world lingers in their eyes and sometimes I watch groups of girls arrive late at night at the National Park headquarters to watch the only TV on the island, hidden away in a shack. The Park authorities encourage this slow process of assimilation, an opening-up and slipping away from their own culture, while simultaneously instilling a feeling of worthlessness in the Moken who are often overlooked when decisions get made in the Park. (All the Park’s kitchen garbage along with spray cans and insecticides is dumped in a landfill right next to the Moken village)

Some of the Moken now want to be Thai. Others, mostly those with little or no contact with the outside world, don’t see the use in relinquishing their identity. When asked why they didn’t move to Phuket, where they would not be under the control of the National park, they replied that they liked to hear the sound of the waves and the sea. Becoming ‘Mai Thai’ would end their special relationship with their environment. The knowledge that the Moken have accumulated on their voyages is slowly being lost as their journeys become less frequent.

Dunung has passed his own kabang on to his son Toe. It is very old and in need of repair. Building a new boat is the most complex technical and artistic, and thus cultural, expression of what it is to be a Moken. The art of building a sea-worthy home from the single trunk of a tree, a mode of transport, and an ultimate expression of a way of life, is disappearing. There is nowhere else to go. There is no more reason to build boats.

Early in the morning, some of the women led by Tawan would sometimes pass through the narrow channel between the two main islands. Laughter and song lines erupted from their small boats, drifting across the crystal-clear water against a backdrop of dense jungle. Perhaps these songs will linger.

CD Cover image by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

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