A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol. 3 No.2 April-June 2004   

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Salon : Mokens at the Sea Gypsies of Myanmar

By Hpone Thant

Salon traditional dugout canoe The blue waters off the Tanintharyi coast are the home of the Salons. Known as Mokens or the Sea Gypsies in other parts of the world they roam these waters in their fragile crafts, looking for sea cucumbers, pearls and otherwise scouring the seabed for their livelihood.

There are many theories of their origin but one thing for sure is that they had been there for some time. Many of the islands off the Tanintharyi coast have Moken indigenous names: Kyun Mei Gyi or Lui in Moken(CIara), Lumpi or Lebi in Moken (Sullivan), Bo Cho or Pu Nala/Luark in Moken (Eyles). This shows that the Salons were in the area even before the British arrived in the region
and the British mariner, Capt. Forrest, sailed the waters of the Tanintharyi coast in 1783. It was he who gave English names to many of these islands in the Myeik Archipelago.

Salon spirit pole Research showed that the earliest mention of these people appeared in the Calcutta Government Gazette dated March 2, 1826. Also in the East India Gazetteer, vol (ii), p 226, published in London in 1828, it was mentioned that "A race of men, termed by the Myanmar (Burmese) Chalome and Pase, are to be found scattered throughout the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago.Buttheir dread of Malayan and other pirates has compelled these poor creatures to adopt an unsettled mode of life': Chalome might be what we now know as Salons and the Pase could be the Pashus, a mixed Malay race. A British author W.G White had also written about them in 1922 and said that" a (Burmese) Myanmar King at (Ava) Innwa sent for some of these sea-Gypsies, had taught them to read and write and sent them back': More recently a Frenchman, Jacques Ivan off, had categorized them as the spearhead of a littoral civilization that began colonizing the Tanintharyi region from the south, escaping from the ensnaring clutches of the dominant religion of that region and mercantilism and had made poverty a symbol of their identity within the Malay social chrysalis.


Rock painting on Kubin Island The Salons will now deserve the recognition they had lost for So long. The government of Myanmar has plans to celebrate a Salon Festival at Ma Gyun Galet Salon village on Bo Cho Island (Eyles), opposite the Lumpi Marine National Park (Sullivan Island). It will be held from February 14 to 16, 2004. It is hoped that this festival would not only promote the Salon culture but also the whole of Tanintharyi region. But whatever their origin they are the true nomads of the sea. They live on the sea and they die on the sea. But they are also in harmony with the sea. 

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank Jacques Ivan off and his party for providing the necessary backgrounders and photos. 
Hpone Thant is a regular contributor to Enchanting Myanmar:He writes mainly on the country's culture and traditions and nature and can be reached at:  harry@swiftwinds.com.mm