TM: What key things should people know about the Moken tribe?
Candace: The Moken are a tribe of nomadic people who traditionally live on boats, but have recently been forced to settle on the mainland of Thailand. There are all sorts of tribes scattered all along the Megui Archieplago, which consists of about 800 islands off the coast of Thailand and Burma. The Moken would travel between these islands.
When they were nomadic, their homes were dug-out wooden boats called kabongs. They lived on the boats for nine months out of the year, and then built temporary huts in which they would stay for three or four months during the monsoon season. They cooked, slept, and even gave birth and died on the boats. It was an entire life cycle taking place on the water. Their livelihood was diving, and they would collect all sorts of underwater creatures. Children would swim just as naturally as we might grow up running.
Since the Moken didn’t belong to any particular country, there have been a lot of issues with citizenship in the last 20 or 30 years. The Thai and Burmese governments are now forcing the Moken to settle down, in order to have a sense of control over these people for whom movement was a way of life. There are now about two or three hundred Moken who live on the Surin Islands.
It is a human rights issue, because there are many restrictions placed on them. They can’t travel very far or leave their province. This is a group of people whose entire livelihood and way of life was built on movement, and who are now being forced to be completely still. It is just a complete reversal of everything that they were used to and had built their lives on.
How did you get the most out of your time with the Moken?
I’ve never had a more profound week in my life. I had hardly any internet access while I was there. I was so completely immersed — I did nothing but sit there and take notes constantly, just watching, observing, and interacting when I had the chance. I’ve never felt more engaged in and aware of a new culture. I wanted to learn every single thing I could while I was there that week.
I’m fascinated by the idea now that if you’re completely alive and aware of a new place, a week could feel much longer, and each day could almost feel like a week, because you’re engaged the entire day.
I tried to live as fully as possible when I was with them, and since my time with them, I’ve been reading and talking about the Moken tribe as much as I can.
Is there a difference in how the children are growing up now on land instead of on the water?
I was struck by how, even though these kids were born on land and are living their lives on land, they are still so comfortable in the water. They had a very natural relationship with water. It’s different for them now, but they do seem to be holding on to some aspects of their beautiful culture.
My favorite revelation was discovering how to communicate with the kids through art. I don’t speak Thai, so communication was difficult. I saw one of the girls drawing in the sand with a stick one day, and I gave her a paper and pen. The other kids caught on, and by the end of the week we had a group of 10 or 12 kids sitting around and drawing together.
The first thing they did was draw a wavy line across the middle of the paper. Then they’d draw a scene on land, and then a scene under water. So many of them did this over and over again. I was struck by how vivid and detailed their underwater scenes were. They were drawing anemones and seaweed, and their fish were gorgeous, with fins and scales.
Sketching is wonderful because anyone can speak art. It’s a universal language. It’s a way for someone of a different culture to instantly understand what I’m doing, what my impressions are of their home, and what I’m thinking and taking in about that place. They can get all of that without a single word needing to be spoken.
As a traveler, and as someone who’s often traveling to places where I don’t speak the language, art has become the most extraordinary tool to still be able to have conversations and connections, just visually instead of verbally.
How have the Moken been influential in your life?
When I visited them, I was struggling to figure out how I could settle down in my own life. I had been traveling for several years at that point and living overseas, so movement had become a way of life for me. I felt myself yearning for a home and longing for a stable community, but there was this gap between my current movement and my dream of settling.
To me, settling felt like death. I love the world. I love being out in the world. I love being with other cultures. How could I bring myself to a place where I could be settled down without traveling and moving all the time? How do you settle down without settling?
The Moken were going through the same exact process and transition when I visited them. What I loved about my week with them was that I would get these little glimmers of how they had really held on to their love of movement and to their love for the water. It was incredibly influential to see my own struggle made manifest in a much larger way, and with much greater ramification.
My own little nomadic problem pales in comparison to this great human rights issue, but it was still very uncanny that I happened to find myself with these people from whom I learned a great deal.
How can the Moken be influential to other travelers as well?
It comes down to change and how we deal with it in our lives. Everybody transitions at one point or another in his or her lifetime.
I have been very scared of change. I don’t like change in my life. I like to rely on things. When you go through a deep change, you’re not going to be the same person on the other side. It can be very scary.
The Moken are changing while also holding on to a very distinct and special part of themselves. I think that’s something that anyone, whether you’re a traveler or just a human being trying to make your way through the world, can learn from.
It’s important to learn how to move through change gracefully while still holding on to the essence of your identity.
How did you overcome your fear of change?
It’s been very gradual, for sure. It was such a profound experience that it took me a whole year after I was with them to start writing about them. It just felt like something I really needed to protect for a while until I understood what it meant.
I always encourage people who experience change and transformation to just give themselves time, and to let the ideas that are percolating in your head take full form before making any drastic movements or actions. It’s like a stone dropped in a pond that just continues to make ripples.
Is there anything being done now to help the Moken?
There is an NGO that is very involved there. I have friends in Thailand who are still researching them. The problems are still ongoing, so I try to keep some of those things abreast as best I can. The Moken are getting more attention in the press, and a documentary has been made about them.
It’s a positive thing that their plight is being put more and more in the international spotlight. There’s a great concern with indigenous tribes all around the world. We have to figure out how to honor and protect their indigenous ways of life, while also moving them into modernity. Access to education and healthcare are good things, but I also feel very strongly that their ways of life are beautiful and shouldn’t be completely lost.
I always try to make clear that it is something of a human rights issue, and that there is the issue of citizenship at stake. There isn’t a ton of friendliness towards minority groups in Thailand. As a white Westerner, it’s easy to romanticize about their way of life and celebrate it, so I’m cautious whenever I do talk about them. It’s just something that I encourage people to be aware of.