Ramparts of shimmering rainforest tower above the island as we approach. Perched high on stilts along the shore of this Eden-like bay are some 20 palm-thatched huts, home to the Moken "sea gypsies” of Koh Surin.
The world became aware briefly of the Moken after the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand’s Andaman coast. The five tiny islands of the Mu Koh Surin archipelago are part of a marine national park just south of the Thai-Myanmar sea border and some 60 kilometres off Thailand’s west coast.
"The elders had told us that if the water recedes fast it will reappear in the same quantity as it disappeared," recalls Moken man, Sarmao Kathalay. As the ocean drew back dramatically on December 26, 2004 the Moken knew what would follow — a massive surge known as laboon, the "wave that eats people", that is supposedly brought on by the angry spirits of their ancestors. Thanks to their legend, by the time the huge surges hit Koh Surin the Moken had retreated to the hills.
The Moken are known in Thai as chao naam (people of the water) or chao lay (people of the sea), and in English by the romantic term “sea gypsies”. Their two villages, on isolated, pristine shorelines on North and South Surin islands, are well apart from North Surin’s busy tourist campground at Chong Khat Bay.
Many Moken men work seasonally in the national park, so those I find when I visit the village are either very young or old. Bare-breasted mothers sit in the sand playing cards. A man carves a model of the traditional Moken kabang houseboat to sell to tourists. The toy is a reminder of the Moken’s skills as celestial navigators and sea nomads — ways that are fast disappearing.
There’s a houseboat moored where we land. On board lives a family of five — three generations. Farther down the beach, an older man works on a brightly painted spirit totem pole that he is preparing for April’s law bong festival.
(pics John Borthwick, 2012)
Koh Surin is not an Eden in retreat. Since 1981 the islands have been a Thai marine national park where “development” has not been allowed to stamp its boot. The islands are dense with beauty both above and below the waterline. The reefs are a brainstorm of metaphor-defying colour, movement and sealife. Overlooking the sea is dense rainforest where macaques skitter through the canopy.
While their shamans and animist portents are still vital to the Moken, they can no longer hunt endangered hawksbill turtles, their children attend primary school, and their boats are driven by diesel not wind. For these once-nomadic fishers who presciently survived the tsunami, the shoals of contemporary life are a different and difficult battle.