The Last Of The Sea Nomads

The Moken have journeyed through the Andaman Sea for millennia. They travel lightly on land and sea, taking only what they need and leaving no trace. Yet their way of life is jeopardised by aggressive assimilation policies that threaten their freedom and culture.

In addition to client assignments, Cat specialises in ethnographic photography. Her race to document a disappearing way of life has seen her living with nomadic communities in some of the most isolated and challenging locations in the world.

Between 2008–09, she was witness to the last years of nomadic existence for the Moken who have lived as hunter-gathers in the Surin Islands for generations. Living with these remote, self-sufficient nomads and approaching her subject with empathy and respect, Cat has been able to document their struggle to transition to a new way of life.

Kabang, Mu Ko Surin National Park

Open at the mouth to receive food, round at the belly and open at the rear to expel waste, the kabang boats of the Moken symbolise an ownership of nothing and a clear message to pirates through the centuries: we have nothing to steal.

According to their own creation myth, the Moken are destined to spend a life at sea with no possessions and to take only what they need. At its heart, Moken identity is defined by being an outsider.

Historically, the Moken have lived eight to nine months a year on their kabang, punishment – according to the myth – laid upon them by the Moken earth queen Sibian who was betrayed by her sister Kèn and her husband Gaman the Malay. Expelled to a life at sea, the kabang symbolises this original sin and serves as a reminder of the impossibility to enrich themselves.

A recent logging ban in Mu Ko Surin National Park prevents the Moken from felling the sacred trees required for the building of the kabang. Today there are less than a handful of traditional kabangs left.

Tat and Sabai on board the kabang

Tat and Sabai are typical of most Moken in that they cannot tell you their age. Their best guess is that they are around 50. They sustained their nomadic life style in the waters around the Surin Islands on Thailand’s Andaman sea longer than most. They provided for their family as hunter-gathers, taking only what they need.

Moken families have traditionally divided their lives between the land and the sea according to the seasons.

For Moken families, the nomadic existence is not a lonely one. There is no word for goodbye in Moken – it is understood that paths will cross again. There is a coming together of communities, a moving apart to go to sea, and a coming together again. It’s a way of life that has survived for millennia.

The Moken are hunter-gatherers, taking only what they need

The Moken provide for their families through hunter-gathering, often drying fish to sustain them on days when there is no catch. Yet today, fishing is largely prohibited in their traditional hunting grounds, depriving them not only of their source of protein but also of their trading potential. Traditionally, the Moken have traded fish and sea cucumbers for rice and other basic needs.

Many campaigners believe the authorities are sacrificing the Moken’s rights in preference for commercial fishing trawlers that wreak huge environmental damage.

Tat teaches his sons traditional Moken skills

More Moken children are now going to school, something unheard of until recently as the skills deemed most important were considered best passed down the generations. The opening of the first school for Moken children on Surin in 2005 was not auspicious. The curriculum offered little respect for Moken customs and had very low ambitions for the children’s future. Thai teachers often did not turn up and turnout was low, due to lack of structure, lack of trust and language barriers. Today it is a different story, in no small part due to Khaeng, a remarkable young woman who was the first Moken to graduate from university.

As well as teaching in Moken and Thai, Khaeng encourages the children to love their culture and to celebrate their history.

Top: Tat spear fishing from the kabang; Bottom left: Tat with his catch; Bottom right: Moken children playing in the water

Tat passes his fishing skills down the generations to his sons. He can read the water, wielding his spear from the bow of his boat and with a flying leap secure dinner for the family. Like all Moken children, his young sons could see clearly underwater from an early age, a phenomenon that is not unique to the Moken but rather developed through the hours and hours spent in the sea.

Top: Sabai with her sons; Bottom left: Sabai digging for wild yams; Bottom right: Sabai making charcoal for cooking

The Moken can no longer travel freely or even hunt without the threat of fines and detention. Permits and identity papers are required simply to leave their allocated settlement, something that these stateless people can rarely provide.

While they are being forced from the sea onto the land, they are effectively rendered stateless. The Moken use the tides to tell the time of day and the day of the week. So it is no surprise that they have no papers declaring their entitlement to ancestral lands, no documentation to prove their birthplace and therefore their nationality. Time and again they lose land to big developers, further forcing them away from their seasonal homes.

Last days of the kabang

Sabai was born on a kabang and her life with Tat has been spent at sea. They have held out the longest, but Sabai’s failing eyesight combined with a dwindling number retaining the nomadic lifestyle and increased harassment mean life on the water is untenable, even to this tenacious family.

The kabang at night

Moken hunting and foraging has been restricted and perhaps most devastatingly of all, a logging ban prevents them from felling the sacred trees required for the building of the kabang. Less than a handful of traditional kabangs are left today.

The significance of this cannot be overestimated. The life of the community revolves around the kabang. This is where the family lives, hunts and eats. Families travel together as part of a flotilla of kabang. It is the gift from the new bride’s family to her groom. The whole community comes together, from the shaman who finds the tree that consents to be cut to the elderly who help the married couple refine and complete their boat. The boat symbolises freedom.

Au Bon Yai, Mu Ko Surin National Park.

In recent years, Tat and Sabai have made the painful decision to settle in Au Bon Yai, a Moken village within Mu Ko Surin. Moken hunting and foraging is restricted in the park, making life on the kabang untenable and forcing the Moken to settle in land-based villages.

"The cycle of life, death and ethnic survival is a struggle that is repeated again and again, a cycle that is Moken life, itself enclosed in a grandiose setting, which gives it all its beauty. Moken society always manages to return to what it offers most to the world: an alternative, a vision of what could be, because the nomad is free, equal, generous, clever, volatile, elusive." 

Jacques Ivanoff, Anthropologist

Placement

Cat’s images of the Moken have been featured in the following publications.

Mu Ko Surin National Park