July - September 2002

Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar

Sea Gypsies

By Ma Thangei

Home is where you live.

When the present-day battle cry of the world is "Prosperity, and more prosperity", it is unsettling to realise that there is a race of people who abhor this very message: fot the one reason that accumulated wealth would destroy their culture, their very way of life, the reason for their existence. They are the sea gypsies who live a nomadic life among the thousands of islands of the Myeik Archipelago, called the themselves: the Moken.

A traditional Nat shrine

They are skilled on the sea and in the sea, with even toddlers padding their baby-sized canoes hewn out of solid tree trunks, with as much ease as the city kids peddle their tricycles. They dive without oxygen tanks to gather real pearls; they hunt for stingrays and sharks; they gather sea cucumbers and abalone.

A Salon still has feminine instuncts

The sea is their backyard and for them, casting nets to catch fish to sell would be as easy as a farmer pulling up carrots. But the wealth gained from such an ambitious enterprise would create an equality of standards among their small race, which they do not want, so they do not use nets.

There are two schools of thought as to their origin: some believe them to be descended identical words with the Mon. The Mon are descended from Mon-khmer stock, and the word Moken could have been a variation of the name of the racial root.

A Salon man ready to spear a fish

A Salon family's house-boat

Very few anthropologists have managed to do research on the Moken, for they are shy of strangers. Indeed shy is not even the exact word, for they want no influences from the outside world on their culture, and thus have no desire for any interaction with strangers. A lady professor from the Anthropology Department, University of Yangon, Daw Tin Yee did a field trip in 1997. A French anthropologist Pierre Ivanhoff did extensive research in the 19505. In the 19805 his son Jacques carried on his father's work, first learning the language to set up better relations with the Moken. Both he and his father had recorded the verbal history handed down to each generation by the previous one.

Some typical tools

The Shaman or the spirit master is the head of a particular group of boats. He or she has complete authority, for their prowess in terms of healing the sick by invoking spirits is highly respected. The Salone live a hard life but disdain modern medicine.


Fish traps in the sea

The family members of each boat work as a team during the dry season, with the men hunting in the sea and the women gathering oysters and shells on the craggy rocks of the shore. There is little property they carryon their boats, apart from pots and pans, some clothing, their tools, and a dog to warn the approach of strangers.

Every one helps in collecting



During the rainy season, they build bamboo huts on islands they have chosen for that season. There they may plant and sow, as they know how to farm, but only enough for their food and to exchange with goods. With th onset of better weather, they leave the huts, and if other Moken come by and live in them, no matter: there is no quarrel over property.

Bamboo fishtraps

If one's boat is out of order, he can join the others to go hunting, without any need to share his catch.

In the old days when real pearls were easier to find, the Moken, equipped only with goggles they made out of hollow bamboo stems, string and two pieces of glass, were the only people on Myanmar shores who could gather these treasures of the ocean. They would deal with only one merchant who have gained their trust; even with better prices they refused to sell to others. They come ashore hiding the pearls in the mouths, to spit them out into a napkin only when they reach their merchant's house.

A Salon shrine

Prosperity may come with promotion or vice versa; but a change of lifestyle is what the Moken most want to do resist. Their 'primitive' way of living make people think of them as backwards; but on the contrary, they have proven only their strength. They have survived for centuries in the same manner, which few races in the world can say they have done. It is not that they do not know of a better life: in their trade with the 'land' people, they have seen the comforts money can buy, but they prefer not to exchange their culture for comfort.

A traditional Salon canoe

Not only are they content with their traditions, they are fiercely protective of them, because equilibrium must be kept and thus peace maintained; these are after all of greater value than money. They have a lot to teach the rest of the world.

The writer is grateful for the data so generously supplied by Jacques Ivanhoff.

Contents | A Letter to Our Reader | Once upon a time in Bago | Nine-Gems Ring | Khaung Cawi, to honour wives | Sea Gypsies | It's Good to Know | Cheroots | Traditional Chin House | Bandoola Boat | Events Calendar



July - September 2002