The Moken

The mokenThe Moken (also spelled Mawken or Morgan; Thai: called “chao le”), are an Austronesian ethnic group with about 2,000 to 3,000 members who maintain a nomadic, sea-based culture. They speak their own language which belongs to the Austronesian language family.

They refer to themselves as Moken. The name is used for all of the Austronesian speaking tribes who inhabit the coast and islands in the Andaman Sea on the west coast of Thailand, the provinces of Satun, Trang, Krabi, Phuket,Phang Nga, and Ranong, up through the Mergui Archipelago of Burma (Myanmar). The group includes the Moken proper, the Moklen (Moklem), the Orang Sireh (Betel-leaf People), and the Orang Lanta. The last, the Orang Lanta, are a hybridized group formed when the Malay people settled the Lanta islands where the proto-Malay Orang Sireh had been living.

The Burmese call the Moken Selung, Salone, or Chalome. In Thailand they are called Chao Ley (people of the sea) or Chao nam (people of the water), although these terms are also used loosely to include the Urak Lawoi and even the Orang Laut. In Thailand, acculturated Moken are called Thai Mai (new Thais).

The Moken are also called Sea Gypsies, a generic term that applies to a number of peoples in southeast Asia. TheUrak Lawoi are sometimes classified with the Moken, but they are linguistically and ethnologically distinct, being much more closely related to the Malay people.

Their knowledge of the sea enables them to live off its fauna and flora by using simple tools such as nets and spears to forage for food. What is not consumed is dried atop their boats, then used to barter for other necessities at local markets. During the monsoon season, they build additional boats while occupying temporary huts. Because of the amount of time they spend diving for food, Moken children are able to see better underwater due to accommodation of their visual focus.

Some of the Moken are still nomadic people who roam the sea most of their lives in small hand-crafted wooden boats called kabang, which serve not just as transportation, but also as kitchen, bedroom, and living area.