The life of sea gypsies after the 2004 tsunami

The life of sea gypsies after the 2004 tsunami in Koh Lanta, Krabi, Thailand

The Agence France-Presse (AFP) media recently reported on the life of sea gypsies after the 2004 tsunami in Koh Lanta, Krabi, Thailand that killed 5,395 people in Thailand alone. Even though their origins are uncertain, sea gypsies are believed to be the earliest inhabitants dotting the coasts of Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand on the Andaman Sea. As seafaring nomads, their existence depended solely on their fishing.

After migrating to the Koh Lanta area in Krabi, Thailand, the sea gypsies (called Chao Ley in Thai and Thai-Mai by the government) received Thai citizenship. Before the tsunami, they lived in two villages on the southeast coast of the island, and were only partially assimilated into the Thai culture. Many lived on the beaches near their boats, residing in homes made of corrugated iron roofs without doors or fences.

AFP recently interviewed one of the residents whose home and those of the other 500 Chao Lay in his village were destroyed. However, even though their homes were destroyed by the tsunami, they survived by reading the signs they learned from the stories told by village elders.

“They said the water would recede, the color (of the sea) would change, and the birds and other animals would start acting differently,” the sea gypsy said, admitting that he didn’t believe the stories prior to December 26, 2004. However, the signs were there and it gave him and others enough time to gather their children and alert their neighbors, all of whom raced to the island’s center to escape the four-meter (13 feet) high waves.

There are three main Chao Ley groups, and the Moken, the most traditional of them all, are able to deep-sea dive without masks. They received international attention at the time of the tsunami for saving the lives of tourists on land and at sea. After reading the signs, they urged vacationers to go inland to higher ground, and those that were ferrying tourists in boats, moved to deep waters, far away from the shoreline.

Is the Culture of Sea Gypsies Disappearing?

Prior to the tsunami, many sea gypsies were already assimilated into the Thai culture. After the tsunami, even more adopted new jobs on the mainland, despite the discrimination often leveled against them. Although fearing their culture is disappearing, they chose to live a modern lifestyle for the security it brings.

Most of the villagers resettled in charity-built homes in Khura Buri where they were given land deeds for the first time in their history. Many supplement their income with fishing for shrimp, sea cucumbers and fish.

In 2010, the Thai cabinet passed a resolution to protect the sea gypsies’ way of life. Whether their oral traditions, music, dance and way of life can be preserved is in question. Even those Chao Lay who chose to return to their semi-nomadic lives, face the negative effects of increased tourism, a ban on fishing in some government-protected waters, and the waning fish population.

Some believe that in only a few years, the only way to know if someone is Chao Lay will be by his or her surname.

Source: Thai Sea Gypsies embrace modern life after tsunami: AFP: December 16, 2014