Ten most frequently asked questions about the Moken
1. Where are the Moken originally from? Are they related to the “Sakai” or “ngo pa” in Yala, Patthalung, Trang, or Satun?
Tracing back the history about ancient navigators and seafarers in Southeast Asia and about the language family, it may be presumed that the Moken (speakers of Austronesian language family) are Proto Malay, the earlier waves of people who migrated down to the Malay Peninsula. Later these people took to marine nomadic life and traveled along islands and coastal areas, from the Mergui Archipelago in present day Myanmar to the south and east in the Sulu Sea of the Philippines. Nowadays their nomadic life has been restraint, they have eventually been scattered thus forming several sub-groups.
The Moken and the Sakai (or endonym Maniq’) are not related. They are different in terms of physical features (please see photos). The Maniq’ are negritos whereas the Moken are Proto Malay.
Maniq’ and Moken languages are also different. The Maniq’ are speakers of Austroasiatic language family (Mon-Khmer) while the Moken are speakers of Austronesian language (Malayo-Polynesian).
The Moken are also different from the natives of Nicobar – Andaman Islands. There are several groups of native islanders, most of whom are negritos.
A moken (in light blue shirt) with Manig’(sakai) friends from Yala and Trang province.
2. How many groups of sea nomads or Chao Lay in Thailand?
Three groups –the Moken, the Moklen (whom the Moken call “Olang Tamub”) and the Urak Lawoi. Moken and Moklen languages are very close to each other, while Urak Lawoi language is closer to Bahasa and not mutually intelligible with the Moken and Moklen languages. The Moklen and the Urak Lawoi have settled down and acculturated that many become “Thai Mai” (New Thai).
Urak Lawoi village at Tuk-kae Cape, Phuket Province
Urak Lawoi village in Sanga-u, Krabi province
3. What is the meaning of “Moken”?
If we ask the Moken this question, the likely responses are : 1) Dunno (or in their language “dun”), 2) Dunno, and 3) Dunno. This is not meant to be funny at all. If the Thai people are asked about the meaning of “Siam”, they probably give similar response and add that “we should leave it to historian or anthropologist”.
Jacques Ivanoff, a French anthropologist, hypothesizes that the word “Moken” is from “lemo” (meaning sinking) and “Ken” the name of a female character in Moken’s myth. Ken took away her sister’s lover. Unfortunately her sister was a queen and in fierce anger, the queen banished Ken and her followers to become sea wanderers. If you would like to read about Moken’s myth and stories, then Rings of Coral should be an interesting book for you.
4. What is Moken’s religion?
The Moken are animists. They believe in spirits of the nature, and the spirits of their ancestors embodied in “lobong” poles. Their major ritual is an annual “ne-en lobong” or celebration of the spirit poles held on the full moon days of the fifth lunar month. The Moken will abstain from working for 3 days and 3 nights. They will feast, dance, sing, drink, and go into trance. The shamans will predict the community’s fate in the coming year.
This is an occasion for a big reunion. The Moken from far away islands will visit their friends and relatives and celebrate the days together. In this celebration, the Moken occasionally build miniature boat to float away their bad luck, similar to that of the Urak Lawoi in Phuket, Lanta and Lipeh. While the Urak Lawoi call their miniature boat “plajak”, the Moken call theirs “lajang”, but both aim at taking bad luck and sickness away from the community.
Modern “lobong” made for decorative purpose.
Traditional lobong and shrine
5. So where is zalacca boat?
Kabang or Moken boats we see now are made with planks and not zalacca wood (zalacca is a long small stem, similar to that of sugar can). These days the Moken use planks for their boat. A few zalacca kabang can only be seen in Moken communities in the upper Mergui Archipelago (in Myanmar). Zalacca wood last only 3-6 months, then the Moken have to redo the gunwales again. The dug-out part is very durable and can be passed on to the children. After the Moken adopt the use of planks, kabang becomes more heavy and outboard engine has to be used instead of pandanus sail.
Kabang with plank gunwales at the Surin Islands
Spirit ritual for village protection
6. What is Moken’s staple food?
In earlier days, wild yams, shoots, vegetables, and produce from the sea are their food. Rice was a special treat because it had to be bartered from elsewhere. After the Moken become involved in cash economy, then rice becomes their staple food because it can be kept and stored for a long time, unlike other food extracted directly from nature. The Moken sell their seashells and other sea produce to buy sacks of rice as a stock against difficult time during the southwest monsoon season.
Moken cuisine consists of boiling, grilling, frying, and stir-frying. If condiments and ingredients (such as chilli, shallot, garlic, lemon grass, fish sauce, sugar, etc.) are available, then they can add much taste to their “chobai” (dishes which accompany rice). Most Moken dishes are very (spicy) hot.
Nowadays, the Moken are fond of junk food such as instant noodle, factory-made snacks, and canned soda drinks. This food which is low in nutrition and high in additives and preservatives is not good for anyone, including the Moken. Worse yet, they are far away from (and sometimes inaccessible to) health care service. The children’s dental health is obviously deteriorating from this change of diet.
So, we shouldn’t add to this negative trend. If you would like to bring a gift to the Moken, please do it in the form of rice (uncooked, which can be kept for a long time), fresh fruits and vegetables, and dry (and healthy) food.
Crispy instant noodle, spiced up with condiments is a favorite treat for Moken children
7. Where else can we find the Moken?
Thousands of Moken live in islands in the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar. There they are called Selung or Selon. Presumably, the word is from “chalang” or “thalang” (derived from Junk Selon) the old name of Phuket which is the areas frequented by several groups of marine nomadic people in earlier days.
Canned Soda is another favorite treat
Tourists give candies and junk food to Moken children
8. What do the Moken do when they are sick?
The Moken have shamans who go into trance to ask for curing from spirits. The sick can go to these shamans and pay (cloth or money) only when the symptoms have been relieved. The Moken also use several kinds of herbal plants extracted from the forest. The Moken have midwives who still take care of all births in the community. Nowadays the Moken begin to adopt modern medicine so the knowledge about herbal plants is gradually forgotten.
A shaman makes holy water for the sick
9. In the village, there seems to be more men than women. Why?
The men are usually out at sea. Sometimes they go as far as islands in Myanmar to dive for fish, shellfish, and sea-cu***bers. So we generally see more men than women.
Also, the men have to risk their life in their marine endeavor, so their life span is relatively shorter than the women. On the Surin Islands, the number of female population is actually much larger than that of male.
Nowadays, some men become addicted to substance and drugs. In addition, they have to work harder to earn enough money to buy rice and necessities. So their life span becomes even more shorter. If you are somewhat empathetic to their situation, please do not bring cigarettes, liquor, beer, or any other health-threatening substance and make their life even shorter or more difficult than it is now.
Ao yai village full of Moken women and children
Moken mother bottle-feeds her small child
10. What nationality do the Moken hold?
On the Surin Islands, there are 4 - 5 Moken who hold Thai nationality and citizenship card. The rest are stateless beings and not protected under the Thai laws. The Thai government offices perceive the Moken as trans-border nomadic people so they did not proceed with citizenship grant. But actually this group of Moken have been on the islands before the establishment of the National Park in 1981. Many children were born here and feel the the Surin Islands are their home.
A moken child looks at the drawings in “We, the Sea People”