April 5, 2015
Loi Ruea Chao Le Festival (or “Floating Boats of the Sea Gypsies”)
When: Annually on the Full Moon of April
Where: Moken villages on the South Surin Island (Surin Tai island) Mu Ko Surin National Park. Phuket Province
The islands and coastal regions in the Andaman Sea, known as the Mergui Archipelago, (a group of approximately 800 islands in the Andaman Sea, claimed by both Burma and Thailand), are home to a unique group of people, who due to their maritime nomadic way of life, are known in Thai as the Chao Lay, (people of the sea) or Chao nam (people of the water) and as sea nomads or sea gypsies in English.
The Chao Lay in Thailand are divided into two distinct groups: the Urak Lawoi and the Moken, (also spelled Mawken or Morgan and who are further sub divided into smaller group includes the Moken proper, the Moklen (Moklem), the Orang Sireh (Betel-leaf People), and the Orang Lanta.
The last, the Orang Lanta, are a hybridized group formed when the Malay people settled on the Lanta islands, where the proto-Malay Orang Sireh had already been living. The total population of sea nomads in the year 2000 was estimated at around 9,500, e.g. 7,000 in Thailand and 2,500 in Myanmar. (Figures from UNESCO)
The Moken People
The festival described here is in regards to the Moken, (also spelt Mawken or Morgan), who are an Austronesian ethnic group containing approx. 2,000 – 3,000 people who still maintain a nomadic, sea-based culture.
This celebration should not be confused with the event celebrated by the Moken people of islands of the Myeik Archipelago of Southern Myanmar, who have a similar festival during the second week of February each year.
Unknown Past and Beliefs
The Moken people do not have a written language and so pinpointing when they came to these shores is difficult, it is thought they migrated to Thailand, Burma and Malaysia from Southern China approximately 4,000 years ago and while some have taken Thai residency they still have their own language, customs and religious beliefs. The later are based around ‘Animist’ where animals, plants, and inanimate objects or phenomena poses a spiritual essence.
A people with only one name
The Moken only give themselves one name, when they chose to become Thai citizens the Thai monarchy created surnames for them, among them “Klatalee” (“brave person of the sea”)
Leaving the Sea
While the majority of the people as they have done for centuries still hunt and gather from both the sea and shoreline for what they need to survive,, more and more Moken are permanently settling in villages located in the Surin Islands (Mu Ko Surin National Park), in Phuket Province, on the north western coast of Phuket Island. Over the centuries of foraging at sea their eyes adapted for underwater use (BBC You Tube)
The Moken are one of many sea gypsy tribes in southeast Asia: they include the Orang Laut of Indonesia; the Bajau of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines; and the Salone (Moken) of Burma.
Loi Ruea Chao Le Festival (or “Floating Boats of the Sea Gypsies”)
This annual private event (invitation only), is to help The Moken in their struggle to preserve their traditional culture in the face of growing tourism and with it, the influence of western culture. Every year in the sea gypsy village on South Surin Island (Surin Tai island), the Moken conduct the ceremony of “Loi Reua”, to pay homage to their ancestrial spirits and to ask the spirits of the dead to care for and protect the Moken people, this is a very auspicious occasion for the sea gypsies who are often described as sincere and peace-loving, preferring to flee trouble than engage in disagreements
“The full moon in April signals transition, the end of the Moken year and the beginning of the next cycle. It is also the beginning of the monsoon season, when the Moken traditionally gathered together again to spend some months living ashore. Central to the three-day Moken New Year is the carving of new labong poles elaborately painted with Moken motifs, including fish, bones starfish, sea turtles, sun an waves and ceremoniously erected facing the sea where the ceremony is to take place. The female figure represented by the Aboom pole is elaborately dressed in finery, possibly a chiffon headscarf, colourful cloth, earrings and a seashell necklace. The Abaa male figure is also attired handsomely for this auspicious occasion.
The Moken New Year is further commemorated by building a miniature Kabang set atop a stand, on the beach facing the sea and adorned with colourful cloth flags. Over the course of several days, every household in the village will place food offerings- rice, chili, currency or anything important to them- in the spirit boat. They may also add pieces of hair or fingernail clippings in much the same way that Thai put representations of their bodies in the small Krathong floats they release on the water during Loy Kratong ceremonies held on the full moon in November. No one knows for certain if the Moken Loy Kabang ceremony during the full moon in April influenced the 700-year old Thai tradition of Loy Kratong or vice versa, but there are many interesting parallels between the two practices.
For the Moken, the idea of the miniature Kabang boat is to rid the village of anything bad by setting it adrift on the open sea at the conclusion of the three day Labong ceremony.
While the Labong ancestor poles and the Loy Kabang are the focal points of the three-day Moken New year celebration, they are not the most important part of the event. This distinction is reserved for the time when the spirits of the Moken Ancestors are called upon to once again enter the bodies of the living. There are very few Moken that still possess these powers, and the fact that this practice still takes place on Koh Surin makes it one of the last bastions of ancient Moken tradition”. Abstract taken from the book written by Thom Henley, called Courage of the Sea.
There are other sea gypsy festivals held on other islands in the Andaman sea, the Urak Lawoy have their The Chao Ley (sea gypsy) Boat Floating Festival, held biannually on the 6th and 11th lunar month’s, which contains subtle differences to the festival here, in music, dance and how the boats are floated. The best known is that held annually in March on the island of Lanta, Krabi, called the Laanta Lanta Festival (see more on this event)
When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “Time and tide wait for no man” he may well have been writing about the plight of the Moken Sea Gypsies
How to get to Surin Tai Island: The Island is located in the Andaman Sea off shore from Phangnga province in southern Thailand. A ferry runs from Kuraburi to the islands. The dock jetty is 6 km north of Kuraburi town, on the highway no. 4 between Takua Pa and Kapoe. The ferry takes around 4 hrs to the islands.
Please note as we have already stated this festival is a private matter and is for the Moken People to gather as they have done for centuries, it is not a time for outsiders unless you are lucky enough to be invited and while you can visit the villages of the people on Surin Tai island, please be respectful as the people are entitled to the privacy as we all are.
Special thanks to Lindsey of Andaman Discoveries for her invaluable help (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For truly stunning pictures (some of which are in this post) see: Cat Vinton Survival International
For information on the Urak Lawoi sea Gypsies Boat Festival click here
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