Apparently, we humans are not made for living at sea. We cannot breathe it, drink it, and we certainly can’t walk on water. Yet against all odds, we never cease to amaze, especially when it comes to our power to adapt and turning unfriendly environments to our advantage. What better example of this warrior spirit than Southeast Asia’s maritime tribes, who are born, live, marry, and die at sea. They are the last ones standing against this world that has forgotten its roots and is slowly wiping out its traditions.
Often called “sea gypsies,” “sea folk,” or “boat people,” they are the last true nomads of the sea, the expression of a way of life that is quickly fading. Blissfully ignorant, peacefully harvesting the ocean’s bounty, these sea dwellers continue to challenge our modern world’s concepts of nations, states, borders and society.
The Moken – the Sea Gypsies of Myanmar
A fleet of kabang boats roams the seas of the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea, to the south of Myanmar, sometimes spending months in a row without coming ashore. Their “tenants” learn to swim before they can walk, and can dive deeper and hold their breath underwater longer than most people on the planet.
The Moken are a tribe of self-sufficient sea nomads who live in harmony with the rhythms of the sea and can read the waters like an open book. Their single-log sailboats called kabangs are more than just a means of transportation, they are floating houses equipped with kitchen, bedroom, living area, even a pantry where they dry fish and seafood.
Masters of the sea, on land they are like fish out of the water. The only time they set foot ashore is during monsoons, and claim they feel “land sick” during their stay. Endowed with excellent underwater vision, twice as good as most people’s, the Moken can dive up to 22 m (75 ft) down to the ocean floor, where they forage shellfish and other seafood.
They care not for time or age, unlike the rest of us who can’t refrain from constantly measuring it. In their language, they have no words for need, want, or goodbye. They are the perfect example of letting go.
In 2004, when one of the greatest catastrophes of the modern world hit southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, it was the Moken’s knowledge of the sea that helped them survive. They predicted the arrival of the devastating wave, which helped them take shelter and escape its wrath. Now, they are facing new dangers. An elusive tribe that has always tried to stay away from the modern world and outsiders, the Moken are running out of places to hide. Mass fishing and assimilation politics are rendering them stateless and are forcing them to move on land. Roughly 2,000 Moken continue to dwell in the southern seas of Myanmar, and only a handful still roam the waters like their ancestors centuries before them. How much longer will they continue to pass on the knowledge of the sea? How long before it will be lost forever?
The Bajau – the People of the Seas
As they plunge into the sea, their heartbeat is reduced to near standstill, their pupils constrict for remarkable underwater vision, their blood vessels close in order to consume less oxygen, thus remaining on the ocean floor for minutes, hunting fish and gathering seafood. Off the shore of northeast Borneo, a tribe of skilled divers lives a blissful, timeless and stateless existence on their narrow, high-prowed boats called lepa-lepa. They are the Bajau, the “people of the seas.”
Just as we walk to the grocery shop, so do the Bajau stroll down the seabed hunting for fish. They can dive 30 m (100 ft) into the depths of the ocean and hold their breath underwater for five whole minutes. While most of us learn to ride the bicycle when we are eight, Bajau children learn to steer canoes and hunt. Because diving is an everyday activity and the Bajau spend hours in a row each day submerged in the waters of the Malay Archipelago, children have their eardrums pierced at an early age. It is painful, their ears and nose bleed for days, but when they finally heal they will never experience pain again, caused by high pressure while diving.
The Bajau do not speak Malay. They do not even know how old they are. They reject modernism with every bone in their body and claim they will only move to land to die. Their religion, an interesting blend of animism and Islam, revolves around the ocean, which represents a living entity. Currents and tides, reefs and mangroves, are all home to spirits.
They have sailed these seas for over a thousand years, but now their existence is threatened by destructive fishing and government programs. Many of the Bajau find themselves forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and transition to a life on land, in traditional stilt villages, some of them half a mile out at sea. The number of Bajau people who remain true to their beliefs and nomadic way of life, in complete harmony with the sea, is beginning to wobble.
Orang Suku Laut – the Sea Tribe People
It was once said that whoever controlled the Orang Laut controlled the seas. Throughout the last millennium, the rise and fall of empires and states along the Strait of Malacca have had one common nominator – the Orang Laut tribe.
Often mistaken for pirates, they roamed the seas of South East Asia in the name of their patrons, the kings of Malacca and Johor, repelling piracy and ensuring safe passage for trading ships. Their reign over the waves came to an end when European settlers consolidated their position over the Malay world in the 19th century. The Orang Laut were banished, deemed “backward and primitive,” and have since been subject to prejudice and pejorative behavior.
Once a powerful tribe, valuable to their patrons thanks to their knowledge of the sea, only a few direct descendants of the Orang Laut have survived to this day. Orang Suku Laut, literally meaning “Sea Tribe People,” refer to themselves as Melayu Asli (“indigenous Malays”), and believe the sea is “an inalienable gift of territory.” Such a wonderful thought in a world governed by borders and politics.
A distinctive ethnic group of sea-faring people who live without religion or state, with animistic beliefs, suspicious of outsiders and just about anything that belongs to the modern world, the Orang Suku Laut dwell in traditional houseboats and travel with their families throughout the waters of the Riau Archipelago, to the northwest of Indonesia. Their lifestyle has not changed much over the past centuries, but in more recent years governments have begun forcing them to abandon tradition and head towards a more “modern” way of life. Moreover, destructive fishing techniques, using potassium cyanide and homemade bombs, are threatening the coral reefs, this nomadic tribe’s home, as well as their lives.
The Tanka – the People of the Water
A dwindling number of skilled fishermen, faithful to the mighty sea, still live on narrow traditional boats floating off the coastlines of southern China’s Fujian, Hainan, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.
According to ancient Chinese legends, the Tanka are the descendants of water snakes and could last underwater for three days without breathing air. Like most legends, it is probably not too far from the truth. An aboriginal tribe, they are among the earliest inhabitants of the area, the foundations of their tribe laid by local fishermen who have chosen a life at sea to escape the war and chaos on land between the 4th and 7th centuries AD.
Throughout the following centuries, these boat dwellers have stayed true to their ancestor’s traditions. They were not allowed to go ashore or marry people who lived on land, spoke a dialect very different from Chinese and refused to recognize land-based authorities. But things are changing. They still like to call themselves “People of the Water” and consider themselves Han Chinese, but they have adopted Cantonese and are beginning to abandon their boats. The rapidly expanding real estate and luxury resorts markets are threatening their lifestyle, and many find themselves lured on land by the promise of a better life. Traditions are fading away, together with the Tanka saltwater songs, dialects and their vast knowledge of the sea.