Off the south coast of Burma (Myanmar), speckled across the Andaman Sea, are hundreds of islands collectively known as the Myeik Archipelago.
In the midst of this archipelago, the Moken, or ‘sea gypsies’ of Burma’s far south, celebrate a nomadic tradition few of us could imagine.
Born and bred on the sea, the Moken spend up to eight months of the year aboard a kabang – a handmade boat crafted from the wood of a single tree. Their days are spent fishing and diving for mollusks, sea cucumbers and other underwater delicacies. During the monsoon season, they settle temporarily on the surrounding islands to make new boats and ride out the harsher weather. But then it’s back to the water, to fish and to live.
Champion free divers, the Moken can stay underwater much longer than most. Their vision too is exponentially more acute in the water than the average person, allowing them to harpoon and dive with ease. Given these are evolutionary traits three thousand years in the making, the rest of us can only try to conceive what it’s like to experience the underwater world so clearly.
While it sounds romantic, life for the Moken has its challenges. They grapple with the difficulty of preserving a culture in an era when modernity is impacting tradition. Marine flora and fauna have been damaged by industry and the art of making kabangs is slowly disappearing, as young Mokens venture further afield in pursuit of other opportunities. Threats to force the Moken away from their traditional water-dwelling lifestyle are not new and continue to challenge the community.
The region, in all its wonder, remains mostly untouched by tourism. The unique culture of the Moken, the natural beauty of the islands and the magic of the marine life remain the gifts – and the secrets – of these indigenous gatekeepers.
Come experience this fascinating region on our nine-day Burma Sailing Adventure in the Myeik Archipelago.
* Photo in Burma by Jono Gosselin, Flickr