Published: April 2005

Moken: Sea Gypsies of Myanmar

By Jacques Ivanoff
Photographs by Nicolas Reynard
Like the turtles of their rituals, the Moken spend much of their time submerged, both for work and play. Plastic goggles are now the fashion among these nomads, who used to carve their eye pieces from wood, then attach glass lenses from broken bottles with tree sap.

In island-dappled waters of the Andaman Sea, a nomadic way of life hangs in the balance.

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 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.

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.

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