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Sea gypsy, or Moken, villagers on a Thai island.

The story

I visited the the ‘sea gypsy’ village on South Surin, the second largest island of a small archipelago about 60 kilometres off the Thai mainland in the Andaman Sea, with a representative of children’s charity PLAN Thailand in 2011. The village is one of several scattered across Thailand’s coast and islands. The gypsies, or Moken, are one of four minority communities embraced within a framework (the others are in Pakistan, the Philippines and Laos) for protection and development of indigenous and isolated children drawn up by Plan.

The village lines the beach, hugging the shore right down to the water line. Groups of ladies wearing little else but long wraparound skirts and bras play cards on a plastic mat in the cavities under the stilted wooden huts, smoking rough roll-ups. A haze of smoke wafts across the rooftops and dogs lap and scamper around a man working away at a log with an axe. Another man is concentrating on his construction of a scaled-down fishing boat to sell to tourists. Painted totems planted in the sand greet visitors; the images they bear represent ancestral spirits.

Little boys run in and out of the water as if it were their natural element, jumping onto and diving from boats. Trash has accumulated behind the houses farthest from the shore, close to the edge of the jungle, but otherwise the bottles and other debris along the beach are waste from the mainland and passing fishing boats. Further along the beach, a woman is sweeping leaves and rubbish into a smouldering heap while a small boy dances in the smoke.

The exact origin of the Moken, variously proposed to be somewhere in China or the coasts of Burma, is still a matter of some debate – except among themselves. They are unconcerned about their own origins, knowing only that they have a tradition of living on boats and moving from island to island. These traditional boats, known as Kabangs, are roofed with canopies of pandanus leaves and their different sections are named after different parts of the body, from stomach to neck and shoulder.

A traditionally nomadic and nation-less people with their own language, customs and animist beliefs, these folk are generically referred to in Thailand as the Chao Lay and belong to three different groups – the Moken, the Moklen and the Urak Lawoi. Some 200 members of the Moken sub-group inhabit the Surin community and about half of these are children.

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The Moken villagers build their houses as close to the sea as they possible can – but they are not allowed to build them right over the water as they would wish.

Since 1981 the Surin Islands have been part of a National Park, the headquarters of which, with basic bungalow accommodation, a campsite and restaurant, are based on the larger north island. The numbers of tourists arriving on motor boats from the mainland town of Kuraburi are thus controlled and the island jungles and marine ecology are protected.

For the Moken, however, National Park status is a mixed blessing. “I’d like to build a house right over the sea instead of up on the beach, but the National Park won’t allow it,” says Ngei who heads a cooperative of villagers offering cultural tours to tourists. These include short Kabang boat rides and traditional spear fishing demonstrations in which floating leaves stand in for actual marine life – the National Park prohibits the actual killing of fish in this way – as well as jungle treks. A handful of village women take the long-tail boat across the straits between islands to work as cleaners in the Park headquarters – for a few euros a day.

“Our communities like to move from one location to another when the natural resources of a place – building materials for houses and boats, for example – are depleted. Those materials renew themselves naturally and we might move back when that has happened.”

Such nomadic behaviour is frowned on by the authorities, although the Moken affinity with the sea gained admiration and sympathy when the 2004 tsunami hit the Andaman coast of Thailand. Noticing the odd and sudden withdrawal of the sea from the shore, the Surin Moken evacuated themselves quickly to higher ground. Only one villager perished, although the village itself was wrecked.

The technical stuff

I shot the picture of the beautifully wrinkled old lady outside the village house using a Canon EOS5D Mark II and an L series 24-105 zoom, a combination that was my favourite all-round shooting set – and still would be were it not for the arrival of the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and its excellent lenses. The Canon cameras are excellent in every way – apart from their wearisome weight. The Fujifilm cameras are far from perfect but the quality of the images they produce is very good indeed – and they are so much lighter and more unobtrusive, which is what you want when shooting suspicious villagers on remote islands, for example. I still have all the Canon gear and there are times when nothing else will do – fast moving wild life and sport, for example. But I can see the time is not far off when I switch completely to smaller cameras. When I scour my archives I realise that my best work is of people and street situations, and the animals I shoot are all standing or sitting still in any case!

Small can be beautiful, and large, bulky camera equipment doesn’t necessarily have to be the BEST equipment! The big pro camera brands should be working harder and faster to produce light but robust systems.

The Moken village story is adapted from an article published in the Finnair inflight magazine Blue Wingsclick here to see the original.