The Moken are related to other ‘sea gypsy’ peoples inhabiting island archipelagos all the way to the Philippines. Their language appears unrelated to any other, and their real origin is unknown. Some experts believe it was the ancestors of the Moken who drew the paintings found in caves in Phang Nga Bay and at other locations. There is a lot of conjecture and little concrete information about their origins and history.
The Moken are without doubt the masters of the sea, able to forage a living from it by exploiting an amazing number of organisms here. During their seven or eight months at sea each year those still living traditionally wander from island to island in groups of a half dozen or more boats, each holding one family, usually of three generations.
They use nets, traps and spears to catch fish and other creatures, and spend a lot of time diving with primitive gear. In this manner they collect or spear shells, sea cucumbers, lobsters and any other marine organism they can find. Some is for their own consumption, the rest for sale in town markets where they come from time to time to buy rice, cooking oil, fuel, nets, cooking utensils and the few others bits and pieces their simple lives require.
The thatched roofs of their boats are often covered with fish, sea cucumbers, squid and other sea produce being dried for market.
During the monsoon from June to October the Moken move ashore, building temporary huts from poles, bamboo and grass at the back of remote beaches. During this time they repair and build boats, while still prying a living from the surging, inhospitable ocean.
Thailand’s Moken have been settled into permanent villages, two of which are found on Phuket, with another on Phi Phi. These villages are poor, dirty and bathed in an atmosphere of depression. Some uncaring companies use the Moken village at Rawai as a human zoo, bussing in tourists to gawk and point cameras at the sunburnt, scrappily dressed people.
The children beg from the tourists, even grabbing things from them. It is the sight of a people dispossessed of their traditions and dignity. Government officials have tried to draw the Moken children into school, an effort that has been largely unsuccessful. As soon as conditions are right for fishing the children desert the classroom to join their parents at sea.
Only in the Mergui archipelago of Myanmar are Moken found living their traditional life in boats at sea. The myriad islands here shelter perhaps a few thousand of them. Here again the authorities have begun an effort at settling Moken into a permanent village at Pu Nala island.