The old man and the sea, and his granddaughter

by Father Joe Maier

The Moken people might struggle to eke out a living, but their spirits - like those of the sea - endure

It's true. The kids do swim and wade in water up to their neck to school when the tides are in. And they love it. Stilt houses on the shore have no connecting bridge so they swim the 50 metres - clothes and books held dry above their heads with one hand.

Great fun for 7-year-old Miss Jhin and the other children. Not every day, but according to the tides. And cameras. The tide had gone down and a boat arrived from the mainland with the camera lady - not the regular morning boat bringing the teachers and fresh food to cook for the school breakfast and midday meals.

Miss Jhin's favourite teacher, the one she trusted the most, Ms Phrong, introduced her kindergarten class to the camera lady from the government census office. Miss Jhin pulled her shirt over her face: "No Way! No pictures! I don't' trust anybody that much!" She was absolutely certain - no doubt - for sure - that she'd be captured in the camera and would not be able to get out. She didn't know why or how, but she just knew. Just like the television: how did they get out of the picture? But she suggested to the camera lady that she take not just one but several pictures of her four-year-old brother. She didn't dare giggle as she told her this wonderful idea!


Miss Jhin spoke mostly in Thai, but switched over to her native Moken tongue when she couldn't think of the Thai words. Her island is Koh Lao, 30 minutes by the fast long-tail boats the sea gypsies use off the Ranong Wharf in southwest Thailand. That's home now, on the land; no longer does she live in a boat on the sea.

Miss Jhin was born on the high seas in a traditional Moken boat in the traditional way. She was born with the spirits of the seas protecting her. She is a Thai-born Moken sea gypsy; she doesn't have full Thai citizenship, but she is "recognised".

She cannot leave Ranong province without permission, but citizenship will come in time. And right now, she's finishing a full year of kindergarten. She can read and write Thai and do her sums and count in Moken, Thai and English.

Miss Jhin and her family are caught in a time warp. Nowadays, the big commercial boats scour the waters with nets. The fish are no longer that plentiful. The Moken fishermen get the leftovers. Faced with starvation they must work as hired hands. Their knowledge of Thai is weak and their Moken language is only spoken, not written. They have no words for land ownership. Their language is of the seas and the tides and the movement of the fish. Citizenship documents for them are just the beginning. They have no recourse against the "land folk".

She lives with her grandfather, who she calls Uncle Sri-dhit. He walks with her each morning to the kindergarten when they don't have to swim and tells her about turtles and how they are sacred. Moken sea gypsy belief holds that the turtle is the most sacred of all living creatures, equal to humans. She once asked him why and he told her: "It just is". Uncle Sri-dhit is their headman on Koh Lao. His face embodies 500 ocean squalls and uncountable dawns and sunsets on the water. It features pain lines of unbelievable hardship and the human damage of 30 years of freestyle deep ocean diving.

He no longer takes his crew to sea. The recent death of his only son broke his spirit. His son was paralysed by the bends. It took three years for the condition to kill him. They buried him facing east in a shallow grave in the mangroves on a nearby island. Twice a week, at school, Uncle Sri-dhit leads the prayers in Moken for the spirits of the seas to protect them all each day. Then it's story time. He tells them of days gone by - of their culture and customs.

Memories are of the seas: The men diving, freestyle. A long rope with one end tied to the boat has a wicker basket at the other end to collect sea cucumbers. A long garden hose is tied around the diver's waist for breathing. It is connected to an old fashioned bicycle pump manually operated by a man in the middle of the Moken boat. The middle of the boat, where life takes place.

Still today, the "agent" comes along and asks them to do some diving, no questions asked. Whatever they find they would pay for, but if the Moken get caught by the officials from the neighboring country, they would accept no responsibility.

Sea cucumbers are of huge value in Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok, and shells that sing in your ears can always be sold. Uncle Sri-dhit used to make his own depth charges. He is a legend. The agent would furnish the material: gun powder, an explosive cap, fertiliser and diesel fuel.

He tells these stories to camera-shy Miss Jhin and her kindergarten class with great sadness. The proud Moken people - protectors of the seas and respecters of the sea spirits - reduced to setting dynamite depth charges that destroy the very sea that protects them.

Uncle Sri-dhit lived for more than 20 years with his family on his boat. During storms they would find anchorage at the nearest shore. But they are no longer welcome at many places along the shore, and diving is not allowed. Many Moken men have been sent to prison work camps. Thai territorial waters are a safe haven, but to survive day by day, they must move on shore to find work.

Uncle Sri-dhit tells how, long ago, his parents told him this story. When he was being born a turtle came up to the boat and stayed with them, swimming along until after he was born. Now Uncle Sri-dhit suffers the ignominy of living in a shack on the shore. He has had to sell his boat. His real home is on the sea. There his spirit is free.

His granddaughter usually sits in the front of the class in their kindergarten shack to listen to Uncle's stories. She tells everyone she is now healthy, and will soon no longer be seven, but eight! Sturdy as a half grown turtle. We gave anti-worm medicine to Miss Jhin and 98 other children on the island. But Miss Jhin was the only child brave enough to pull the half-metre long tape worm out of her mouth all by herself and hit it with a broken cockle shell. Now that the tape worms don't eat half the food, these kids gain a kilo a month and more. And Miss Jhin is a three-helpings-a-meal type of girl. She has the balance of a ballerina - learned from climbing around the boat. Her teacher calls her a graceful turtle in the water and a young mountain goat on land!

Pretty. Not movie star pretty, but wild like the seas pretty. Like a boat-born kid should be. She speaks Moken and Thai pretty good and Uncle Sri-dit is now teaching her all the Moken words for sickness and health and the body. She wants to grow up and be a medical doctor.

Conceived at sea, Miss Jhin was the last child born on Uncle Sri-dhit's boat, one of the older type boats lashed together with strong hemp rope to stand against the violent storms of the Andaman sea. Still had the stump of the mast in the middle they used to use for wind sails before the long-tail engines.

Seven years ago, while the family still lived on the boat and a couple days before baby Jhin's birth, they netted some fish. Met some Moken "shirt-tail" relatives from another island and bartered for smuggled fuel, rice and cooking oil. Then stopped at Koh Lao to ask Ms Lai Yah if she would travel with them to assist with the birth. She's the famous Moken midwife of the islands - delivered more than 100 children, many of them at sea. Baby Jhin's mother wanted the birth at sea, felt the spirits of the sea would always be with her baby watching and keeping guard. Miss Jhin was also born with the full moon. A good time to be born.

For folks living on the seas what matters is the tides, the waning and waxing of the moon, the winds, the coming storms, colour of the sky at sunrise and sunset, to understand the movements of the fish, and full moons. Essential. But days of the week, no, and no words for days of the week in the Moken language used on the island, or for months of the year.

Not long after she was born baby Jhin's father died of the bends diving off the coast of a nearby country. At the time, he had joined another Moken boat. "They" caught the whole crew of seven men and confiscated the boat. Her father, already sick from being dragged up too fast from 25 metres deep in the sea, died quickly in a prison work camp. Not that medicines would have saved his life, but there was nothing "available for prisoners".

So now her widow Mum had no one to go to sea for her and bring home money from fishing and diving. She was literally starving, so no breast milk for her baby. To survive she came to live on Koh Lao with Uncle Sri-dhit.

He doesn't go to sea anymore because someone needs to be on the island with the 60 families who live there. But his fame as a diver and maker of water bombs is legendary - gun powder, fertiliser and diesel with a detonator cap. Been diving since he was nine without equipment. No ear plugs, no flippers, just a mask with the garden hose connected. Just you yourself. Down to 25 metres.

He prefers to speak Moken. It's an ancient tongue, not much known in these parts now. True, he speaks the five languages of the area. Enough to get by, to tell the young ones what they need to know about the sea.

He loves telling the stories of days gone by to the children. To keep alive their customs and tradition and beliefs - speaking in their ancient language. And he loves to watch Miss Jhin study and play, graceful as a half grown turtle swimming in the seas, and agile as a young mountain goat on land. She loves school and is full of life and joy and dreams. She wants to be a doctor and get a boat just like the one she was born on and care for all the Moken mums and children in the whole ocean. Their is hope for tomorrow.

Photo galleries of Koh Lao here and here.

Related Mercy Centre Program: Koh Lao Education & Welfare Project