Indigenous People on the Bottom


I’m in Koh Lanta, Thailand, an island on the Andaman sea in Southern Thailand. This is a Moslem area, and in general the people here don’t look like Thais do up north where we live, near Chiang Mai. I have come across a group of people living here who are distinctly of a piece, unlike their neighbors. Physically and linguistically distinct, they are most commonly called “Sea Gypsies,” and are much, much poorer than their neighbors.


They go by many names. Anthropologists call them Moken, and define them as a semi-nomadic Austronesian people, who live in the Mergui Archipelago, a group of approximately 800 islands in the Andaman Sea. In Thailand they live near Phi Phi, Krabi and Phuket. The ones who have assimilated themselves into Thai culture are called “Thai Mai” or “New Thai.”


The Burmese treat them the way they do anybody they don’t want around. They force them out of the country at gunpoint.  The Thais are more accommodating than the Burmese, but the Moken don’t have Thai citizenship, which means they cannot own land and are not entitled to free medical services. They’re refugees, as are the Hill Tribe people up near Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai; ethnically distinct people who were driven out of Burma.


There’s another distinct group, the Rohingya, who are not welcome anywhere, and are persecuted in Burma. The Burmese claim they belong in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshis claim they’re Burmese.


Sad to see the extreme poverty of these people. The Moken are not Buddhists. They have their own religion, and in Koh Lanta town there’s a shrine to their gods.













This is our second time here, five months later, during low season. There’s no one around! Miles of pristine beach, inexpensive bungalows only yards from the water, cute little railroad station right in town…and I think there may be ten other tourists here. It’s not even hot. We have air con, but it’s off half the time. Rain sprinkles every few hours for a few minutes. It’s low season all over the country, but this place is just as nice as it was five months ago, when we first came here to escape the smoke and haze in the North.

We rented a motor scooter for one day and bicycles for the other two. Got to get out of town but there’s just more of the same out there, a few dramatic hills covered with trees, probably limestone jutting up forming the border with Burma, just like it does 500 miles north to Laos. There’s really no where to go that’s not already here. Those oddly shaped hills, combined with the palm and banana trees, combine to send a strong “we’re not in Iowa anymore” to this photographer.

The people are extraordinarily friendly and seem truly happy. Even the young people don’t seem as addicted to their cell phones as they do in Bangkok. At least at our hotel, wi-fi seems OK, and the few coffee shops all have it, but I guess it’s just a wire running down along the railroad tracks.

The train comes four times a day, and two are air-conditioned second-class cars with reclining seats. Fare from Bangkok was about $14 per person. The un-airconditioned trains charge much less, about $2.50. The trip takes about five and a half hours.

As with most of Thailand, it seems that the main business here is agriculture. Here it’s not so much rice as it is coconuts and vegetables. Fishing boats at night line the horizon at sea, glowing green. I think they’re mostly catching squid.

I most parts of the world, people pay a premium to stay on the seashore, but here the room is about $21 and meals are about $2 each. I guess everybody goes to Phuket or Krabi where the scenery is more dramatic and there’s wave action. The water here in the Andaman sea is like the gulf of Mexico. No surfing or diving here. It’s quite shallow until you walk out about a hundred yards.

Maybe the reason nobody’s here is because most people equate a seaside vacation with nightlife. There certainly isn’t any of that here. You can go to the 7-11 after dark and see all the motorcycles parked in front. There’s a mini Tesco Lotus convenience store opposite, just to keep “seven” as they call it here, from having a monopoly.

Remote Paradise by the Sea


In my attempt to escape the smoke that engulfs Northern Thailand at the time of year, I retreated to the far south, to a small town on the ocean.  It’s called “Baan Kroot” and nobody’s ever heard of it which why I’m here.  It’s two or three hours south of Hua Hin, which everybody’s heard of. A few funky resorts line the sandy beach.  There is no real downtown, but a market appears and disappears at a vacant lot with regularity.  The people seem happy and nobody seems sick of tourists.

I found this idyllic village by the sea quite by accident while trolling the Internet.  Basically, all the descriptions repeated the same theme: there’s nothing happening here, the restaurants and cheap and good, the sand is white, the ocean gentle, and most of the visitors are middle aged.

If someone had told me thirty years ago that I would one day prefer the company of my current peers, I would have laughed.  How boring! Where are the hipsters, the discos, the cute girls? Somewhere far away, I hope. I went out on my rented bicycle last night in search of aspirin and Kleenex tissues.  In the dark, I passed by a group of twenty or so young men all lounging on their motor scooters.  They politely directed me to the Seven Eleven.  As in most Thai villages, the Seven Eleven (referred to simply as Seven) is ground zero for commerce.

This narrow peninsula running  south from the main part of Thailand stretches for many hundreds of miles.  A the eastern half belongs to Thailand, and the western half to Myanmar. These countries are markedly different.  Their languages are dissimilar, they use different alphabets, the people don’t look the same, and Burmese women coat their cheeks with a powder which Thai women eschew.

The Burmese side of this peninsula is totally undeveloped.  No roads, no electricity, no water, no sewers.  Someday, of course that will all change.  At night the squid boats glow green a few miles off shore.  Fishing is the main source of income down here.

Thailand is a very different place. Even though all of Indo-China may seem the same from a distance, the Indo-Chinese don’t think so.  Only Thais speak Thai. After you’ve been here a while, you can tell people from one country to another pretty quickly.

Even though it’s cool here by the sea, the heat is coming back with a vengeance, and as soon as I can safely return to Chiang Mai I’ll have to deal with the horrors blazing heat and Song Kran, another youth-inspired holiday where total strangers throw ice water on each other.  Sometimes they hurl buckets of ice water with cubes on a passing motorcyclist.  People die.  Ha ha!  Good clean fun!