Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Moken

Today I'd like to talk about the Moken; unusual people who live on the seas in Asia. They are often called "Sea Gypsies" because they live on the water for 8 months out of every year. They only build shelters on land to wait out the monsoon season, when the waters are too violent to live upon.

I was always a fan of the concept behind Waterworld (though the movie stank) and I read a fantastic SciFi book years ago about a culture that lived only on the water. Perhaps that is why this culture seems so charming.

The Moken live an easygoing life. They are very poor, owning only the basic necessities of life. It keeps them safe from pirates and predators, and allows them to be very mobile.

Their food is caught daily and it's all from the sea; sandworms, crabs, fish, turtles, and anything else edible which comes their way. (I must admit, I cringed a little when I learned that they eat turtles because I love turtles so much. The sandworms I could deal with, as long as they were fried and salted).

They're a primitive culture with animistic beliefs, although they've been exposed to other religions. At one time, there were thousands of Moken, but now they've been reduced to only a thousand or less.

The Moken are a dying breed. Right now there are efforts to raise money in order to supplement their lifestyle, but is that the right thing to do? Something that once worked, works no more. Perhaps we should let nature take it's course and allow the Moken to die out through attrition.

Yet, it's the magical charm of this lifestyle which appeals to so many of us who have grown beyond such simple things, and it's the pull of a life on the water that reaches out to the adventurer in us.

Below are some photos which I found of the Moken people. As you can see, it's a completely different world and, in some ways, a better one.

Sadly, there are governments that are trying to force the Moken to settle down. The Thais have created a "reservation" where their Moken have been grounded and forced to live on land. As Erik Rogers writes, "Alcoholism is rampant, children have traded timeless customs and survivial instincts for candy, Coca Cola, and DVDs, and most of the villagers looked lost, destitute, and most notably bored. It’s like every American Indian reservation I’ve ever spent time in."


Ed Abbey said...

Saur said, "Right now there are efforts to raise money in order to supplement their lifestyle, but is that the right thing to do? Something that once worked, works no more. Perhaps we should let nature take it's course and allow the Moken to die out through attrition."

I've been thinking the same thoughts about the people of New Orleans and all along the gulf coast.

Grant said...

Very interesting, although I agree with you that they should be allowed to fade out gracefully instead of being forcibly maintained, especially on reservations.

mckay said...

excellent social studies post that proves i really do learn something new every day :0)

not a fan of reservations or government intervention.


EmmaSometimes said...

I second Ed regarding New Orleans.

The government has other worries besides these very interesting people. Thank you for shedding light on their culture.

I've also posted something you will enjoy.

Have a super Thursday...

Senor Caiman said...


Excellent post.

I've always dreamed of being a Moken. What a great life that would be. I'd probably take out a loan for a more substantial boat though and I'd want a chef on board too. A hot chef would be even better.

The Lazy Iguana said...

If they are so poor - how do they afford those boats? The word "boat" and "poor" do not go together, except when used in a sentence like this:

I am too poor to afford anything larger than a 25 foot boat as I only make $120,000 a year.

FruitfulSpirit said...

How sad to tie down such a wonderful culture and way of living! I think they should be allowed to continue in the way they have and let evolution take over. Why do we assume that everyone needs to be at the same modern fast pace we are!

R2K said...

I love that, and it reminds me of a similar group. I cant remember the name, but they build their own islands to live on in the water. They use moss and plants from the water to create floating islands. I suppose land isnt that common there so they have to. Anyway, I think when a man and woman marry, they get their own island built by the group. Seems great.

Some Random Girl said...

sad but it's called cultural evolution. it happens. unfortunately.

KristieD said...

ahhh, to live a simpler life, thats what we all want, isnt it? I think it is just the way of the world for these kinds of peoples to fade out. I think it is unfortunate, but inevitable.

AP3 said...

Very interesting post, Saur.

Rabbit, rabbit! Woo hoo! Lagomania!

exMI said...

I expect one of the reasons they are dying out is becasue governments of area countries are forcing them on to land. Governments hate nomads, they don't respect boundries and are very hard to tax.
As for their boats, I am willing to bet the build them. Which of course causes other problems becasue they land on some island and cut down the trees which the locals don't like. And of course the enviroment fanatics will be all upset aobut them dumping their waste into the sea and eating endangered species.
Unfortunetly they are doomed. But it would be nice to get a boat and go join them. Or maybe make our own tribe.....

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for showing me your site when you came into the gallery today and in helping choose a topic for my research paper. I was wondering if you knew of an acedemic literature written on the Moken that I might be able to look at? My paper needs to be on any myths, symbolisms or taboos the Moken have. You can email me at:, any help is greatly appreciated, Megan