In 2008, a monsoon devastated the Moken villages dotting Buffalo Bay on Koh Phayam in Thailand. Afterward, the Thai government partnered with an NGO to purchase a new, more removed plot of land for the Moken peoples ongoing habitation. Their previously occupied beach was sold for development as tourist bungalows.
Historically, the Moken have been a seafaring, nomadic population of fishermen. They have had no nation, no civil institutions, no modern technologies, and no written language. They have no days or months, no sense of age, nor do they track the length of their pregnancies. (“When will you give birth?” asks Jonathan, a man working for the NGO who had spontaneously become my tour guide. The woman he addresses, comfortably plump and reclining on a felled tree, shrugs non-committally.)
Instead, their sense of time is defined exclusively by the tides. “Two tides away” would be a more recognized expression than “tomorrow.”
There are few ceremonies — “marriage,” in the standard sense, is non-existent — and little crime. Not long ago, their fishing boats were carved from single tree trunks and topped with sails made of tightly woven leaves. Today, the NGO is attempting to modernize the Moken culture and assimilate the people into Thai society.
We found our way to this Moken village by accident, having emerged from a mangrove forest onto a bay opposite the village. My friend whistled across the water, gaining the interest of some kids who boarded a wooden raft and hauled themselves across the water, hand-over-hand, on a rope line. Between turns pulling, they stood proudly aft while playing intermittent air guitar. We climbed on, helped them back across, disembarked at a cement pier draped with fishing nets. There was not much else, yet. A sign that said MOKEN VILLAGE, in English, so I knew we were not the first to come.
A road through the village was briefly cement, then dirt, then grassy. Balding dogs threaded loosely between our ankles; women, faces painted white with compressed rice powder, cooled themselves in darkened doorways. As we passed a wooden bungalow, standing crookedly on stilts, I glimpsed a man sitting cross-legged in a crowd of kneeling villagers. He was turning a formidably-sized camera toward them, screen aglow with scrolling pictures.
The village center was a modest, gray square rimmed with teal-colored houses. Just outside of it were a scattering of wooden shacks, a few outdoor toilets, the ominous, cement mouth of a darkly clouded well. There were youthful fruit trees, standing proud and thinly-limbed as any adolescent, uncoiled fishing nets, and a few lonely roosters. There was an eagle tied nervously to a decaying wooden post. Not many people; the fishing boats were all still out for the day.
Back at the water, I spotted the camera man. “Hello,” I called. “You work here?” His name was Jonathan, he said, and he had lived on the island for three years with his wife and two daughters. They brought the Moken kids to school, taught them basic health care, and showed them how to write and read. “We’re not telling anybody what to do,” he explained. “Just hoping to give them all the options. Some kids are really excited to be going to school now. Some kids just want to go out and fish with their parents. That’s fine with us.”
Jonathan pointed me toward a decrepit satellite dish, obviously useless, its nose pointed mournfully skyward. It had been installed by the Thai government four years prior, along with several banks of shiny solar panels. “They gave them all these fancy devices, but didn’t bother to train anybody on basic use or upkeep,” Jonathan sighed. “Nobody knew what to do with them, so they just broke down.”
On the pier, a woman sat clutching a wet, naked infant. Across from her, a man bent over the frame of his fishing boat, prying rotted boards from the frame. A gaggle of kids, some fully clothed, wrestled and splashed in the water below them. Jonathan sidled into conversation with a woman watching the children, translating their words to me swiftly.
“She thinks she has developed HIV,” he said. “She has dark spots and a bad cough, but she is afraid to go to the doctor.”
“What can be done?” I asked.
“We’ll go with her tomorrow. Sit with her. If she has to stay, we’ll watch her kids. She’s mostly afraid about leaving the children.”
I admired his emotionless efficiency, smiling effortlessly through the entire exchange. If I hadn’t known differently, I would have assumed they were discussing trivialities: “Are you having a good day so far? There’s nicer breeze than yesterday,” is what I’d imagined him saying.
At first I wondered at how he could remain so utterly benign, but then realized that there was no other option.
There were two newly born infants. One was a week old, curled preciously beneath a pile of pillows and dusty quilts, and protected by a special mosquito tent. He sported two flower-patterned bags on each fist and a Grandmother who guarded his doorway. Maximum security.
“They usually don’t name kids for months because of the high infant mortality rate,” Jonathan told me. “They wanted us to name these two babies right away, though.” He showed me some scraps of paper where they’d written their name choices, first in Thai and then in English: “Sarah” and “John.”
“Is there a religious affiliation with your work?” I asked.
“Well, we’re Christians,” he said, half-heartedly dismissive. Above the baby’s mosquito tent, a cut-out magazine photo of Jesus Christ was stapled to the wall.
“Ahhh,” I said.
“They wanted to name the baby Cashew Nut at first, but his Mom threw a fit. They tend to name kids after whatever’s around.” Jonathan pointed to a tiny, pantless boy asleep in a hammock. “That kid’s name is Crab. That one over there is Shark. The guy next to him? His name means ‘All good!’”
At the start of the relocation effort, the Thai government had assigned family names to the different Moken villages, one per settlement. With that in mind, having surnames like “Sky” and “Banana” felt like just the right amount of irreverent cultural defiance, although I knew that wasn’t their motivation. More likely, they just didn’t mind what to call each other. Other things were more important.
Either way, I liked it. Either way, I knew I wanted to come back. When I finally left, I shook Jonathan’s hand politely. “See you again tomorrow?”
He nodded sharply. “I thought you might say that.”