It is an elder named Gatcha who allows me on his family's boat and listens to my plea to join them. I have a long history here: My father, Pierre Ivanoff, worked with the Moken starting in 1957, and I reestablished that relationship in 1982, several years after his death. I tell Gatcha that I've lived among his people, that I befriended their greatest shaman and recorded hours of his myths and tales that I wish to share. When Gatcha finally offers me a plate of betel nuts, I know he has accepted me.
"The Moken are born, live, and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea," goes an epic of the Moken. For eight to nine months a year they live aboard their low-slung kabang—punishment, according to the myth, laid upon the society by an ancestral island queen, Sibian, when her husband, Gaman the Malay, committed adultery with her sister. The queen declared that the kabang would represent the human body, with the front of the boat a mouth constantly seeking nourishment and the back an anus for defecation.
As divers and beachcombers the Moken take what they need each day—fish, mollusks, and sandworms to eat; shells, sea snails, and oysters for barter with the mostly Malay and Chinese traders they encounter. They accumulate little and live on land only during the monsoons.
The wave troughs look immense from the kabang, but Puket—one of Gatcha's seven children—sits in the stern calmly smoking his pipe amid the exhaust of the motor. Puket and another son, Jale—a mighty spear fisherman—and a daughter named Iphim, a childless widow, travel with their father most of the time. This family, like all Moken, poses little threat to others sharing these waters. Apolitical and nonviolent, Moken keep to themselves except when trading, usually on the move in flotillas of seven or more kabang belonging to an extended family. Still, our lone vessel is stopped by a Burmese military boat disguised as a trawler. Fortunately, we are sent on our way without incident, and Puket even manages to beg a few fish and some liquor by flattering the officials.
But it is not always so. The Moken have been exploited and harassed throughout history by the British, Japanese, Thai, and Burmese alike. They've been stopped to pay taxes, driven away by illegal fishermen, forced to work in mines and on farms, prohibited from vital trading areas, jailed for lacking permits, even turned into opium addicts by merchants to keep them dependent. Recently the Myanmar government, following Thailand's lead, has tried to settle the Moken permanently in a national park as a tourist attraction.