The Moken People of the Sea


The Moken, Moklen, & Urak Lawoi

The unique Andaman Sea 'People of the Sea' ethnic groups are a dying culture.


There are three separate tribal clusters of these island and sea people. Ethnographers estimate that the groups began to differentiate hundreds of years ago, and perhaps further back than that. The differences between the three strands are significant, with distinct dialects, current traditions, and life styles. The terminology is confusing because different countries call them differently, and they have different names when referring to themselves and the other two tribes. They are commonly known as Chao Lay in Thai—a term they do not like, or Sea Gypsies in English, which is somewhat derogatory.


Moken. The Moken sail the seas off the coast of Burma (Myanmar), with their main centers in the Mergui Archipelago. These people are the nomadic, foragers of the sea, living most of the time on their kabang boats. In Thailand, they are only found in any concentration on Surin and islands to the east (off Phang-Nga and Ranong). During the monsoon season, when they shelter on land, they have had small, temporary communities on the islands off Krabi (Phi Phi & Ngai Islands), and they have intermarried with the locally based, Moklen and Urak Lawoi tribes.


The Moken derived their subsistence livelihood from foraging for fish, sea cucumbers (trepan or bêche-de-mer), shellfish, and crustaceans with their ability to free dive deep, stay underwater for long periods (up to 2 minutes), and see with vision adapted for underwater (tested as twice as acute as non-Moken).


This nomadic, aquatic way of life is dying out as their ability to sail freely between Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia is becoming increasingly difficult, and access to their traditional fishing grounds have been restricted or prohibited (as they became part of a national park system).


The Andaman tsunami of 2004 had a serious negative impact on the communities, as coral reefs and boats were destroyed. Due to an oral history about tsunamis, these ‘People of the Sea’ avoided the destructive waves by going to higher ground or out into deep water.


Moklen. The land-dwelling Moklen inhabit the coastal areas along the Ranong, Phang-Nga, and Phuket Andaman shores. Aspects of their language and ceremonies are different, and they do not build or sail the kabang boats. Traditionally, they fished traditional grounds, ranging from the Surin to the Adang Islands (next to Lipe Island in Satun).


Urak Lawoi. This is the group that predominates in Krabi, with long-standing communities on Lanta and Pu (Jum) Islands. Their lifestyle is closer to the Moklen than the Moken. Unlike the Moken, ancestor-spirit poles (lobong) are not part of their animistic beliefs, although they do celebrate the semi-annual Loy Rua ceremony (day of the full moon of the 6th and 11th months) where ceremonial boats are filled with ritualistic items and floated offshore to carry away bad luck and ‘cleanse’ the community.


Oral history identifies Lanta as the Urak Lawoi’s ancestral home, and today the largest group live in the village of Sang-ka-u on the southeast coast of Lanta, beyond the Old Town.


The aftermath of the tsunami was devastating to some of the villages and has accelerated the dilution of their culture. Well-intentioned but disruptive outsiders rushed into help with inappropriate, culture-changing assistance. Those living in Krabi have lost most of their unique identity. Their children are going to government schools and loosing any connection to their heritage. Their fishing grounds are either depleted or restricted, denying them sufficient access to the basic part of their culture. Their numbers are dwindling.

Like all traditional communities, the Moken, Moklen, and Urak Lawoi should not be considered a tourist attraction. Visiting their communities and homes should only be done in an educational, sensitive, and non-intrusive way. Visitors should contribute positively to the preservation of Krabi's most unique culture.

Ancestor-Spirit Pole of the Moken
Moken Boy Spearfishing
Moken Boys Fishing, Using Their Ability to See Well Underwater