Photo Essay

Moken Sea Nomads

Often called sea nomads or sea gypsies, the Moken are seafaring people who have been living on the Andaman Sea in Thailand for centuries. Due to stricter border control, commercial overfishing, rapid development, and tourism, the Moken have gradually been forced to adopt a settled lifestyle. Today, the Moken who live in Koh Surin National Park—one of Thailand’s most remote group of islands—have it better than many of their kin. They are still able to live a lifestyle largely based on tradition and the sea. On these islands, it’s possible to see free-diving Moken men spearfishing in the water and groups of women foraging along the shores, tidal pools, and mud flats. According to Runar Jarle Wiik, Founder of Project Moken, the situation in Burma is worse; the Moken have been forced to seek refuge in Burmese villages due to piracy and harassment targeting women. 

Born on remote islands, the majority of Moken are stateless with little or no access to government services and protections, nor do they have any legal means to travel and visit family and traditional homelands in Myanmar. Alcoholism and listlessness are growing within the village. Additionally, most jobs available to the Moken are menial, low-paid, or extremely dangerous. Many young Moken men employed by commercial fishing boats have died while diving to plant explosives on the ocean floor.  The Moken of Surin currently hold onto their cultural roots, but Jao, a Moken elder, predicts that in ten years the traditional Moken life and ways will not exist anywhere on the planet.

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