A life shaped by sea

On Koh Lipe, a small island in the Andaman Sea popular with tourists, the Urak Lawoi are trying to preserve their ocean culture from the influences of the modern world.

Words and photographs by Milos Prelevic

During the early morning hours of a particularly clear and calm night, the starry sky above my head reveals a bright half-moon. I am surrounded by warm, humid air, while I witness several fishermen prepare their traditional fishing boats, quickly loading up their equipment. The diesel motor roars in my ears as the water transforms from a vivid green showcasing numerous shallow reefs to a foreboding blackness while the sun slowly rises on the horizon.

After an hour’s ride, our boat reaches the archipelago’s end. The fishermen immediately get ready for their first dive. Taking hundreds of metres of coiled hoses in their hands, they start to connect them to an old compressor that doesn’t look reliable. They carefully attach the other side of the hoses to their snorkel masks. This simple machine will provide them with air underwater. The boat captain turns on the compressor engine and the air starts gushing through the hoses loudly. The fishermen put on their masks and jump in the water. Diving down to a depth of around 20 metres, they start searching for the fishing traps they placed in the area a couple of days previously. From the surface, I can see them work together, a well-coordinated team.

While one of them removes the rocks that were placed on top of the traps to secure them to the ocean floor, the other diver connects a large plastic bucket to the trap and fills it with air out of his hose. The trap then floats up to the surface, bringing all trapped fish up to the boat. After unloading the catch, they return to the ocean floor and leave the trap for another week or two. While this fishing method is the least harmful to the environment, as it doesn’t tend to break corals, it comes with a price. Every time the fishermen dive down, they risk decompression sickness and life-changing injuries.

Dangerous jobs like this should be paid well, but that is not the case. The fishermen get paid for the fish they catch and, as in most parts of the world, fish populations are decreasing. “Before, we used to catch more fish, but now there are less and less. We can’t compete with the modern boats, and there are more of them every year,” says Pachoi, a local fisherman who I met while visiting the Urak Lawoi close to the Malaysian border.

We are on Koh Lipe, the southernmost island of Thailand, which impresses with stunning evergreen forests and an underwater world that attracts thousands of tourists annually. Whale sharks, manta rays and dolphins are common in the area, and every dive spot is teeming with vibrant soft corals. But here, away from the tourist spots, live the Urak Lawoi, a minority group whose way of life and unique culture dramatically contrasts with the rest of the country. Their language is a dialect of Malay and Thai with no written form. I came to this beautiful part of Thailand to find out how this unique culture, also known as the People of the Sea, ended up on the remote Adang archipelago.

I am told that their story began on the Malaysian island of Langkawi across the Strait of Malacca. Here, the so-called ‘Orang Laut Kappir’, forerunners of the Urak Lawoi, once resided. When Malays conquered the island, they forced out all those who refused to convert to Islam. The ‘non-believers’ sailed away in search of land rich in natural resources. An island around 150km away became their new home: Koh Lanta Yai.

In the early 1900s, an adventurer from Aceh in Indonesia named To Kiri ventured in search of an area rich in natural resources. He reached Koh Lanta Yai on his quest and met the Urak Lawoi people. To Kiri arranged for the Urak Lawoi to move to the Adang archipelago. The chief of Thailand’s southern Satun district, within which the Adang archipelago sits, saw this move as an administrative and political opportunity. Thailand gave the Urak Lawoi Thai citizenship to prove to the British colonial administrators that the Adang archipelago, which sits near the modern Thailand/ Malaysia border, belonged to Thailand.

When borders were set, the Adang archipelago was appointed to Thailand. Today the Urak Lawoi inhabit a number of coastlines in the Andaman Sea, including on islands such as Phuket, Phi Phi, Jum, Lanta, Bulon, and the Adang archipelago.

The Urak Lawoi initially led a semi-nomadic way of life on the Adang archipelago. They foraged for food on ‘bagad’ trips that would last from a few days up to a few months. On those trips, they built camps near drinkable water sources, temporary accommodation fashioned from bamboo. Days and nights had a rhythm to them. The men would head out to sea to fish during the day, returning before nightfall. The day’s catch would be cleaned and cooked by the women, some used to make dinner, the rest left to dry in the sun the following day, or, for species such as sea cucumbers, placed on metal sheets by a fire. Children would search for marine life at low tide. The ocean provided. The ocean sustained.

When Tarutao National Park was formed in 1974, encompassing many of the islands in the area, the Urak Lawoi’s way of life didn’t align with the park’s new conservation rules. After conflicts with rangers, the Urak Lawoi’s semi-nomadic way of life was replaced by a more settled one. Today, after continued disputes with park authorities, the Urak Lawoi have secured permission to use the archipelago’s natural resources, provided their practices are non-destructive – such as the traps described at the beginning of this article. These traps are built using bendable wood from the forest, wire and rope. Some are the size of a small car. Attached to the frame is a funnel that allows fish to swim into the frame, while not letting them out.

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This feature appears in ISSUE 29: MOVING SAND of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 29
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