Moken: Life of a sea gypsy in Myanmar
Moken are nomad fishermen indigenous to the Mergui Archipelago for centuries. They are known as very honest and simple people, as they do not have a stable place to live moving around the islands to make their living, and to be able to move easily they don’t possess much. In Moken language there is not even such a word as ‘to want’ or ‘to take’.
They are also known to be very good at swimming and diving, they can see better in water than anybody else and children learn to swim before they even learn how to walk. The great part of their life being spent on the sea and their nomadic way of life has given them the nickname of Sea Gypsies. Nowadays, you can find Moken people on the islands around Kaw Thaung City.
Moken as most Burmese people do believe in sprits (Nats), but unlike Burmese it is their main belief. In every Moken community, there is a shaman who leads everything in the community. He is invited to every wedding, funeral, and after the birth of each baby. For any important occasions, the community makes a large quantity of food to offer the Nats, and the shaman eats such food while spirits possesses him. After the feast, the shaman leads a dance to honour the Nats followed by his community.
It used to be a tradition for Moken to put any newborn baby into the ocean for two seconds, three times. But this tradition is dying, and some women even go to conventional hospitals to give birth, however most of them still give birth in their community with the help of other Moken women.
Moken people make their living by fishing and diving in search for pearls or precious products from the sea. They move from one island to another regularly by boat, in search of new diving and fishing spots. Every time they move, everything they own is packed up on their boats, so clothing, cooking ware, food, dogs, cats and chickens are all taken on board. Their life is cadenced to the rhythm of Mother Nature as they usually stay at sea during winter and summer seasons, bad weather during rainy season prevents them from going to sea. During this period they would usually settle on an island for a few months.
By the age of 10, any Moken boy or girl knows how to fish like an adult, but the way they fish is also very specific. They do not use fishing nets but instead catch the fish with a two-prong spear. And as they are moving regularly, fishing spots are never over-harvested. Their lifestyle makes a rotation that gives time for nature to catch up what has been taken, though they never take more than what they need. What they catch will be used for their own needs, but some will be sold as well, often in a trade with middlemen for rice, cooking oil and other necessities.
Their most renown ability is diving as they are able to stay underwater holding their breath for several minutes.. They can dive several times a day to find abalones, oysters, seaweed, fish and pearls. But they are also good at collecting wild honey and herbal plants. Their technique is pretty simple, but very efficient; they burn dry branches of coconut tree and hit the beehive with it to drive away the bees. They also search for bird nests to sells and they can eat bats.
Moken people don’t usually communicate with other people and they just stay within their community. They love to maintain their simple living style and they eat happily together with the family on their traditional boat. They still value the community and work is made not only to benefit one family only but the community as well. They chop down trees together to make boats and help each others. They need team work to chop down huge trees needed in the making of Kabangs their traditional one-log boats. They do not use even one nail to make their boats, logs of wood are simply dug into a boat shape, making the craft very strong. There is usually a roof on the back of the boat and the front is recognizable by the mouth shape just under the bow. With this type of boat and their professional skills, Moken are never afraid of the waves and storms. In addition of being great swimmer and divers, Moken are also fantastic seamen indeed. Their life is the sea, but things are fastly changing and not only for the good.
Changes that threaten Moken culture
These days, some Moken start to use goggles and oxygen tank for diving in search for pearls. Some of them are now also using fishnets to catch more fish that they would do with their spear. The community is changing and their values are changing, driven away from their original way of life by the modern world and the developing tourism in the region. Indeed, Moken are pushed into settlement by Burmese and Thai authorities, establishing villages between the sea and the rainforest, therefore altering their unique and sustainable lifestyle. They are somewhat improving their quality of life since they have access to more things, but their are on the edge of loosing the most important thing they have, their identity and their culture. Mass fishing, tourism and authorities are forcing them to choose a way of life that is not theirs, giving them a soil but leaving them stateless.
Mergui Archipelago is a very beautiful place with pristine beaches that travelers should not miss to visit. But the Moken community is the soul of this unique place on Earth, and this soul is dying along with one of the most unique culture left on Earth, a community that has been self-sufficient until recently but is being made dependent…