May 5, 2015
Plajan or Loi Ruea Boat Floating Festival. Where the ancient beliefs of an ever adapting group of Sea Gypsies are blended with the music and dance from two continents.
When: On the full moon day in the sixth (May) and the eleventh months (October) of the Thai lunar calendar. The festival is over 3 days and nights.
Where: Phuket, Lanta Islands & Krabi
The islands and coastal regions along the Andaman Sea 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 in English as sea nomads or sea gypsies.
The Chao Lay 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 the Lanta islands where the proto-Malay Orang Sireh had 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)
This post covers the festival of the Urak Lawoi as they and their festivals differ from the Moken people (to see more on the Moken and their Boat Floating Festival click here)
The Urak Lawoy, who have in the main settled on the islands of Ko Lanta, Ko Jum, Ko Phi Phi, Phuket and Ko Lipe, are the most integrated of the sea gypsies into Thai society. They place their mythical origin at Gunung Jerai, located on modern maps on Kedah peak, north of Penang in Malaysia peninsular. None of the Sea Gypsies groups have a written language and so their history is handed down to the next generation via word of mouth. Here in Thailand they are known as Thai Mai, or “New Thai”.
Thailand’s Urak Lawoy have been recognized as Thai citizens since the 1960s, when the late Queen Mother granted them five family names, thereby enabling them to possess ID cards and go to school. Many work on coconut plantations or as fishermen, while others continue surviving on what they can harvest from the land and sea.
Unlike the Moken people the Urak Lawoi’ are only nomadic on their foraging trips, and have always maintained permanent houses on land. They only forage for food during the dry season, November to April, for periods ranging from a couple of days to several months, depending on the distance traveled, weather, and harvest conditions. This does not mean to say that they are still not tied to the sea, which is for them home, a source of livelihood, a playground, a dwelling place of spirits, and a ceremonial ground.
Urak Lawoi Sea Gypsies Festival
The Plajan or Loi Ruea Boat Floating Festival takes place twice a year during the 6th and 11th lunar months, with the actual dates differing between villages and each island.
The launching of these intricately carved vessels bearing candles and tokens from the people is held at night, their purpose is to drive away evil and bring good luck, it is also believed that the boat will float back to their ancestral home at Gunung Jerai.
Three days and nights of celebrations
The three day and night ceremony also includes ancestor and spirit worshiping, fortune telling by the local Shaman, music performances and dances, including the Rong Ngeng dance.
The dance is considered to be an innovation combining both Western and Eastern forms — Western footsteps with Eastern hand movements. The main musical instruments played include the Asian rammana drum and gong, and Western violin. The melodies are partly based on European folk songs, mixed with local songs and Muslim lullabies. The lyrics are Malay and learned by memory. (You Tube)
Once a popular folk dance and singing form, today Rong Ngeng is performed only at welcoming ceremonies and other organized events.
Traditionally female dancers wear a long sleeved embroidered shirt and batik sarong; men wear a shirt and sarong. Today only women sing and dance. The first song asks for protection from the spirit of the place, while the rest are about life and sea travel.
There are many differences between the differing Sea Gypsy groups, but what they all have in common, is a deep faith and respect for the sea, which for centuries has provided almost all that they require. If you are fortunate to be on the islands during the festival, do try to join in the ceremonies to share in the life of these fast changing people.
See more on sea gypsies in our post Laanta Lanta Festival in the same part of the world
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