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Meeting the Moken

A Chance Encounter in Mergui

PJ Founders, Karina and James, and their family took an amazing sailing holiday in the Mergui Archipelago and enjoyed a wonderful encounter with a Moken sea gypsy family and naturally played some footy...

“Pinch yourself. Look where we are.” Necessary parental demands when your children are having what people might consider to be more than their fair share of “once in a life time experiences”.

Two days earlier we had seen a catamaran in the distance. Each night the horizon lit up with the green lights of the squid fishermen – but otherwise we were alone on our boat. In paradise. So it seemed.

Snorkelling or kayaking first? This island or that island? Daily choices. This day we started the day with a paddle to Island 115 (with 800 islands to name – not all of them have very imaginative names). As the shadows of the trees came into focus it was revealed that there were two serene ladies watching us. Our guide Jojo spoke enough of their dialect to understand that they were sea gypsies – and that they were inviting us to the other side of the island. 

It so happened that only a few weeks before Tim Browning and I had discovered with his drone that there was only a short stretch of jungle before another beach.

Barefoot, we all excitedly negotiated the jungle vines and roots trying to keep up with our new hosts who seemed to glide through the forest. Although the Moken (sea nomads or gypsies) were what had originally attracted me to Mergui Archipelago, I had no expectations of what we were going to find the other side of the island. From what I had read about them, I had come to assume that we wouldn’t meet any – let alone be invited to visit some. So as we entered their world I didn’t have my Anthropological head on, or my conscientious Sustainable Tourism head. I was there as the mother of a family meeting another mother and her family.

Introductions were skipped as immediately are boys were entranced by the baby monkey that the tattooed father had perched on his head. With little shared language, this cheeky creature brought our two families together – but not as well as the item that Jojo happened to have brought – a football.

Only one of the boys seemed to have played football before, but despite the heat, the slope on the beach and the bare-feet, they were immediately captivated. I joined in for a bit before trying to persuade a teenage girl to join in too. We exchanged smiles, then names and ages before she took me on a little tour of their temporary encampment.

Dressed in her “modern girl” t-shirt, Mo showed my son and me the drying puffa fish perched on sticks above the rocks. She seemed to indicate that her brothers and father had caught these whilst diving.

Then we went into the tree line where she showed me the racks on which they were drying sea cucumbers in the baking sun.

Earlier it had been apparent that our guide only spoke a few words of the dialect that this family speak, so rather than call Jojo over, Mo and I conversed using our own sign language. It wasn’t long before I had seen where she sleeps and where they cook. Thankfully I had the knowledge that only two weeks earlier they hadn’t been here – and so her wave to the small boat moored just off the beach was easy to understand. When not camping on a beach, the family of 14 sleep in this small boat.

Both barefooted, we bonded over collecting glass – pulling universal faces to express what we think of litter. The footballs spontaneously ran into the sea to cool down. I had to join them but I couldn’t persuade my new friend. Then sadly it was time for us to leave. We posed for a group photo which we indicated we will try to send back with Jojo in the hope that he will pass by them somewhere someday… As we posed together Jojo chatted with one of the boys who spoke some Burmese. It seemed from this chat that only the men swim. Here was a twelve year old girl whose life was on the sea – and on the beach – and yet she can’t swim. Jojo didn’t translate this until after so we didn’t establish why, and we weren’t concerned when as we said our goodbyes rather than help push off our kayaks, Mo and her brother youngest boarded our guides kayak.

These two teenagers had decided that today was going to be the day for their first visit to a non-Moken boat. The captain of our boat and chef hurriedly found gifts of fizzy drinks and food and t-shirts to give to them and I found the posters of the crustaceans and fish of these waters to share with them.

After we left, the Anthropologist in me returned momentarily with a gluttonous wave of unanswered questions. But then a calm returned. Our encounter was what it was. A serendipitous meeting of two families from two different worlds coming together for a game of football.




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