Pandemic provides respite for Thai “sea gypsies” threatened by mass tourism

COVID-19 has taken its toll around the world, but for Thailand’s “sea gypsies” it has provided welcome respite from the threat of mass tourism.

Since the start of the pandemic, life has been easier for Sanan Changnam and his people. There is an abundance of fish to eat and real estate projects on their ancestral lands in the tourist hotspot of Phuket are at a standstill.

In the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, connected to the surface by a thin pipe stuck in his mask which allows him to breathe, Sanan tracks down fish and shellfish, throwing in his hand.

A few strokes of the fins and he spits three groupers before coming to the surface.

With Thailand closed to foreign visitors for eight months, tourist boats are stranded at the quayside and fishing is easier for the Chao Lay, or “people of the sea”.

“We don’t dive as deep as before, so it’s less dangerous,” said Sanan, 42.

His ancestors, former nomads who came from Indonesia nearly 300 years ago, took a spit of land in Rawai, a beach south of Phuket, long before the island became one of the most popular destinations. prized in the country.

Over nine million visitors came to Phuket in 2019 and the boom has had a huge impact, reducing fish stocks, narrowing fishing grounds and causing a building frenzy.

The traditional way of life of the Chao Lay, also known as the ‘sea gypsies’, has been turned upside down – but the pandemic has come to a halt.

“It gives us a bit of a break,” says Alim, Sanan’s uncle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll around the world, but for Thailand’s “sea gypsies” it has provided welcome respite from the threat of mass tourism. | AFP-JIJI

Unequal struggle

The authorities are less strict when the Chao Lay sail in protected marine reserves or near islets usually reserved for tourists.

“Before, we risked being stopped by a patrol or having our boats confiscated,” he says.

“We sometimes came back to the surface too quickly, not respecting the decompression times. It was dangerous, there were injuries, even deaths.

The threat of eviction also hangs over the 1,200 Chao Lay living in Rawai, where real estate developers are eyeing their land, a strip of a few hundred meters facing the sea.

But with the cessation of tourism due to the virus, Phuket’s economy is crippled. Tens of thousands of workers have returned to their home provinces elsewhere in Thailand and construction projects have stalled.

“We hope that all of this will be abandoned,” said Ngim Damrongkaset, 75, a representative of the Rawai community. “They want to drive us out of our homes, but also to deny us access to the sea.”

For animist Chao Lay, the beach is a vital space where they keep their colorful wooden boats and where they pray and thank their ancestors.

The battle with tourism promoters is uneven; Many Chao Lay cannot read or write and did not know that they could register their land in their name.

Fishing boats belonging to the ancient nomadic Moken community are moored along Rawai Beach in Phuket, Thailand.  |  AFP-JIJI
Fishing boats belonging to the ancient nomadic Moken community are moored along Rawai Beach in Phuket, Thailand. | AFP-JIJI

Many families today have no legal title to the land they live on, although the government tries to help them prove they were there long before investors.

He ordered the analysis of ancient aerial photographs and bones of Chao Lay ancestors – traditionally buried on the beach so they could still hear the sound of the waves.

Call to rethink

Narumon Arunotai, anthropologist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the government “must seize the opportunity presented by the pandemic to rethink its vision of Chao Lay.”

“The Covid is an opportunity to change mentalities. Mass tourism in Phuket has been a disaster for the sea gypsies, ”she adds.

One option is for the authorities to buy the land and hand it over to them on a permanent basis.

The government recently allocated a mangrove area to neighboring Chao Lay communities for temporary living and fishing – a first step but not a permanent solution.

He is also committed to preserving their oral traditions, to little effect so far. The people of Rawai face many problems, including alcohol and illness.

“They need a special education system that preserves their culture. The government must also allow them to fish more freely, ”said Narumon.

The Chao Lay have unique gifts and traditions that have served them well.

Moken children – one of the three branches of the Chao Lay – have 50% better visual acuity in water than their European counterparts, according to a 2003 study.

And their deep understanding of their surroundings enabled many of them to spot the warning signs of the devastating 2004 tsunami and flee.

Most of them escaped and also helped many tourists to safety.

“We will always be the children of the sea,” said Alim with a smile.

Moken children play on Rawai Beach, in the south of the Thai island of Phuket.  |  AFP-JIJI
Moken children play on Rawai Beach, in the south of the Thai island of Phuket. | AFP-JIJI

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