Sea Gypsies in Phuket

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Phuket Sea Gypsies

Sea Gypsies
moken-picture by the mergui archipelago projectThe oldest and most interesting inhabitants of Phuket are the Sea Gypsies, or Chao Le in Thai language. (Chao=people; Le=from thale=sea). They settle in one bay until all the resources there are finished and move on to another bay so giving the nature time to recover. But there is no written history about their whereabouts and culture. The only thing we know is that they lived as nomads without a permanent residence and without writing utensils. Some say they come from former Malay colonies fleeing Burma from the Muslim invasion. Others say they be descended from the Indian Vedas. The Sea Gypsies are split in three ethnic groups - the Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi - which speak different languages. While the Moken still live as nomads, mostly in the northern islands of Phuket, the Moklen and Urak Lawoi settled down at the coastlines of Phuket. By now there are three settlements on Phuket. The oldest one is at Rawai and frequently visited by tourists. Another one is 8 k.m. north of Phuket Town at Saphan Bay and the third is located at Siray Island which can be reach by a bridge connecting the island to Phuket. Until know they are still working as fisherman or pearl divers and some collect bird nests which are a delicacy for soup. Other income comes from the tourists which visit their villages daily. moken-picture by the mergui archipelago project

Today they have their own language and own religion - the animism. The legends say they brought their dead people to so-called "death islands" where their souls live forever. Two times a year they celebrate the most important ritual in animism the "Loy Ruea" festival. Small wooden boats are released into the sea carrying presents, fingernails, hair and miniature weapons to please the ghosts of the sea and the souls of the dead so the Sea Gypsies can live in peace and happily. Another highlight in their lives is the yearly hunting of sea turtles to eat their flesh. The legend says that a woman of the Sea Gypsies changed to a sea turtle but with a human face. Since then the Sea Gypsies worship the sea turtles as sisters of the human kind. And only for this festivals it is granted to hunt and eat the sea turtles. For their daily living the Sea Gypsies barely use money - they just exchange minerals, shells, oysters, snake house and other things for what they need. If they get access to money they usually buy rice, eggs sweets or tobacco. The settlements of the Sea Gypsies give you an insight in an ancient culture - free, colorful, without crime and police - and everybody is very welcome to visit them for a chat, a game of pool or to buy a fish or some of their handicrafts.