British photographer Cat Vinton spent weeks on a kabang boat, documenting the life of a Moken family on the Andaman Sea. Here she talks about this fascinating project and shows us some of her amazing photos.
In 2009 I lived with a remote, self-sufficient nomadic people whose warmth and openness allowed me to capture a fast-disappearing way of life. Equipped with sufficient Moken to communicate, I lived with Tat and Sabai, on their Kabang with their three young boys for several weeks. I was witness to some of the last years of nomadic Moken existence, a sustainable way of life that is in complete harmony with the rhythm of the sea.
The Surin Islands, to the south of the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea are home to the last, elusive Moken, who have lived as hunter-gatherers among these isolated Islands for centuries. They’re born to live - on single-log sailboats known as kabang - and die at sea. The ocean is their home and goes beyond a means of transportation or a food bank.
The Moken can hold their breath underwater and free dive deeper than almost any other people on earth; they learn to swim before they walk; they have no notion or measure of time; they don’t know their own age; they have no concept of worry, and no word for want nor goodbye.
Tat could read the water, and wielding his spear from the bow of his kabang he rarely missed a beat. He bequeathed life skills to his sons, drafting illustrations in the sand, teaching them to dive for fish, to sail and make a roof with the rainforest plants for their kabang. The turquoise water and pristine beaches were the playground for the three young boys growing up as nomadic Moken, as generations had before. Sabai gathered shellfish from the rocks, sea cucumbers from the bed, dug for lobsters and sandworms and trepanned for wild yams in the ‘fridges’ of the rainforest. At night, the singsong of Moken voices would echo across the moonlit sea. They were truly content here on their Kabang, the life they knew.
The Moken people have always tried to hide from outsiders, disappearing from view if any stranger came near. Today, the Moken have no place to hide: over the past few years it has became more difficult for the dwindling numbers of nomadic Moken still clinging to their wandering way of life. Mass fishing and aggressive assimilation policies have firmly pointed them towards land, rendering them stateless. The flotillas are no more as authorities have compromised their freedom, culture and natural disposition, replacing it with dependency and isolation. Tat and Sabai held out the longest, as the very last of the sea nomads.
In late 2014 I returned to find them. Their way of life has changed dramatically from what I had been lucky enough to witness. The family now lives on Au Bon Yai, a village perched on the edge of the rainforest. Sabai’s sight has failed so she rarely leaves the hut, and the boys are now pursuing a more conventional island education. Baba, the eldest, excels in class but keeps the ‘old ways’ alive, leading his school friends on fishing missions in between lessons. This is what the next generation of Moken looks like, for now, but I fear the world is becoming impoverished with the loss of another unique culture.
Human Rights Watch just published an interesting report about the situation of the Moken "Sea Gypsies" in Thailand and Myanmar. The organisation lists numerous discriminations and other rights abuses against the Moken, sea nomads who are among the few remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Southeast Asia. Approximately 3,000 Moken live mostly on small boats within the Mergui Archipelago along Burma’s southern coast, while another 800 have settled in Thailand.
The 25-page report, “Stateless at Sea: The Moken of Burma and Thailand,” describes in words and photographs serious violations of the rights of the Moken by state authorities – particularly the Burmese navy – including extortion, bribery, arbitrary arrest, and confiscation of property. Human Rights Watch also examines tightening immigration and maritime conservation laws that threaten their freedom of movement and traditional lifestyle. Most Moken are stateless, making them extremely vulnerable to human rights abuses and depriving them of access to medical care, education, and employment opportunities.
“These sea nomads face increasing restrictions and attacks at sea, and systematic discrimination on land,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By effectively denying them citizenship, the Thai and Burmese governments make the Moken easy targets for exploitation and other threats to their very existence.”
The Moken are listed as one of the 135 recognised “ethnic races” of Burma under the 1982 Citizenship Act, but the issuance of national ID cards to the Moken has been inconsistent, hindering their travel within Burma. The Burmese government is required to provide national ID cards to all who are entitled; to ensure that birth registration documents are issued to all Moken children; and to provide the Moken equal access to social welfare, education, health, and any other services that are being provided to other Burmese citizens. The Moken have also suffered from violent attacks and seizure of property by the Burmese navy.
We're thrilled to be covered in the Sunday Telegraph's travel section! This is what Nigel Richardson writes:
"It was a dreamy voyage that took us beyond internet connectivity, from green coastal waters to the kind of blue inked in by 100ft depths, past piratical-looking fishing boats and islands with the outlines of rusty blades. Scampering macaques foraged for crabs on the islands’ rocky shores, white-bellied sea eagles wheeled."
Click here to read more of our press clippings.
The Moken, sometimes called sea gypsies, have been living as free divers and sailors in the Mergui Archipelago for thousands of years. Over the generations, they have adapted to their environment and developed incredible skills useful for a life partly taking place under water, where they collect clams and sea cucumbers.
Moken divers often go deeper than 20 meters without oxygen tanks and they can stay there for minutes. And they can see the clearly under water where everything appears blurred to the rest of us.
"Studies of Moken children have shown them to have incredible underwater vision—twice as good as that of European children of the same age", writes the National Geographic in this interesting article.
Here's one explanation: "The Mokens' pupils also adapt, constricting to a mere 0.08 inch (1.96 millimeters). The European children's pupils constricted to only a tenth of an inch (2.5 millimeters)."
Watch this BBC video for more.
There are some great books on Myanmar and on the region we are sailing in. Below is a short list of reading recommendations for books on the Mergui Archipelago and its indigenous Moken people. You will also find most of the books on this list in our small board library. Please let us know if you have any other suggestions for our library.
For our complete list of reading recommendations, please have a look here.
“A Journey Through the Mergui Archipelago”, by Jacques Ivanoff and Thierry Lejard, 2002
Jacques Ivanoff is the foremost anthropologist expert on the Moken sea nomads and the Mergui Archipelago. Right after the region was first opened to foreign visitors in the late 90s, Ivanoff set off on the first of his many expeditions and established a scientific project to promote the local heritage and culture. This book is the result of many years of fieldwork and research and allows the reader to learn about the archipelago’s history and its inhabitants’ culture and way of life.
“Rings of Coral: Moken Folktales”, Jacques Ivanoff, 2002
This is the first compilation of the oral literature of the Moken, the sea nomads of the Mergui Archipelago. The 44 stories presented here were revealed to Jacques Ivanoff by the Moken themselves. In this book, he retells and analyses stories dealing with the Moken's historical roots, the creation of Moken society and its flourishing. These folk tales, myths and spirit songs are essential to understanding Moken society and its survival until now, in its ecological and cultural niche.
"The Sea Gypsies of Malaya; an Account of the Nomadic Mawken People of the Mergui Archipelago With a Description of Their Ways of Living, Customs, Habits, Boats, Occupations, Etc.", by Walter Grainge White, 1922
This is a
reprint of the anthropological monograph written by the author in the early
part of the 20th century while making a census of the Moken. White did his
research at a time when this people were first beginning to adapt to change,
making a plea for them to "develop on their own lines." His survey of
the lives of the Moken was extensive and included their fishing and trading
habits, their language, religion, their birth, marriage and death rituals and
general way of life.
“Siamese White”, by Maurice Collins, 1926
“Siamese White” is the earliest account of life in the Mergui Archipelago we have come across. Collins, an early 20th-century employee of the Indian Civil Service in Burma, portrays the life of Samuel White who had come to Siam in the employ of the East India Company in 1677. Here is how an Amazon reviewer summarises White’s story: “In the following 11 years he won and lost several fortunes, helped put down a bloody rebellion, turned down the job of Prime Minister of Ayudhaya, accepted the post of Sultan of Me rgui, led a fleet of privateers against the Kingdom of Galconda under the flag of the King of Siam, survived the massacre of 60 British civilians at Mergui, was accused of theft, murder and treason by the East India Company, escaped from prison, and in 1689 made his way back to England where he sued the East India Company for 40,000 pounds sterling before the House of Commons.“