Published: April 2005

Moken

Man Starfish

Sea Gypsies of Myanmar

The world is closing in on the Moken way of life.

By Jacques Ivanoff
Photograph by Nicolas Reynard

On the horizon we see them, their flotilla of small hand-built boats, called kabang, like a mirage beneath the setting sun. They are wary of strangers: At our approach they split up and scatter. We close in on one boat, and I call out reassuring words in their language. The boat slows and finally stops, rolling on the swell in heavy silence. I jump aboard, a privileged trespasser and rare witness to another world.

That world belongs to the Moken, a nomadic sea culture of Austronesian people who likely migrated from southern China some 4,000 years ago, and, moving through Malaysia, eventually split off from other migrant groups in the late 17th century. Their home is the Mergui Archipelago, some 800 islands scattered along 250 miles (400 kilometers) of the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar (formerly Burma). For decades piracy and Myanmar's military dictatorship kept outsiders away. With special permits to work in the area, I too am a nomad on these waters, having followed the Moken for years to hear their stories and learn more about their culture.

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