INCREDIBLE SEA GYPSIES

By on August 30, 2013 in Culture

Least Touched People

They live on the islands off the coast of Thailand and Burma.  They are sea experts who spend much of their time on boats and in the water.  They have no written language, running water, or electricity.  Amazingly, they have managed to eschew modern civilization for centuries, making them among the least touched people in the world.

The Moken of the Andaman Sea, often referred to as “sea gypsies” for their expertise in the water, are a nomadic Austronesian ethnic group estimated to have around 3,000 members.  Their home includes the provinces of Satun, Trang, Krabi, Phuket, Phang Nga, and Rangong on the west coast of Thailand, as well as the Mergui Archipelago of Burma.  They move about on boats, known as kabang, which for many serve not only as their transportation, but also their homes.  Some Moken live on beaches, in stilted huts that rise above the sand.

Over the years, both the Thai and Burmese governments have made attempts to assimilate the Moken people into their own culture, but the Moken have for the most part successfully resisted.  In the 1990’s, the military regime in Burma forced many Moken members to relocate to land-based sites due to offshore petroleum discoveries.  This was consistent with the way the regime had previously dealt with various tribal and ethnic groups throughout the decade and beyond.  The traditional Moken way of life is constantly in danger due to outside forces wanting to manipulate them for their own needs.  They have very few resources, least of all money and education, to combat those who could do them harm.

Despite such injustices, these “sea gypsies” have managed to keep their culture intact and they continue to be masters of the ocean.

Masters of the Ocean

The Moken are boating experts, incredible fishermen with the ability to catch a fish on a spear with ease, and remarkable divers who can hold their breath underwater for seemingly impossible stretches of time.

Perhaps the reason the Moken are so at ease in the water is because their children typically learn to swim before they can even walk.  As adults, they will routinely make “free dives” to depths of 75-feet and in the process, lower their heart rates so they can breath underwater for twice as long as the average human.  A Swedish scientist who conducted research on the Moken’s incredible ocean skills found that they have the ability to constrict their pupils as soon as they enter the water, allowing them to keep their eyes open underwater for long periods of time.

Using simple tools like nets and spears, the Moken live not only on fish and shellfish, but also sea cucumbers, fauna, flora and other fruits of the sea.  With their distinct advantages, they could easily exploit the sea and make great profits, but they instead choose to live a simple existence and only catch what they need to survive.  They catch some extra fish to barter at local markets for necessities, but their necessities are very limited.  In addition to their low-impact lives, the Moken are known to be peaceful people who treat outsiders with kindness and share what they have.

The Moken are also known for their animist beliefs, which include worship of the sea and its power.

Tsunami Signs

Ancient Moken folklore passed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation, talks about the Laboon, an incredibly large and dangerous “wave that eats people.”

According to the Moken, angry ancestral spirits summon this big wave.  Researchers who have studied the Moken people have discerned that the Laboon they speak of is actually a tsunami.  With their lives so closely revolving around nature and their vigilant instincts that protect them from danger, the Moken, unlike even modern tsunami experts, have an ability to recognize signs that a tsunami is approaching.  Several weeks prior to the tsunami, Moken fishermen noticed several rare, deep sea creatures alien to the reefs where they caught fish.  They had also noticed crabs and lobsters crawling up from their holes in large numbers.

These abnormal phenomena, coupled with the fact that the sea had drastically receded in the days before the tsunami, helped Moken tribesmen to determine that danger was approaching and that they needed to move fast to higher ground.   Incredibly, during the 2004 tsunami that took an estimated 170,000 lives, only one Moken tribe member died – a handicapped tribesman who was forgotten on the beach when everyone ran to higher ground.  It is for this reason that the Moken believe they are cursed and will not be allowed to build their village on the same site where it previously existed.

During the 2004 tsunami, and on a daily basis, the knowledge-based society of the Moken has allowed them to survive on their own for centuries.  And that is something very few other cultures in the world today can claim.

Legitimate Knowledge

In modern society, too often we restrict our knowledge to only Western and scientific thinking.  However, there is much we can learn from small pockets of ethnic minorities scattered throughout the world, like the Moken.  They all have much practical wisdom to share and the fact is, most of them are disappearing at an alarming rate.

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