We are on a trip to the Surin Islands, 80 kilometers away from the west-coast of Thailand where some of the indigenous people on earth live, the so-called Moken. The Moken live in house boats in the Indian Ocean. Only during rain season they move to Surin Islands for shelter.
The house boats of the Moken
Their genuine home is the sea, which makes their life so extraordinary.
– Their deep knowledge about the sea saved them from the Tsunami.
– Even without diving goggles, they are able to see sharply under water.
– Being on the Indian Ocean with their boats permanently creates a marital life with very special rules.
When the Tsunami struck Thailand on Sunday 26 December 2004, the village of the Moken made up of stilts, ended up being destroyed completely. From a boat, the young Moken-woman Pen points to an empty beach.
”Our village was right here. Twenty cabins in three rows. The cabins in the front stood in the water. You can see the pales. The wave destroyed everything.”
When the wave struck the village, the sea gypsies were not in their cabins anymore, but had watched out for shelter on top of the hill.
Pa Thong is one of the old men of the village. He does not even know his real age. Thanks to him the tribe of the Moken could survive.
”Due to my age, I do not go fishing anymore. But I know the sea. From the top of the hill, when I saw the water disappear, I told everyone to climb up the hill. From there we saw three large waves destroying our village entirely.”
At the moment, 200 Moken live in this provisionally new-built settlement. In fact, they are half-nomads. They cross over the Andaman Sea with their boats, up to Burma and down to Indonesia – an area covering thousands of square kilometers.
The village of the Moken on Koh Surin
Some years ago, Swedish scientist Anna Gislen discovered a phenomenon. Together with kids of the Moken she was diving to look for corals. It was very fun. Over and over, they dived down to the water, dead on target, and brought up flints from the ground. On land, the scientist noticed that the flints were actually tiny sea shells! How could the children detect them?
Normally, the human eye only works above water. Underneath, it loses two thirds of its eyesight. The reason is the dimmed light under water. Usually the pupils enlarge themselves automatically.
However, the Moken children can minimize their pupils: like a camera with a low installed f-number that increases its depth of sharpness and resolution. In case of the Moken-children in a very extreme way: 1,96 millimeters – a pupil value which has been considered impossible so far.
Two to three Moken families share a boat and make a living from the goods they catch in the sea: fish, sea shells and sea cucumbers.
Only a monsoon makes them move to Surin every year. There, the Moken get protected by their cabins from rain and wind. Salama is the Moken’s tribal chief: “During the rain season we can only fish in the bay. There’s only small fish. Or we sit on the hills back there with a fishing-rod.”
His wife Mi Sia weaves mats made of straw during the rain season and he explains the life of the Moken who – for example – do not have any sense of time.
“I have no idea of how old I am, also my parents were unable to tell me. Same for the children today. We can tell them whether they were born in the daytime or at night. But weekdays, months and years are things we do not know.”
Our camera team on Koh Surin
Mi Sia herself has got nine children; she got to know her husband when her parents’ boat accidentally met the boat of his parents. Since then he has been coming back to her constantly – unusual for the Moken.
“When a man goes fishing he always tells his wife how long the trip is going to be. For instance, two or three days. But if he does not come back as arranged, the wife will have to wait for him 7 days. Other men go out to sea to search for him while she’s staying in the village. And if he does not reappear after 7 days she will not need to wait for him any longer. She can look for another man.
The Tsunami has not only destroyed the old village of the Moken, but also a lot of their house boats. The sea gypsies use the rain season to build new ones and wait to return to their home – their home that is called sea.