Mergui, Myanmar – The Mergui Archipelago, which consists of more than 800 mostly uninhabited islands scattered off the coast of southern Myanmar, is home to the Moken people. This ethnic minority is thought to have left southern China around 4,000 years ago. They roamed the sea as far south as Malaysia before separating as a distinct cultural group in the late 1600s.
Sometimes referred to as “sea gypsies” – a broad term used to describe several cultures in Southeast Asia – the Moken have traditionally led a nomadic life and survived on what they can forage from the sea. Families live in a 10-metre-long “mother boat” known as kabang, behind which several small dugout canoes are towed.
Ten years ago, the Moken numbered 12,000 people. But today, the numbers of Moken living the nomadic life are thought to have declined to only about 2,000 due to overfishing, illegal trawling and blast fishing.
Hla Dal, a Moken in his early 20s, explains that he and his family abandoned their nomadic life two years ago. “Before we could catch a lot of squid and fill a basket with 20kg in a day. Now we can only manage 3kg in a day … We couldn’t afford to maintain our mother boat. It’s easier to fish from the village.”
The Mergui Archipelago receives few tourists, and was only opened to foreigners in 1996. Last year, 12 licenses to develop resorts were granted for the area, including one on Kyun Philar, which is scheduled to open in 2016. This, combined with commercial fishing, represents perhaps the biggest threat to the Moken way of life.