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Sea Gypsies

Koh Lanta Culture | Koh Lanta Sea Gypsies
Koh Rok
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The nomadic Chao Lay (Sea Gypsies) arrived on Koh Lanta more than 500 years ago with their unique language, matriarchal social structure and animist belief system.

Today the Sea Gypsies of Koh Lanta are struggling to preserve their traditional culture in the face of growing tourism and the influence of western culture. They earn their living on fishing or catching lobster, other tasty shellfish and collecting bird's nests for the Chinese cuisine.

Sea Gypsy culture

Because of being people that depend on nature, their belief in the supernatural and traditional spiritual worship is still strong in the community and colors many of their ceremonies. The bi-annual event is "Floating Boats" (Loi 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. 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.

Sea Gypsy tribes in Thailand

The Sea Gypsies of Thailand can be differentiated in three distinct groups. When walking through one of their villages, it is obvious, that they have quite a distinct look from local Thais or Muslims as most have striking dark skin, curly hair with a slight red touch and bushy eyebrows.

  • the Moken in the North, from Tavoy and Matthews islands in Myanmar, Koh Surin and Koh 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 Koh Sireh at Phuket's eastern coast to Koh Hay, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Koh Pu, Koh Libong, Koh Lipe and as far as the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

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. 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.

Sea Gypsy villages on Koh Lanta

There are still two Chao Ley villages less than a kilometer apart on the southeast coast of Koh Lanta near the National Park office. These Chao Ley are from the Urak Lawoi tribe.

There is one private Sea Gypsy mini museum called Sea Gypsy House nearby. Sea Gypsy House is a seaside compound with various buildings standing among the mangrove and tidal pools near Koh Lanta Old Town. It serves as both an educational centre for visitors and a place for Sea Gypsies to fashion jewelry and traditional musical instruments.


Last Updated: 24 Jan 2008


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