There was a time when Moken robbed Moken, the villagers of Thailand’s Koh Phayam remember quietly. Known as Southeast Asia’s people of the sea, the ethnic Moken of Ranong Province share legends less than 40 years old of a leader known simply as Man, a notorious pirate who travelled by sea to nearby villages, stealing boats, rice and money—a small terror repeatedly striking the Andaman Coast before perishing in a shootout with authorities. In Thai, he earned the nickname Seua Man, or Man the Tiger, a reference to his stealth and ferocity.
There are still whispers among locals that Ao Khao Kwai, the long northwestern beach of Phayam Island, is cursed by its dark and bloody past. Meaning that “Buffalo Beach,” the coastal formation, geographically resembles the curved horns of the iconic Asian ox. But due to both the presence of diverse wildlife and the Thai tendency to refer to known criminals as seua, it is the tiger and not the buffalo that remains the creature most closely associated with the area.
Although rare sightings of tigers are still circulated in Moken stories, predators of the old guard are believed to have vanished from the area, hunted, like the pirates, to extinction. But the region’s reputation as an untamed and violent land persists, perhaps unfairly contributing to the isolation that both protects and plagues it today.
Several conditions contribute to the difficulties facing indigenous communities on the outer edge of Thailand’s least populated province. Poverty, illiteracy and marginalization torment the Moken and disrupt the rhythms of traditional life.
Ten years ago, it was during the commotion of reconstruction that followed the tsunami that missionaries from across Southeast Asia came with donations to assist Ranong’s Moken people, particularly those displaced on Koh Phayam. The community claims that it was fortunate not to have suffered any casualties in the disaster, but numerous families lost their fishing equipment when the massive wave struck the shore. Aid arrived in the form of pre-owned motorized boats and a newly constructed pier.
Yet the influx of aid, although at first welcomed, has encountered criticism regarding its sustainability. Krit, 42, now owns his own fishing boat, donated by missionaries. But like many of the secondhand boats gifted to the villagers, its motor deteriorated, effectively crippling Krit’s ability to fish independently. The boat now sits at the shore unused, settling into an indefinite wait for Krit to acquire enough money to repair the engine.
After the tsunami, for the first time in the community’s history, a generator even made its way to Moobaan Moken, where it was entrusted to local authorities. But after two days, it allegedly disappeared to receive “repairs.” It was never seen again.
The adversity of the region is also rooted in its unforgiving weather patterns; Ranong is arguably one of the wettest places on earth. Fon bet, det si, the locals say—rain for eight, sun for four—an allusion to the number of months relegated to the longest rainy season in Thailand, lasting two-thirds of the year. As a result of the downpours which strike as often as ten times per day, an unrelenting dampness permeates mattresses, clothes and walls of Moken homes. During the rains, social space is restricted to the squares of land sheltered by awnings, where women pass the daytime downpours together playing cards, gambling with small coins and smoking homemade cigarettes. Visitors note that clothes are rarely able to dry fully, and mold grows indiscriminately on walls and bedding. Many locals suffer from an ever-present cough and infected, unhealing cuts on feet that have long resisted the adoption of shoes or sandals.
As the sea’s harvests have decreased for small-scale fishermen, many young Moken men have been forced by circumstance into illicit and reluctant employment on illegal “fish-bombing” boats. By detonating homemade explosives underwater, more fish can be collected with less effort. Due to their adeptness at swimming and diving, young Moken are often recruited for and exploited in this dangerous practice, which promises income but is frequently accompanied by imprisonment, injury or death. Yad, of Ranong’s large northern island of Koh Chang, was one of the earliest such recruits. As a first generation crew member on a fish bombing boat, he lost part of his left arm when an explosive detonated prematurely in his hands, and he endured a gunshot to the leg when his boat was attacked in Burmese waters. Unable to receive proper medical treatment, he still walks with a significant limp.
Migrating within familiar seas, Tima and her husband, Goy, 32, left their home on Koh Lao for Koh Phayam hoping to earn a living net-fishing in the waters off of the island’s coast. Yet, like most Moken, they have found it a struggle to exist in the lawless and increasingly overfished waters between Thailand and Burma. Large commercial vessels often are visible combing the shallow azure coast, despite regulations requiring them to trawl in deeper waters.
Drug abuse also remains an ever-present tragedy in Moken communities. Tima, a young mother of four, survived an unhappy childhood on Koh Phayam’s island neighbor of Koh Lao; villagers claim she was sold for 500 baht (about 15 dollars) into domestic servitude by her parents, both of whom suffered from heroin addiction, which later claimed their lives.
“We don’t have any friends,” one fisherman explained, referring to the high casualty rates of addiction. “I grew up by myself. All my friends died at a young age.”
Perched on the tip of the buffalo’s westernmost horn, Moobaan Moken did not always exist in this corner of Phayam island. After the 2004 tsunami struck the entire Andaman coast, a scramble for land forced the approximately ninety Moken families of Koh Phayam out of their ancestral home on the northeastern peninsula of Ao Khao Kwai. They allege that the land was sold to make way for a rubber plantation. Some local men recall having to pound cement pillars into the earth which had held their village for generations, assisting—for minimum wage—in the construction of the dwellings desired by the land’s new inhabitants. Meanwhile, they and their families were left homeless.
With a prominent missionary presence now grounded in their community, many of the animist Moken have converted to Christianity. Some still remain resistant to such change. Awn, the oldest Moken in Koh Phayam, is in her nineties and still defiantly follows animist traditions of ancestor worship, refusing to attend the local church or visit the clinic on the island to address her spiritual or medical needs. “The devil is in me,” she instead offers as an explanation for her ailing health and growing fatigue.
Changes in infrastructure have permeated even the families’ personal living spaces as materials arrived to erect more modern houses of metal and concrete. Yet, perhaps somewhat symbolically, some Moken have rebuilt their traditional wooden houses next to the donated cement structures. Still others continue the nomadic tradition of spending months at sea, leaving their new homes unoccupied for much of the year. But without a permanent residence, it is difficult for Moken to earn Thai citizenship, which could provide better access to much-needed social services such as healthcare and education.
The battle to belong extends beyond the land. To many Thais, the Moken are still known not as one of the country’s ethnic nationalities, but simply as chao le, or “sea people.” For those who do manage to secure citizenship, the Moken are required to adopt Thai surnames. Even in this act, they have frequently reinforced their connection to the ocean by choosing names such as Talayluk, meaning “deep sea,” or Pramonkit—“fisherman.”
In an oral storytelling tradition maintained to pass on an unwritten history, it is unsurprising that the Moken trace their ancestry always to the water—from the Andaman islands to the Tanintharyi coast to the archipelagos dotting the Indian Ocean. They speak of the open sea, a transnational homeland predating the borders drawn between Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. The future of the Moken depends both on the health of the ocean from which they came and on the country to which they involuntarily belong. Like the tigers that now exist only in Koh Phayam lore, there is a fear that if their current crises continue to go unaddressed and unresolved, the Moken, too, could recede into the memories and legends of island history.
Villagers from Koh Phayam’s Moobaan Moken say that there was once a municipal budget for a bridge across the river which separates them from the rest of the island, but it remains unconstructed. On the other side of the river lies the nearest road—the only route to the clinic, school and market. It is up to the locals to fix the raft and rope when they are inevitably damaged by daily use. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Families on Koh Lao gather to clean and re-fold nets after returning from the first of two daily fishing trips out to sea. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Women disentangle and refold the men's fishing nets. The wetness of Ranong’s eight-month rainy season causes mold to grow seemingly everywhere—even this photographer’s well-stored film fell victim to the persistent damp which has become a part of life in Koh Phayam. ©Suracheth Prommarak
In the late afternoon, the Moken women of Koh Lao comb the shore for shellfish — searching for crabs and mussels — while the men cast their fishing nets at sea. Securing enough food for the evening meal has become a collective effort; competing with commercial fishing vessels for their catch, men often come home with empty nets. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Each morning, the women of Koh Lao’s Moken community wait for the men to return from the sea. The men’s success or failure to find fish determines whether or not the family will eat that day. Many Moken survive only one catch at a time. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Three Moken fishermen pose on the limbs of a fallen tree on the shore of Koh Phayam after a full day of fishing. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Even though her family has a permanent residence on Koh Phayam, this woman lives with her parents and sister aboard their boat during the rainy season; this allows them to be closer to the fish market located on the opposite side of the island from Moobaan Moken. ©Suracheth Prommarak
The oldest Moken in Koh Phayam, Awn is in her nineties and claims to have been once married to a pirate. She now spends her days waiting for her fisherman son, Krit, to return from the sea with his catch. ©Suracheth Prommarak
With new access to pre-packaged snacks and disposable items from Thai markets, the Moken struggle to manage the plastic waste and litter which accumulates in the waters around their houses that are built on stilts. ©Suracheth Prommarak
At 42, Krit is old enough to remember the pirates of Ao Khao Kwai. As a child, he recalls being asked to retrieve bullets for them from the village during violent conflicts at the shore. He is pictured here after an unsuccessful fishing trip on a friend’s boat, his net in array. ©Suracheth Prommarak
The most profitable and rare catch on the Andaman coast are lobsters, which can fetch a price of 700 baht/kilogram (about 20 dollars) in the island markets; on this day, one Moken fisherman netted three of them. That evening, he hid his find in Koh Phayam’s mangroves in order to keep the lobsters fresh for sale the following day. When he returned later to retrieve them, two had been stolen. The theft, he shrugged, was probably carried out by a fellow villager jealous of such a lucky catch. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Unsure of his age or date of birth, Amen can only remember his past through phases—the period he suffered through heroin addiction, the stage during which he fished with homemade explosives on the crew of a “bombing boat”, the years when he was imprisoned in Burma for illegally fishing in the country’s boundary waters. His body, missing an eye and multiple fingers, tells the story of a life etched with hardship. Today, Amen fishes off the coast of Koh Chang. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Children who attend the Thai public school commute by raft. Since they are the first Moken to attend government school, these children are the only members of the village who can read and write Thai. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Goy and Tima’s three older children wait by candlelight for their evening meal. The Moken village on Koh Phayam still has no electricity. ©Suracheth Prommarak
Story by Suracheth Prommarak and Sally Kantar.
Photography by Suracheth Prommarak.
Sally Kantar is a social justice educator and freelance journalist focused on Southeast Asia. Her written work has been featured in regional publications as well by as the University of San Diego's Women PeaceMakers Program. She holds an MA in Conflict Resolution from the University of Bradford and a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University.
Suracheth Prommarak was born in rural Chiang Rai, Thailand. He is nearing completion of an MSc in Sustainable Agriculture and works as a consultant photographer for UNICEF. His personal and commissioned work can be seen at surachethphotography.com. His prints have been exhibited in Thailand and Germany.