The Mergui (Myeik) archipelago, is the last true home of the Moken, a fascinating people whose oceanic semi nomadic lifestyle has led to remarkable adaptations and the development of amazing skills. 

The Moken are one of several distinct ethnic groups collectively known as the Sea Gypsies, along with other tribes such as the Orang Laut, inhabiting the waters off Singapore and eastern Sumatra, and the Sama Bajau peoples of the seas of the southern Philippines, Western Borneo, Sulawesi, and the eastern Indonesian archipelago, who have for thousands of years practiced similar lifestyles.  

Like their distant relatives the Moken are thought to have originated in China, some four thousand years ago and spread out over the South China and Andaman Seas, and over the millennia have developed an innate and astounding grasp of marine knowledge and navigation. 

The Moken are highly skilled free divers, able to descend to over 20 metres and walk upon the seafloor for several minutes, without the need for counter-buoyancy aids on a single breath, with enough spare to stream air bubbles as bait to lure fish to their spears.  

Another remarkable fishing technique used by the Moken is lowering large leaves such as palm fronds at various depths over the reefs, to create floating shelters, which over time attract oceanic denizens to take cover underneath, which are then caught. 

Because Moken children spend so much time in the water from an early age, they learn to swim even before they can walk and their eyesight quickly adapts to compensate for the effects of liquid light refraction, enabling them to fully focus underwater without the need of a mask. 

Remarkably, through their orally transmitted traditions, when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, the Moken recognised the signs and many were able to escape the tragedy by heading out to sea, though the magnitude of the event was such that many boats and stilt houses were nevertheless lost. In addition to saving themselves, the Moken also saved many other lives by counselling evacuation to higher ground, and picking up survivors at sea.  

During the southwestern monsoon, from May to October, the Moken people traditionally live in stilted villages on many of the islands of the archipelago. Unfortunately for these peaceable peoples, having no specific national identity means they are regarded as stateless by both the Thai and Myanmar Governments, between whose borders they regularly travel, and are often subject to harassment and arrest. 

In recent years, both governments have made numerous attempts to settle these wonderfully free people into permanent communities, which will sadly destroy their way of life forever. As tourist development increasingly takes over the beautiful beaches for hotel and resort development, these masters of the sea are gradually being obliged to settle inland, away from the ‘mother ocean’ who has imparted her deep knowledge and guided the meaning of their lives over countless centuries. 

In Thailand, there are Moken settlements on Phuket, Phi Phi, and the Surin Islands where the sea gypsies still have some measure of freedom, but only in the remoter parts of Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago are a few Moken families able to truly continue with their ancient traditions, spending as much as seven or eight months of the year out at sea. 

As the young are increasingly schooled away from traditional life and seduced by modern technology, the adults are subject to the ever present need for money just to sustain the new world of dire impoverishment that is replacing their once self-sufficient utopia. 

Bizarrely and ironically, many of the ancestral island groups of the Moken have been designated protected marine areas and, as a consequence, laws have been enforced preventing the Moken from living their brilliantly sustainable life, surely the very essence of conservation itself. 

To meet the need for cash, some of the Moken menfolk are exploited for their amazing dive skills by ruthless commercial fishing and underwater industrial enterprises, which often require the use of compressed air in confined and dangerous industrial underwater spaces. Unused to the technical aspects of Scuba diving, many have suffered or died from decompression sickness, previously unknown to the Moken. 

With the assistance of a few enlightened individuals, some empathic schemes are being set up to help the Moken people adapt to the inevitable tragic loss of their way of life by recognising and preserving their unique skills and knowledge for the eco-tourism trade, helping visitors to discover, learn and respect the underwater world and its environmental importance under their marvellous guidance. 

Although it will never replace their beautiful blue freedom, it does at least afford the possibility of a life of dignity and value, staying in touch with their oceanic roots and imparting their invaluable knowledge for the future of the earth, and is infinitely preferable to losing their culture entirely in the futureless slums.