We had bbeen travelling for a few hours when on the horizon we spotted the group of small hand-built boats, called kabang. The Moken are wary of strangers, so as we approached, I called out some reassuring words in their language. The family elder, Gatcha, was at first reluctant to stop. Outsiders have been harassing the Moken througout their history and his instinct told him to keep his distance. But after hearing that I had been researching the Moken way of life since 1982, in the end he accepted us into his 'home'.
Home for this nomadic sea people are the kabang, on which they live, eat and sleep for eight months of the year. In these light craft, they traverse the Mergui Archipelago, 800 islands dotted across the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar, collecting what they need to survive and moving on. They get by only on what they take from the sea and beaches each day - fish, molluscs and sandworms to eat; shells and oysters to trade with Malay and Chinese merchants. They accumulate little and live on land only during the monsoons. But the world is closing in on the Moken way of life.
As divers and beachcombers, they pose no threat to others who share these waters. In spite of this, the authorities are always pressuring them to settle in one place. Ten years ago, 2,500 Moken were still leading a traditional seafaring life, but that population is slowly declining and now stands at around 1,000. If they cease to be sea gypsies, it is feared that their unique understanding of the sea will disappear also. Moken people can dive down 20 metres without breathing equipment and have developed extraordinary underwater vision. They are experts at reading changes in the sea and it is even said they can anticipate a tsunami.
A day spent fishing and gathering was followed by a night of eating and ritual. The following morning Gatcha and his family pushed out to sea to continue their journey. The dry season was nearing its end and soon they would be setting up a temporary camp on kand. But just as the rains come and go, I wonder if the Moken still be living here when I next return.