Ko Surin, Thailand (CNN) — These days, Salamak Klathalay, like most of us, lives in a house, on land. But this is a relatively new experience for the 78-year-old.
“As a kid, I lived on a boat part of the year and on land part of the year,” Salama tells me from his home on Ko Surin, an island-bound national park in Thailand’s south.
“We would go to land during the monsoon season to look for tubers. After that, we would go back to our boats.”
Salama is a member of Thailand’s Moken ethnic group.
Also known as the “sea gypsies” or Chao ley — Thai for “sea people” — the Moken lay claim to an astounding list of traits. They’re one of the only groups of humans who, traditionally, lived predominately at sea, in houseboats called kabana.
They can hold their breath for remarkably long periods of time. And their ability to see underwater is reportedly better than anybody else’s.
These skills were honed over centuries of nomadic living — sailing, hunting, and gathering among the islands of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago and Thailand’s upper Andaman Sea coast.
Tsunami forces Moken onto solid land
This unique lifestyle ended abruptly in 2005, after the previous year’s tsunami. The Moken emerged from the disaster almost entirely unscathed, relying on traditional knowledge that taught them to seek higher ground to avoid the wave, but the Thai government ordered them to relocate to solid land, in a makeshift village within Ko Surin National Park.
In the years since, Thailand’s Moken have, more or less, adapted to relatively modern life. The 315 people who make up the village live in simple wood and bamboo houses outfitted with solar panels and running water. And for the first time, they have access to a relatively regular source of income in the form of tourism.
“The village makes income from selling stuff to tourists or leading boat tours,” says Ngoey Klathalay (all Moken share the same surname), the village head, who tells me that on an average day as many as 100 people might visit his village.
A 2019 fire that wiped out half of the village was yet another devastating blow to the community. But the pandemic, which has closed Thailand’s doors to international tourism, stripping the Moken of what was virtually their only source of income, may prove to be an even greater challenge.
But if there’s one group that has the skills to survive in tough times, it’s undoubtedly the Moken.
“I don’t have a home! I’ve lived on this boat for two years now,” says Hook Klathalay, Ngoey’s brother, who estimates that he’s the only Moken in Thailand who lives on a boat full time.
At 35, Hook is among the last of the generation of Moken who grew up at sea. When he was five, his parents moved to land so he could get an education.
But as an adult, Hook felt the pull to return to a traditional Moken life, a journey that’s portrayed in the 2015 documentary, “No Word for Worry.”
For Hook, the first step in this process meant building a boat. Traditionally, Moken boats were hollowed out of massive logs, but national park rules prevent the Moken from cutting down trees.
So with financial assistance from the filmmakers, he designed a boat that blends Thai and Moken elements: built with planks and a longtail motor but also equipped with a Moken-style roof and a mast on which to raise the traditional pandanus leaf sail. The boat has seemingly served as an inspiration for other Moken, and in the years since, one more has been built.
“Other Moken told me that they want to live on a boat, in the ocean,” Hook says, adding that the pressures of the pandemic have also caused the Moken to reassess their way of living.
“They want to be free, like me.”
“We live day to day”
Spend some time on Hook’s boat and it doesn’t take long to see that his life revolves around the hunt. While we chat, he mends a net and lowers baited hooks into the water. One morning, I see him treading through shallow water with his son and a three-pronged spear, scanning for fish.
Another evening, in mid conversation, he leaps to the bow of his boat and casts a net into the water.
“As long as we have some rice, we can find the rest of what we need to live in the ocean,” says Hook, who estimates that the majority of the food that he and his family eat he catches himself.
Hunting is strictly prohibited in Thailand’s national parks, but officials have allowed the Moken to fish, hunt and gather if they use traditional methods, and only for their own consumption. This has proved to be a lifeline for the Moken during the pandemic.
“Covid has had a huge impact on the Moken,” Hook says. “Before, the Moken earned money by helping out on boats or doing odd jobs at the national park, but these jobs are gone now. And the Moken aren’t Thai citizens, so they don’t get any help from the government.”
To witness Moken-style self-sufficiency firsthand, I ask Ngoey to take me along on a hunting trip. We jump in a boat and he heads to a small, rocky outcrop where a handful of Moken are chipping away at shells with a knife-like metal tool, collecting fingernail-sized oysters.
Although bold, impressive feats such as spearfishing, exceptional underwater vision and the ability to hold one’s breath have come to dominate popular depictions of the Moken, it doesn’t take long to see that the bulk of the traditional Moken diet comes from the comparatively mundane gathering of items such as shellfish, crustaceans and small fish.
“We live day to day,” Ngoey says. “If we run out of food, we have to find more the next day; we don’t have refrigerators!”
The sea isn’t the only source of food for the Moken. On another day, I accompany Ngoey and his wife to a wooded island where we dig in the sandy soil for edible tubers.
In the days before rice was commonplace, taro and yams were the main source of carbs for the Moken. We return to the village with a type of tuber that the Moken call marung. Boiled and peeled, they have a texture and flavor that reminds me of water chestnuts.
“I haven’t eaten marung in 10 or more years!” Ngoey tells me, clearly feeling a sense of nostalgia.
Before leaving Ko Surin, I ask Ngoey how he thinks the Moken have fared during this time.
“Since Covid, our income has been reduced, but in my opinion, not by a lot; we’re not despairing, we’re not starving.
“For a long time, we didn’t depend on tourism, we’ve only had it for a few years. But we’ll always have the sea.”