The Moken (also Mawken or Morgan; Burmese: ဆလုံ လူမျိုး; Thai: ชาวเล, romanized: chao le, lit. 'sea people') are an Austronesian people of the Mergui Archipelago, a group of approximately 800 islands claimed by both Burma and Thailand. Most of the 2,000 to 3,000 Moken live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle heavily based on the sea, though this is increasingly under threat.

Moken people, also Mawken or Morgan
ဆလုံလူမျိုး / ชาวเล
Moken girl
Total population
~2000 (2013)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Moken, Thai, Burmese, others
Traditional religion, Buddhism
Related ethnic groups
Malay, Orang laut

The Moken identify in a common culture, and speak the Moken language, a distinct Austronesian language. Attempts by both Burma and Thailand to assimilate the Moken into the wider regional culture have met with very limited success. However, the Moken face an uncertain future as their population decreases and their nomadic lifestyle and unsettled legal status leaves them marginalized by modern property and immigration laws, maritime conservation and development programs, and tightening border policies.[3][4][5][6]


The people refer to themselves as Moken. The name is used for all of the Austronesian speaking tribes who inhabit the coast and islands in the Andaman Sea on the west coast of Thailand, the provinces of Satun, Trang, Krabi, Phuket, Phang Nga, and Ranong, up through the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar. The group includes the Moken proper, the Moklen (Moklem), the Orang Sireh (Betel-leaf People), and the Orang Lanta. The last, the Orang Lanta, are a hybridized group formed when the Malay people settled the Lanta islands where the proto-Malay Orang Sireh had been living.

The Burmese call the Moken "selung", "salone", or "chalome".[7] In Thailand they are called "chao le" ("people of the sea") or "chao nam" ("people of the water"), although these terms are also used loosely to include the Urak Lawoi and even the Orang Laut. In Thailand, acculturated Moken are called "Thai mai" ("new Thais").

The Moken are also called sea gypsies, a generic term that applies to a number of peoples in Southeast Asia. The Urak Lawoi are sometimes classified with the Moken, but they are linguistically and ethnologically distinct, being much more closely related to the Malay people.[8][9]

Way of Life

Their knowledge of the sea enables them to live off its fauna and flora by using simple tools such as nets and spears to forage for food. What is not consumed is dried atop their boats, then used to barter for other necessities at local markets. For most of the year, the Moken live on their boats called kabang, which serve not just as transportation, but also as kitchen, bedroom, and living area. In monsoon season, however, which falls between the months of May and October, they set temporary camps on the mainland. During the monsoon season, they build additional boats and forage for food in the forest.

Some of the Burmese Moken are still nomadic people who roam the sea most of their lives; however, much of their traditional life, which is built on the premise of life as outsiders, is under threat.[10]

Aside from ancestor worship, the Moken have no religion.[11]

Underwater Sight

Moken children have been found to see better underwater than European children. A Swedish scientist, Anna Gislen, theorized that this was due to constriction of their pupils and accommodation of their visual focus.[12][13] She tested this theory on seventeen Moken children and eighteen European children through sessions involving testing of underwater vision. Gislen's experiment affirmed her hypothesis, and she further discovered that European children could train themselves to develop this same trait. After eleven training sessions over one month, these European children developed underwater visual acuity equal to the Moken children's. At the same time, Gislen also documented that the European children sustained temporary eye irritation ("red eyes") as a result of their underwater dives, unlike the Moken children.[12] Gislen's work highlights that both environmental/behavioral conditioning and evolutionary adaptation are involved in the reported phenomenon of extraordinary aquatic vision in Moken children.

Members of another "sea gypsy" group, the Sama-Bajau, appear to have a number of genetic adaptations to facilitate a lifestyle involving extensive freediving.[14]

Governmental control

The Burmese and Thai governments have made attempts at assimilating the people into their own culture, but these efforts have met with limited success. Thai Moken have been permanently settled in villages located in the Surin Islands (Mu Ko Surin National Park),[15][16] in Phuket Province, on the northwestern coast of Phuket Island, and on the nearby Phi Phi Islands of Krabi Province.[17]

The Andaman Sea off the Tenasserim coast was the subject of keen scrutiny from Burma's regime during the 1990s due to offshore petroleum discoveries by multinational corporations including Unocal, Petronas and others. Reports from the late-1990s told of forced relocation by Burma's military regime of the sea gypsies to mainland sites. It was claimed most of the Salone had been relocated by 1997, which is consistent with a pervasive pattern of forced relocation of suspect ethnic, economic and political groups, conducted throughout Burma during the 1990s.

In Thailand, the Moken have been the target of land grabs by developers contesting their ownership of ancestral lands. Although sea gypsies have resided in Thailand's Andaman coastal provinces for several centuries, they have historically neglected to register official ownership of the land due to their ignorance of legal protocol.[11]


There is much speculation as to the historical origins of the Moken people. It is thought that, due to their Austronesian language, they originated in Southern China as agriculturalists 5000-6000 years ago. From there, the Austronesian peoples dispersed and settled various South Asian Islands. It is theorized that the Moken were forced off of these coastal islands into a nomadic lifestyle on the water due to rising sea levels.

2004 Indian Ocean tsunami

The islands the Moken inhabit received much media attention in 2005 during the recovery from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. As they are keenly attuned to the ocean, the Moken in some areas knew the tsunami that struck on 26 December 2004 was coming and managed to preserve many lives.[18] However, in the coastal villages of Phang Nga Province, like Tap Tawan, the Moken suffered severe devastation to housing and fishing boats in common with other Moken communities.[19]

See also


  1. "The lost world: Myanmar's Mergui Islands". Financial Times. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  2. David E. Sopher (1965). "The Sea Nomads: A Study Based on the Literature of the Maritime Boat People of Southeast Asia". Memoirs of the National Museum. 5: 389–403. doi:10.2307/2051635.
  3. Some classifications do not include Moken under the Malayan languages, or even under the Aboriginal Malay group of languages. "Ethnologue report for Moken/Moklen" Ethnologue. Moken is considered part of, but isolated within the (Nuclear) Malayo-Polynesian family, displaying no particular affinities to any other (Nuclear) Malayo-Polynesian language. Moreover, it has undergone strong areal influence from neighbouring Mon–Khmer languages, comparable to, but apparently independently from the Chamic languages.
  4. "'The ocean is our universe' - Survival International". Survivalinternational. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  5. "The Moken of Burma and Thailand". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  6. "The Moken". Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  7. Anderson, John (1890). The Selungs of the Mergui Archipelago. London: Trübner & Co. pp. 1–5.
  8. "Urak Lawoi'". Ethnologue.
  9. Dr. Supin Wongbusarakum (December 2005). "Urak Lawoi of the Adang Archipelago, Tarutao National Marine Park, Satun Province, Thailand". Archived from the original on 2006-06-28.
  10. "The South Asian monsoon, past, present and future". The Economist (online: free registration or subscription). June 29, 2019. pp. 45-46 (two sentences). Retrieved 20 August 2019. Their boat-dwelling descendants live on as the Moken, Orang Suku Laut and Bajau Laut. Today they are marginalised, subjected to ever-tightening pressure by the state to respect borders and come ashore.
  11. Na Thalang, Jeerawat (12 February 2017). "Sea gypsies turning the tide". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  12. Gislén, A.; Dacke, M.; Kröger, R.H.H; Abrahamsson, M.; Nilsson, D.-E.; Warrant, E.J. (2003). "Superior Underwater Vision in a Human Population of Sea Gypsies". Current Biology. 13 (10): 833–836. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00290-2.
  13. Travis, J. (2003-05-17). "Children of Sea See Clearly Underwater". Science News. 163 (20): 308–309. Retrieved 2018-05-06.
  14. Ilardo, M. A.; Moltke, I.; Korneliussen, T. S.; Cheng, J.; Stern, A. J.; Racimo, F.; de Barros Damgaard, P.; Sikora, M.; Seguin-Orlando, A.; Rasmussen, S.; van den Munckhof, I. C. L.; ter Horst, R.; Joosten, L. A. B.; Netea, M. G.; Salingkat, S.; Nielsen, R.; Willerslev, E. (2018-04-18). "Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving in Sea Nomads". Cell. 173 (3): 569–580.e15. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2018.03.054.
  15. "Environmental, social and cultural settings of the Surin Islands".
  16. ""Mu Ko Surin National Park" National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, Bangkok, Thailand". Archived from the original on June 27, 2014.
  17. Bauerlein, Monika (November 2005) "Sea change: they outsmarted the tsunami, but Thailand's sea gypsies could be swept away by an even greater force" Mother Jones 30(6): pp. 56–61;
  18. Leung, Rebecca (25 December 2005). "Sea Gypsies See Signs In The Waves". 60 Minutes. CBS News.
  19. Jones, Mark (6 May 2005). "Thailand's fisherfolk rebuild after tsunami". Reuters.

Further reading

  • Bernatzik, H. A., & Ivanoff, J. (2005). Moken and Semang: 1936–2004, persistence and change. Bangkok: White Lotus. ISBN 974-480-082-8
  • Ivanoff, J. (2001). Rings of coral: Moken folktales. Mergui archipelago project, no. 2. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press. ISBN 974-7534-71-1
  • Ivanoff, J. (1999). The Moken boat: symbolic technology. Bangkok: White Lotus Press. ISBN 974-8434-90-7
  • Ivanoff, J., Cholmeley, F. N., & Ivanoff, P. (1997). Moken: sea-gypsies of the Andaman Sea, post-war chronicles. Bangkok: Cheney. ISBN 974-8496-65-1
  • Lewis, M. B. (1960). Moken texts and word-list; a provisional interpretation. Federation museums journal, v.4. [Kuala Lumpur]: Museums Dept., Federation of Malaya.
  • White, W. G. (1922). The sea gypsies of Malaya; an account of the nomadic Mawken people of the Mergui Archipelago with a description of their ways of living, customs, habits, boats, occupations, etc. London: Seeley, Service & Co.
  • White, W. G. (1911). An introduction to the Mawken language. Toungoo: S.P.G. Press.
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