“Oh ! Young man, may the wind fill your sails
On the horizon is a modest flotilla of small hand built boats, called Kabang, like a mirage under the setting sun. They are wary of strangers, if one were to approach, they would scatter. This is the world of the Moken, a nomadic sea culture of Mura who likely migrated from mainland Aerdy 3000 years ago, initially coming south and splitting off from the main body of the Mura.
They now make their home up and down the length of the vast archipelagos, which they call Mergui, confining themselves to the 800 or so southernmost islands along their two hundred and fifty mile range.
An elder named Gatcha allows us onto his family’s boat. They have suffered hard times from pirates from the lands of the Sea Barons and the Ice Barbarians. As long as the Moken can be persuaded that one is neither a Sea Baron nor an Ice Barbarian, then they are friendly and readily accept overtly peaceful strangers. When Gatcha offers a plate of betel nuts, it is a sign of acceptance.
“The Moken are born, live and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea.” Begins one of the Moken epic tales. For eight to nine months a year they live aboard their low slung Kabang – punishment, according to the myth, laid upon society by an ancestral island Queen, Sibian, when her husband, Gaman Lefru committed adultery with her sister. Queen Sibian declared that the Kabang would represent the human body, with the bows representing the mouth, constantly seeking nourishment from the sea and the stern, the anus. For Defecation.
As divers and beachcombers, the Moken take what need each day – fish, molluscs and sandworms to eat, shells, sea snails and oysters to barter with the mostly Imperial traders that they regularly encounter on the sea. They accumulate little (there’s not a lot of space on a Kabang) and live on land only during the worst of the winter weather.
Even modest wave troughs look immense from a Kabang, but Puket – one of Gathca’s seven children – sits in the stern calmly smoking his pipe with the steering oar hooked under one knee. Puket and another son, Jale – a mighty spear fisherman – and a daughter named Iphim, a childless widow, travel with their father most of the time. This family, like the other Moken families poses little or no threat to the other inhabitants of the Rythym Sea or the wider Ocean to the East. Apolitical and non-violent, Moken keep to themselves expect when trading, usually on the move in flotillas of six or seven Kabang belonging to their extended family.
The extended families of the Moken can travel over a thousand miles in their eight or nine months at sea each year. A single boat may detach itself from the family flotilla occasionally. They can then venture off so that an individual can dive for tradable sea trinkets like shells and sea stars, seek a lover, spouse, or healer, or join another extended family for a religious ritual before returning to it’s own flotilla.
Quarters are close and possessions few on a kabang, which usually houses five or more relatives. Inside the Moken eat, sleep and give birth. They are fed from the sea, hunting with harpoons, hooks and hands rather than the nets and lines of hooks favoured by their competitors. The kabang that define them come from the forested islands around which they live. A keel from the trunk of a mature tree is roughed out before being dragged to the beach where the additional components are added. A boat may take a family four months to complete. Also, hand carved from wood, they make goggles, with lenses of volcanic glass from the many volcanic islands, sealed with tree sap.
The Moken have been harassed and abused throughout their history. Still victimised by their distant Aerdy and Frunze kin, they have been enslaved by the hurgilin, eaten by the Sahaguin and denied landing rights by their fellow Mura in the far distant past. More recently they have been asked to pay to pay taxes to land in some of their traditional harbours, driven off by more settled fishermen and even tricked or coerced into working in mines or farms.
As well as these pressures, their own demography could wipe them out. Many young men die each year in diving accidents – often from the bends when they dive too deep and resurface too quickly, seeking cash generating prizes for the imperial market places which have sprung up across their range in the last two hundred years. And the occasional clashes of Sea Baron and Imperial navies interferes with their migration patterns, without the room to roam they cannot find spouses. They cannot find the traders who supply their rice or barley – their staple foods. Perhaps two hundred years ago there were over five thousand Moken. In 3150, there are less than two thousand living their traditional life afloat.
As the son of a Shaman and a father figure to his people, Gatcha strives to keep the old ways alive. He (along with the other elders) tries to bring the Moken together for rituals that have suffered as the tiny flotillas have divided into sub-groups and fled north and south to reduce the pressure on their precious natural resources.
They choose a small, otherwise uninhabited island called Nyawi to meet, far away from outsiders who are upsetting to their tribal spirits. With offerings, trances, song and dance they hope to begin to appease their ancestors, to whom they look for guidance and protection. The days of the gathering end with a night of restorative ritual, after which the Moken push off into the damp grey morning to continue their journeys amongst the islands, the secretive location for next years gathering known only to the elders of each extended family. The leading shaman tastes the blood, head and flippers of a fresh turtle and asks the ancestors for favours, translating their replies for the community. For this he wears a symbolic red scarf.
The turtle has many meanings to the Moken. Some are taken alive to be included in their religious rituals. These ones are later released back into the ocean at the point at which they were abducted, always with the thanks and farewell songs of the people. The turtle symbolises all women, daughters, sisters and especially live giving mothers. To ‘harpoon a turtle’ is to marry a woman. Like the Moken, the turtle lives between the land and the sea.
Preparing for the annual period of poor weather is as inevitable as the sunrise. The Rythym Sea and the Eastern Ocean, each by turn, become ferocious and unforgiving. During the worst of the wind and rain the Moken take shelter on land. As a first act the entire family comb their chosen island for wood, bamboo, pandanus and palm leaves with which to construct their temporary homes. Old boats receive special care; Barnacles and algae that accumulate during the months at sea are brunt off with smouldering rolls of pandanus leaves.
With their shelters form the storms roofed and ready, the elders turn to spiritual matters. Some carve and paint totems called spirit poles ; Statues used by their shaman to contact the ancestors in an annual ceremony that takes place during the winter equinox, when both moons are full and the tide is at it’s highest point for the year. These islands are full of colourful flora, and the high point of the ceremony is when the shaman coats himself in mud and stuffs his ears and nose with rolled up leaves before smoking out and raiding the bees nests for honey.
In the winter the Moken put down shallow roots on land, setting down to wait out the swift winds, high seas and torrential rains. It will be a place to honour the spirits and to build new boats for the young men who have come of age this year. The island chosen by Gatcha offers a breathtaking setting. A wall of virgin forest – rife with boar, cooha and bats to be hunted – a wide(ish) band of white sand and the deep powerful ocean. Women comb the beaches and sing, with their children playing in the surf. Girls coax sandworms from hiding with rattan sticks. Boys fashion harpoons and learn from the older men how to hunt for fish, crab, turtle, ray and eel.
 The sails of Moken Kabang are made of Pandanus leaves.