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Information on Koh Lanta Island:
The Sea Gypsies

Next to the national park headquarters, the village of Sang-ga-u is inhabited by sea gypsies. Originally from the Nicobar or Andaman Islands, the sea gypsies of former centuries were living on their boats and were feared as pirates.

The offshore islands between Phuket and Penang offered numerous hiding-places and the entrance to the Street of Malacca, where Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese traders passed on the way to their colonies, were considered the most dangerous in Asia.

With the slow sailing ships disappearing, the sea gypsies began to settle along the coast in their stilt-built houses erected between the water level of high and low tide. Today most sea gypsies have been granted land, surnames

and citizenship in Thailand and their villages are spread throughout the western coast of the Malaysian peninsula.

In the Thai language they are
called "Chao'Lay" that means people of the sea and are known as the minority group "Thai Mai" which means new Thai people. They earn their living on fishing or catching lobster, other tasty shellfish and collecting bird's nests for the Chinese cuisine. When walking through one of their villages, it is obvious, that most have striking dark skin, curly hair with a slight red touch and bushy eyebrows.

Being a matriarchal society,
women can be seen wielding much power in daily village life, and working side by side in the fishing boats with the men. The sea gypsies are separated into three different groups: the Moken in the North, from Tavoy and Matthews islands in Myanmar, Ko Surin and Ko Ra in Thailand to Rawai Village at the southern tip of Phuket. The Moklen inhabit the central region with Ko Phra Thong and the coastal villages of Thai Muang and Laem Lar at the northern tip of Phuket.

The Urak Lawoi are the biggest group, with their area stretches from Ko Sireh at Phuket's eastern coast to Ko Hay, Ko Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Ko Pu, Ko Libong, Ko Lipe and as far as the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

The sea gypsies keep close relations to other villages but do not integrate into the Thai population. They still retain their own language, that belongs to the Malay-Indonesian language family, has no writing but is still found in many geographical names. The name "Pulau" means island and "Piapi" is the name of a tree growing in the mangrove swamps. During the centuries, the name "Pulau Piapi" changed to today's Phi  Phi.

Because of being people that
depend on the nature, their belief in the supernatural and traditional spiritual worship is still strong in the community and colours many of their ceremonies. The bi-annual event is "Floating Boats" (Loy-Rua), when the village men jointly build a symbolic boat and place wooden statues of themselves in it, along with nail pairings, hair and popped rice.

A medium chants sacred
words over the boat and its occupants are cast off. By performing this ritual the gypsies ask for forgiveness from the sea gods for any offences they have made to the sea and believe that all evil is carried away in the vessel. The event is a joyful occassion for everybody.

During a cremation a coconut is planted, with the wish, that the children of the deceased should live long and in good health.


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