The tsunami that struck on Boxing Day (December 26) in 2004 – crippling the economies of four countries and taking almost a quarter of a million lives with it – threw up a race of survivors who managed to survive, even as they were inhabiting the parts that suffered the maximum damage. These people could read the signs of the ocean and the receding tide, and were able to carry out the proper course of action- running the hell out of there. Almost all of this tribe survived, no mean feat considering nearly all their lives were in grave danger.
But then again, the Moken people learn to live their lives wandering in oceans, and know how to swim even before they know how to walk.
The Moken people are an old Australasian ethnic tribe, inhabiting the coast and islands of the Andaman Sea on the west coast of Thailand and certain provinces of Myanmar. Their epithet is the badass,” The Moken are born, live and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea.” Legend has it that the Moken have been punished to a life of semi banishment (they typically live around 9 months a year, on their specially handcrafted low slung boats called kabang) by an ancient island Queen, Sibian, who caught her husband frolicking in bed with her sister. Furthermore, Sibian decreed that the kabang would represent the human body, with front part representing the mouth constantly needing to be fed. The posterior part would, as the name suggests, represent the posterior to represent all the waste that gets dumped out of the human body. The Moken live by the tenets of the exile and only live on land during the monsoon, for about 3 months in a year.
Being the skilled divers and the navigators they are, the Moken people primarily collect mollusks and hunt for fish and trade them for their cheap staple food- rice.
Learning to swim before they walk- the Moken children
The fact that the Moken are usually a peace loving people has not worked in their favour in recent times. They have been exploited over centuries, first by the British and now by the local governments of Thailand and Myanmar, who want them to assimilate into their version of a modern society, giving up their traditionalism. Thai government has gone a step too far and has been trying to devise ways to relocate them in a national park, as a tourist sightseeing experience to bolster its tourism industry.
These sea gypsies, as pop culture calls them, have the extraordinary ability to hold their breath and see inside water for a time that far exceeds the capability of an ordinary, healthy human. As a result many fishermen in Myanmar use the services of Moken people to help them catch fish, set up netsand collect mollusks. Many Moken fishermen die in diving accidents- more often than not from the bends, when they dive too deep and resurface too quickly while working on these boats.
With all the combined efforts of the government and the harassment and deaths faced by these sea nomads, the Moken population of the region has come down a mere 1,000 from the slightly stronger 2,500 it was a decade back.Today, the tribal elders persevere in pleasing the ancient spirits to protect their way of life in danger of being annihilated. In all probability, they would fail given the relentless march of modernism.
And the world would have to say goodbye to the closest thing we have to merpeople.
ImageCredits: Natgeo, Survivalinternational, Pinterest, Islandsafarimergui