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,” Salamak 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.”
Salamak 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 kabang. 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.
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 a 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.