Thailand

Dear Moken, Love From The Tourists

The Moken Village is probably not an area of Thailand that you’ve heard of before (unless of course you have been there.) Set in turquoise paradise amongst the Surin Islands, accessible from the port of Kuraburi, tourists are growing ever more aware of the existence of this unique and fascinating place. Home to an estimated 800 ‘Moken,’ also referred to as ‘sea gypsies,’ the semi-nomadic way of life looks deep into the eyes of disappearance, facing the challenges presented by the modern world.

Not only is it possible to visit the village, and quite easily so, the paradisaical surroundings of unspoiled beaches (aside from the tourists,) crystal clear waters and the perfect spots for snorkeling make it hard for visitors to refuse. Especially when this allows us to discover the beauty and identity of a vanishing, nomadic community. At least, these were our thoughts when we opted for a day’s snorkeling trip whilst staying in Khao Lak. Because a trip to Thailand isn’t complete without a snorkeling trip, right?!

An excursion you’ll never forget

An early start, 1.5 hour bus journey and an hour’s speed boat later, we pulled up to one of the Surin islands in the most horrendous downpour we’ve ever experienced at sea! The bright, turquoise waters pierced through the fog and rain as we thought; this is going to be one heck of a snorkeling trip! But the bad weather soon passed, revealing what I can only describe as paradise. Itching to dive in and spend time observing the incredible marine life of Thailand, it was a tour of the island that awaited us.

Pulling up to the island, our eyes were fixed on the cluster of huts on stilts; more perfect than a postcard. Despite the burning heat, and excessive amounts of tourists, we explored the little Moken village somewhat speechless (Jon and I are also very intuitive, and often find ourselves thinking the exact same things!) Stood before this distinct tribe, for the first time in my life, I felt like a complete stranger. The exact opposite compared to the roots of humanity. Rows of children sat at in front of their homes earning a living by selling handmade crafts and jewelry to the crowds of tourists. Mothers and grandmothers occupied the babies and their modernly modified huts that were oddly equipped with satellite dishes, whilst the men prepared the boats for fishing.

            *One of the things that possible shocked me most was the sight of an eighty or ninety year old grandmother smoking the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen! (Or spliff, who knows..?!)

As we approached a very young group of children selling hand crafted, wooden Moken boats, to say I hesitated is an understatement.
These people rely on tourism and people like us for an income.
Normally, this nomadic community wouldn’t need money as they are hunter gathers…so we are imposing our modern world necessities on them.
Not only is it incredible what they can make, I want to reward them for their hard work.
The parents can no longer teach their children the value of going to work, as they no longer do, due to the fact that the children earn more money than them by begging.
I’d like a meaningful souvenir from this incredible place that may no longer exist in the future.

And so the hesitating went on, until I asked the little girl in French how much the boat cost, and astonishingly she replied in perfect English; three hundred baht. These astonishing three words appear to be best sales speech that has ever convinced me to buy anything.

There’s more than meets the eye

Whilst a visit to the Moken village is clearly a once in a life time opportunity, it is not for likelihood that we’ll never return but for the risk that it might soon disappear forever. Before the tragic events of the 2004 tsunami, the Moken lifestyle was based heavily at sea. When the enormous waves destroyed all of their homes and boats they sought survival on the islands of Surin. Land which is Thai owned, leaving the Moken with an unsettled legal status as well as a controversial predicament for the government. To put it very simply, the Government let the Moken people stay on the island and rebuild their lives, a decision which would benefit immensely the tourism industry of Thailand. Such amount of interaction with visitors and inevitable influence from the outside world has continued to increasingly threaten the traditions and values of the Moken way of life.

Split in two

As a blogger, I am used to putting down on virtual paper my thoughts and feelings about my experiences. However this is the first time I found myself desperately searching for the right words and feelings. Given the controversial story of the Moken village, there is one question I can’t seem to answer; should we really be visiting the village? Is it normal that this community of people now rely on us and should we be providing them an access to the modern world we now live in? Would we be turning our backs on them if we were to condemn them to their traditional way of life? If so, is that a bad thing? (Ok, so that’s way more than one question…but it escalates fast!) I can’t even begin to answer these questions, but if you have been to the Moken village I’d love to know your thoughts!

The Moken future

Whilst the future of the village people is uncertain, and quite honestly worrying, with the surge in tourists comes an international awareness of the people and their situation. Many projects have been put into place, working with the Moken village (although some of which are still controversial.) Access to education has been provided for the people on the island, with a school now functioning and even opportunities of scholarships. Foundations have been working with the village with the objective of securing their legal status and improving access to health care and welfare services. You can find more information about the projects at http://mokenislands.com/moken-support-projects/

After all

From an extremely selfish perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to visit such an extraordinary place. It is certainly the most eye opening experience I have ever had. Which is the reason why we throw ourselves (as tourists) into the vicious cycle of the village’s situation. It’s funny how such a simple lifestyle, and humanity in its rawest form, tugs on the rest of the world’s desires and fascinations. But after all, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to decide if by delving in and accepting such an experience compromises our moral obligations when it comes to humanity and helping others.

Even though my intentions are not to start a huge debate, what are your thoughts? Have you been to the Moken village? Would you go given the chance? Let us know in the comments section below!

  • Taylor, this island is so so so gorgeous. I’d like to make it to Thailand next year and maybe I can check out the Moken village.

    Also – it’s very interesting (and very sad) to think how a way of life, ESP. island life, can be changed in a blink of an eye. Thanks for spreading the word about supporting their community.

    • Taylor

      It really is paradise Krista! It is a shame, especially because not many people even think about these questions. One of the things I didn’t mention was that when we were in the village, we heard a baby start crying, and when we turned around we saw that it was because a western man had picked the child up. It really shocked me the way visitors react and behave sometimes. So it’s great that there are some programs in place to support the community!