The village of Sang-ga-u in the south east corner of Koh Lanta is home to a unique group of people known as the Sea Gypsies or “Chao Leh” (people of the sea). Formerly living a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the Andaman Sea, these seafarers of Indo-Malay origins were also the first settlers on the island some 500 years ago.
The true origins of the Urak Lawoi, who are the largest of three groups of Chao Leh which also include the Moken and Moklen clans, is sketchy a best. Because the Urak Lawoi language is only a spoken language, no written testimonies exist to verify their real origins and one can only listen to their legends and historical anecdotes to form an idea of their past.
According to one story, they are relatives of the Moken group on Surin Island in Phang Nga. Both groups migrated along the coast of what is now known as Malaysia’s Kedah state. They later separated and established separate settlements on various islands in the Andaman Sea. It is generally accepted that they ethnically belong to the Malay group, although many scholars believe they came from India.
As the meaning of the name “sea people” indicates, the Urak Lawoi have centered their life on the use of marine and coastal resources and have inseperablbe ties to the sea. Traditionally, the Urak Lawoi had permanent houses on land but were nomadic in their food foraging practices, especially during the dry season when for several months the entire families travelled to different places in the Adang archipelago. For them, the sea and near shore areas are not only their main sources of lively hood, buto also their home and the environment around which the core of their culture has developed.
The Urak Lawoi display great resourcefulness and ingenuity in sea related activities. They are good boatmen, skilled fishermen and excellent divers able to move freely and stay comfortably underwater for long periods of time. In the past, they did not use any kind of equipment, except for a small pair of tailored goggles made of carved wood and glass.
Boats were once the most essential and highly valued part of the Urak Lawoi material culture. Each household had a rowboat of about 3 meters long, sometimes equipped with a sail and made of locally available wood. In the past, boats were crafted by hand with simple axes, with different members of the community helping each other. Their close relationship with boats is well reflected in their Loy Rua (floating boat) festival which takes place for 3 days and 3 nights during the full moon on the 6th and 11th months of the lunar calendar. They use the occasion to pay respect to their ancestors & the spirits and symbolically float away their misfortune with a small ceremonial boat.
Because of being people that depend on the nature, their animistic belief in the supernatural and traditional spiritual worship is strong in the community and colours many of their traditions. Besides the Loy Rua festival, they worship the spirits by raising two high poles as a door or threshold and the bodies of their deceased are deposed of on cemetery islands where the spirits of the dead live on. For the Urak Lawoi, the natural and supernatural are not sharply distinguished. Till today, offerings are made on special occasions to ask for good harvesting and some carry a talisman to ward off bad spirits and misfortune. Others believe that illnesses can be treated by a spirit medium.
In terms of arts, rammana and rong ngeng are the only forms still practiced today. Rammana is the percussion music and singing, usually performed as part of a ceremony. Rong Ngeng is dance performance accompanied by singing and the music of drums and violins. While it was a popular folk dance and singing in the past, today rong ngeng is only performed in welcoming ceremonies and at the organized events.
Today most sea gypsies have been granted land, surnames and citizenship in Thailand. They keep close relations to other villages and tend to blend in more with the local population. They still retain their own language that belongs to the Malay-Indonesian language family and is still found in many geographical names. The name “Pulau” means island and “Piapi” is the name of a tree growing in the mangrove swamps. During the centuries, the name “Pulau Piapi” changed to today’s Phi Phi.
Over the past few decades, the Urak Lawoi have undergone rapid change in their ways of life. With National Park rules and regulations, their nomadic foraging way of life has been prohibited. The intensification of commercial fishing and a fast growing tourism industry offer alternative livelihoods that are moving them away from their subsistence way of life and into the market economy, making it more and more difficult to sustain their traditional culture and traditions.
Support for the conservation of their culture can be given by accepting their rights as the indigenous people and the first inhabitants of the Adang archipelago and acknowledging that they have a unique culture.
Note: Many websites and guidebooks talk about Ko Lanta’s sea gypsies as if they were a tourist attraction. Unfortunately this is not the case. How would you like it if complete strangers peered into your house taking pictures and pointing?
The Chao Leh people have enough problems as it is – eviction from their traditional fishing grounds and resting places; forced settlement; erosion of their culture – without the added impact of western tourism.
Of course, some Chao Leh have chosen to work with tourists, usually driving boats – but they do not need to be visited at home – unless you are invited.
Unethical tour operators are attempting to turn the sea gypsy village, Sangka-Ou, into a human zoo, often asking the residents to perform traditional songs and music – associated with specific rituals in the lunar calendar – on demand for money. This degrades and devalues an ancient culture, as well as exposing them to rather sordid capitalist values.
If you care about the sea gypsies, don’t visit them. There is, in any case, little to see.