The Last Nomads

Islands Magazine – July/August 2007

The silver-haired Salama inhales deeply and watches the horizon. He’s about to tell me a story, one he learned from his father, Surin Island’s last great shaman. “A long time ago the couple Eboom and Ebam were traveling by boat and met a stranger,” he said as I sat near him on the stretch of white sand. “This stranger begged for passage, but the lovers would not help him. They were afraid that the boat would break with a third person. So this stranger cursed the couple to wander forever, to live day to day and to store nothing.” According to this creation legend, the Moken people — the last self-sufficient community of sea gypsies left in Thailand — are the direct descendents of Eboom and Ebam. Me, being a bit of a nomad myself — obsessed with travel and cursed with poor accounting habits — I wonder if perhaps I’m not related to Eboom and Ebam. But mostly I’m intrigued by the fact that, to Salama, this story is still alive. It drives everything about his lifestyle, and that of the people he knows and loves. So it isn’t surprising that their stories actually saved lives.

The Moken people first caught my attention after the 2004 tsunami. Their village on South Surin island in the Andaman Sea was wiped out, and yet they had no casualties. They escaped to the mountains because their legends about the seasonal patterns of the sea primed them to notice nature’s signs. Since I live in Los Angeles, where nature’s voice is drowned out by the roar of cars, this amazed me — although it wasn’t that long ago when I would hike to a peak in the Santa Monica Mountains and sit for hours, wanting so badly to tap into the great mystery that there were times I swore I could feel nature’s rhythms and read its signs. But as the years have worn on I’ve lost that connection, and my culture lacks the stories and legends to lead me there. It was time to tune back in. The Moken, who seemed to be connected to the earth in a profound way, were exactly the kind of people I needed to meet.

It wasn’t easy for me to get to Surin Island, part of a five-island archipelago off the west coast of Thailand. I took a six-hour bus ride from Phuket to the port town of Khuarburi, and a three-hour ferry ride to Mo Ku Surin National Park Headquarters on North Surin, a turtle-shaped isle covered in rainforest and fringed with coral. When I arrived, the park had just re-opened after six months of monsoons (an annual closure), and Thai tourists were flooding in. I stuffed my things in a rented tent and returned to the jetty, hoping to hitch over to the Moken village on South Surin across a channel. But the National Park staff discouraged me. “Go snorkeling,” they said. “Do some trekking,” they insisted. That’s precisely why Thai mainlanders come. But I had come to meet the Moken.

So I waited, hoping someone would pass. Thankfully, a young Moken man arrived in a boat to buy cigarettes on North Surin. Perhaps it was the cash I flashed but I’d like to believe that he offered me a ride as a make good for Eboom and Ebam’s lack of hospitality. Ten minutes later I waded ashore on South Surin near a village that had about 50 stilted, bamboo and palm-thatch huts.

I walked down the stretch of cotton-white sand next to a perfect turquoise cove with a big smile plastered across my face, but nobody looked me in the eye. I stopped at the end and sat on a log. Nearby a young, chiseled Moken man was cutting wood for a boat. Being nomads, the Moken have no word for hello or goodbye, so we nodded at each other.

Ngui had a calm in his eyes that I immediately appreciated. I struck up a conversation, asking him questions. He opened up, describing an island-hopping childhood that sounded a lot like a Huck Finn fantasy. Six months of the year were spent on South Surin, the tribal homeland, but when the dry season hit, his family traveled in kabang caravans, 10-boats strong — each of these traditional, slower moving houseboats, with braided bamboo roofs and zalaca palm hulls, carried uncles, aunts and cousins but left no room for storage.

“Sometime we stop on islands [off Burma, where other Moken tribes are based] to get fresh water or trade for rice,” he said.

“But you can’t go there now, right?” I asked considering the border that is now tightly enforced.

He smiled and said, “I went last year. Easy to go there in kabang.” He pointed to one nestled in the sand, the first post-Tsunami vessel (all others were destroyed in 2004). “I just have to pretend I live there.”

“You know,” I said cautiously, “I’m interested in your legends.” He stared back blank. “Like the one that protected the Moken from the tsunami,” I continued. “Do you know it?”

He shook his head and took a drag from his smoke. “You need to meet Salama. He knows better. He saved us from the tsunami.”

The next day Ngui picked me up from my campsite on North Surin. This time village life was in full bloom. Bare-breasted women watched over naked children. Elders played cards and chewed the betel nut that stains their teeth. Men built boats in the sand. There were about 200 Moken in the village. Ngui thought we’d find Salama at the end of the beach. Indeed, the silver-haired shaman’s son was hunched over in the shade, shaping the hull of a kabang.

Salama carries the knowledge of many legends passed down from his father. One called Laboon describes seven waves that come every other generation and destroy everything in their path, but it includes the warning signs — an absence of birds, a silence of the cycads, a receding sea — that enabled Salama and his community to anticipate the tsunami and avoid a single casualty. But today, he’d rather tell a sweet folktale about the tears of a fish. “Take a tear and touch it on another and you will make them fall in love with you. It’s true,” he said. “I used it on my wife.”

I ask about the design of the boat he’s carving and it is then that Salama shares with me the creation story of Eboom and Ebam. The design of the kabang is based on the boat in that story.

Ngui says that the two colorful totems down the beach are depictions of the old couple and when the Moken pray to ancestral spirits for guidance and fall into trance to give thanks or see the future, they use Eboom and Ebam as portals. These people are forever linked to the misguided travelers.

On my last morning that I spend with the Moken, Ngui takes me to his favorite reef, 600 feet off the southeast coast of South Surin. Color pops and fish are everywhere. A large majestic spotted eagle ray soars toward me. I come up for air, a tad nervous, and Ngui laughs. I’m a decent swimmer, but he learned to swim before he could walk – he’s practically amphibious, and evidently my snorkeling skills do not impress. When he free dives, he glides through the water effortlessly and surfaces with a self-assured look in his eye that I’ve seen in others here. It must come from living with nature and weathering her trials, or maybe it’s because the Andaman Sea is in their bones. It’s a look of connection with nature, and at this moment I’m feeling it too. I guess this is why the Moken have no word for goodbye. It makes moments like this never end.

– Adam Skolnick