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The Unseen Lifestyle of the Sea Gypsies
 
Our world is full of wonders. There are a number of distinct ethnic groups alive in the world today whose existence can be said to be ‘semi-aquatic’. Their entire lives are lived-out upon the sea (or lake) and they subsist and survive predominantly on what they harvest from their water-world. In many cases, the children of these people learn to swim before they can walk, and they have pronounced semi-aquatic adaptations which could be linked to a semi-aquatic ancestor. Unfortunately, for many of them, their traditional way of life is now under threat, and these ethnic groups and their unique lifestyles are gradually disappearing from our world.
In this edition, we would like to bring the world of Asia’s water-world living tribes closer to you. From the extraordinary Moken of Southern Thailand to the peaceful Inthar People of Myanmar’s gorgeous Inle lake. Read on to discover the beauty of these all too rare water-borne lifestyles.
 



 
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The Moken – Thailand and Myanmar
 
The Moken are an Austronesian ethnic group with about 2,000 members (declining) who maintain a nomadic, sea-based culture. The name is used for all of the Austronesian speaking tribes who inhabit the coast and islands of the Andaman Sea on Thailand’s west coast, and up through the Mergui Archipelago of Burma (Myanmar).



 
It is said of the Moken or Sea Gypsies that « All Moken are born, live and die on their  boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea.” The Moken only live on land during the monsoon, for about 3 months in a year. For this reason, it is true that their babies learn to swim before they walk and learn to dive while they are still very young children. Being the skilled divers and the navigators they are, the Moken people primarily collect mollusks and hunt for fish and trade them for their staple, rice. They have an extraordinary ability to hold their breath, and see, underwater for a time that far exceeds the capability of an ordinary, healthy human. As a result, many fishermen in Myanmar use the services of Moken people to help them catch fish, set up nets and collect mollusks.
 



Their knowledge of the sea enables them to live off its fauna and flora by using simple tools such as nets and spears to forage for food. What is not consumed is dried atop their boats, then used to barter for other necessities at local markets. During the monsoon season, they build and repair boats while occupying temporary huts.
 
The Moken have lived as stateless, indigenous sea nomads in the waters off 



 


Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand for almost 4,000 years. They are the very last people who still see the ocean as a place to live their entire lives. Earth’s last marine nomads, Moken culture focuses on sustainable interaction with the marine environment, and they have survived this way for 1000s of years. They treat the ocean with the respect it deserves.
 

Discover Secret Journeys in Thailand
 



Bajau LautMalaysia, Indonesia, Philippines
  
Visitors can experience the fascinating culture of the Bajau Laut people who live in stilt huts on floating villages, or on long wooden boats called Lepa.
These Sea-Gypsies are true masters of the ocean. They have roamed the coral triangle between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines for centuries, and are 



 


expert free divers and fishermen with a profound connection to the ocean. Few communities around the world can boast a deeper connection with the ocean than the legendary Bajau Laut of Borneo, who follow a nomadic, seafaring way of life throughout their entire lives; they rarely set foot on land. Even today, a sizeable population still live in wooden houseboats or stilt huts built atop coral reefs near Malaysia’s Semporna islands. Sadly, many of them have given up their nomadic lifestyle to settle permanently on land in search of greater stability. A study in 2010 by the University of Malaya Sabah rather interestingly confirmed the Sea Gypsy’s affinity with living on water, rarely setting foot on land it was found that when forced to spend night or two on solid ground the Sea Gypsies reported feeling ‘landsick’.
 

Discover Secret Journeys in Malaysia
 



 


 
Typically, Sea Gypsies are more at home at sea, however they do have to go ashore for business. This may include selling their catches, collecting fresh water for drinking or wood for making boats and, to bury the dead. Most would return to their boats by nightfall. The plight of the Sea Gypsies in the modern world has remained largely unchanged. They have always been, and still are, ‘stateless’ people, a people simply living their life following the rules of the natural world rather than those of the bureaucrats and business corporations that control and fence in the lives of the majority us on this big blue marble. According to the United Nations, there are more than 10 million stateless people in the world.
 

Discover Secret Journeys in Philippines
 



Urak Lawoi – Thailand and Indonesia
 
Urak Lawoi are an Aboriginal Malay people residing on the islands of Jum, Phuket, Bulon, Phi Phi, Lanta, and on Lipe and Adang in the Adang Archipelago off the western coast of Thailand. They are known by various names, including Urak Lawoi, Lawta, Chao Thale, Thai Mai and Lawoi.



 


Comprising an estimated population of approximately 6,000 souls, they speak a  language that is closely related to Malay but influenced by Thai. The Urak Lawoi are one of several southeast Asian ethnicities referred to as Sea Gypsies (chao leh in Thai). The local way of life has been changing rapidly in recent years, due to the rapid encroachment of the market economy, and the opening of Tarutao National Marine Park as a tourist attraction.
 
Because of their small numbers and dispersed settlements, the Urak Lawoi often escape the attention of outsiders especially the Thai authorities. Legend has it that, a long time ago, the Urak Lawoi lived happily on the slopes of Gunung Jerai, in Malaysia. God was upset that the Urak Lawoi did not worship him. Despite encouragement the Urak Lawoi refused to do so, and so they were cursed by God and have lived as a dispersed people ever since. Gunung Jerai remains a sacred place for the Urak Lawoi today, as it is believed that their ancestors all came from there. The Urak Lawoi organize a boat ceremony twice a year, and towards the end of each ceremony, a model boat is sailed away symbolically heading home to Gunung Jerai.
 

Discover Secret Journeys in Indonesia
 



Tanka – China and Vietnam
 
The Tankas or boat people are a Sinicized ethnic group in Southern China who have traditionally lived on junks in coastal parts of Fujian, Guangdong, Shanghai, Guangxi, Hainan, Zhejiang and along the Yangtze River, as well as Hong Kong, and Macau. The Boat people are referred to with other different names outside of Guangdong (not called Tanka). Though these days, many now live onshore, some 



 
from the older generations still live on their boats and pursue their traditional livelihood of fishing. Historically, the Tankas were considered to be outcasts. Since they were boat people who lived by the sea they were often referred to as sea gypsies by both the Chinese and the British. Tanka origins can be traced back to the native ethnic minorities of southern China known historically as the Baiyue who may have taken refuge on the sea and over time have gradually assimilated into Han culture. However, Tanka have preserved many of their native traditions that are not found in Han Chinese culture. A small number of Tankas also live in parts of Vietnam. There they are called Dan (Đàn) and are classified as a subgroup of the Ngái ethnicity.
 



Inthar – Myanmar
 
One of Myanmar’s major tourist destinations is the breathtakingly serene and beautiful Inle Lake, home of the uniquely leg-rowing Inthar people. The Inthar are members of a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group that have long lived on and around Inle Lake. They’re believed to have come from the Dawei area (Southern part of Myanmar) and are renowned for their ability to live, farm, 



 


fish and even grow crops on their floating gardens on the surface of Inle Lake. More than a sleepy tourist destination, the town of Nyaungshwe, on the northern banks of the lake, is the main trading hub for the local villages, as well as the departure point of crafts produced from the lake towards the rest of the country. The buildings on the lake, monasteries, homes, schools, workshops and shops, are built over the water supported by wooden stilts driven down into the lakebed. 70,000 of Inthar people live in four townships bordering the lake and in numerous small villages along the lake’s shores, and on the lake itself. Not only Inthar people, but also a mix of other ethnicities including Shan, Pa-O, Taung Yo, Danu, Kayah and Danaw populate the villages around the lake shore, and most of them are Buddhists.
Local Inthar fishermen are famous for their distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique style evolved due to the need of the boatmen to see above the reeds and floating plants that grow in the lake. Fish caught from the lake are a staple of the local diet. In addition to fishing, the Inthar also grow herbs, vegetables and fruit in large gardens that float on the surface of the lake and keep fowl. The only crop they aren’t self-sufficient in on the lake is rice.
 

Discover Secret Journeys in Myanmar
 



 
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Travel is all about experiences, comfort and luxury is important but without a sincere sense of place, you could be anywhere in the world. The beauty of travel is in the experiences, the people you meet, the stories you hear, the flavours of the regions you visit, the art and culture of the destination, the history and of course the hospitality. This is the sense of place that the Secret Retreats boutique hotels and luxury resorts strive to provide you with as we Unveil the Essence of Asia to you.
 
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