Sea Gypsies



At twenty-three years old Lin is already a widow with two children to support.“My husband’s work was dangerous and we always new that there was a possibility that he might not come back – it happens here often enough.” She shrugs, with typical Oriental resignation. Traditionally known as the ‘Sea Gypsies’, the Moken people once lived almost their whole lives on their boats. But almost all their boats were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and these days they are confined to several dilapidated shantytowns on a few relatively remote islands in Thai and Burmese waters. Without their boats the great schools of fish that congregate in the rich tropical waters of the Burma Bank became inaccessible. The Moken have always been known as legendary swimmers and free-divers however and Lin’s husband was just one of many young men on Koh Noi island who was tempted by work as a diver. Indian fishing boats in particular often make the long voyage from their home-waters just to recruit gangs of Moken divers who are willing to run the risks in the dangerous but lucrative quest for pearls and, more commonly, sea cucumbers.


Lin’s husband was the second man in this little hamlet of three hundred to die of the bends in the first quarter of this year. In January a fourteen year-old boy died while diving for sea cucumbers. Although backpackers and divers visit the Thai islands off the coast of Ranong, Koh Noi seems to be far removed from the tourist trail. Koh Chang, just a couple of hours away by local motorboat, is a particularly sleepy and restful island with a few rented bungalows that see sporadic, if relatively lackadaisical, bursts of party activity around full moon. Even on Koh Chang though few people are aware of the existence of Sea Gypsies in the area. I arrived on Koh Chang following a vague rumour that there was a Moken island somewhere in the area. It took me two attempts to swim out against the current to reach the only fishing boat that lay in the bay. Standing dripping in the bow, struggling with my woefully inadequate marketplace Thai and drawing numbers in the sand on the deck, I managed to haggle Petr the Thai fisherman into shuttling me to the Sea Gypsy island.

Petr had only visited Koh Noi once before and I crossed my fingers as the little skiff puttered out into the maze of islands that dot this part of the Indian Ocean. We seemed to be motoring for so long that I began to think that we must have crossed the border and that I had surely already entered illegally into Burmese waters. In fact among this tangle of islands, reefs and rocky outcrops, few local people place much importance on just where the border lies. Many Sea Gypsies have yet to be accepted officially as citizens of either Thailand or Burma and they cross at will over national boundaries without giving it much thought.

As our voyage progressed the droning of the engine and the gentle sun soothed me so that Petr had to shake me awake when we arrived at Koh Noi. At first sight the village was sadly lacking in boats. A couple of skeletal prahus lay rotting in the shallows, their struts rearing from the mud like the ribs of stranded whale carcases. The people lived in rough, stilted huts cobbled together from bamboo or driftwood. The land on which the village is built is rented from a mainlander but the villagers own no extra terrain that could be converted to orchards or crops.

Judging from the heaps of garbage strewn throughout their village it seemed that the Moken people had traded their old diet of fresh fish and their legendary knowledge of wild fruit and traditional herbal medicines for a diet of instant noodles and Chang beer. As is often the case in South East Asian villages a separate shack had been set aside as what was grandly described as a ‘guesthouse.’ The ‘bed’ was just a rattan mat laid out on the floorboards and the ‘shower’ was a rusty bucket but I was grateful for the offer and the hut itself was infinitely more sturdy than most of the villagers’ homes.

Missionaries from several organisations have tried to get a grip on the Moken of Koh Noi with only limited success. Sunan Thuanthong has been more dogged than most (and less self-serving than a great many). He has lived in a little shack on Koh Noi for the past 16 years and has worked hard to help the people. It is in great part through his labours that they are on the verge of winning the identity papers that would guarantee the community official Thai citizenship and thus offer them access to medical services, schooling and some chance of paid work that could provide an alternative to their dangerous diving.

As the island’s self-proclaimed spiritual leader, Sunan had to rush off to oversee the funeral of Lin’s husband. Six hours of traditional mourning would probably lead to the two or three days of drinking, dancing and carousing that was needed to lay the ghosts of the young man to rest.

“I’ve tried to convince them that a day of drinking is already more than enough,” the preacher said morosely, “but I’m not sure they agree.”

As the night wore on the drinking led to fighting. Once or twice even knives and sticks were brought into action but the fighters were always overpowered before they caused serious injury. I had been in more local tribal villages in Asia than I could count and had always been astounded by a level of fellowship and mutual respect that is rarely seen in the west. Although I was accepted and respected as a guest the Moken of Koh Noi seemed to be as close to the edge of social collapse as any community I have ever seen.

The Moken were traditionally the most knowledgeable and independent of the several nomadic groups that are still known – with perhaps misplaced Western romanticism – as the ‘Sea Gypsies.’ It was said, for example, that they harvested more than eighty different plants for medicinal use. Little of their hereditary store of knowledge has been passed down though and the people that I spoke to on Koh Noi seemed surprised to learn that their people ever had a reputation for any sort of wisdom whatsoever. Their unique brand of Buddhism is also fast disappearing.

“We had several visits from missionaries in the weeks after the tsunami,” says Sunan Thuanthong. “Three hundred years ago missionaries were converting ‘rice Christians’ out of starving peasants…Inflation might have caught up but today it can still be done with a bible and a boat.” It seems that the disaster heralded something of a boom period for missionary societies working in the Thai islands. The Bible Society proudly claims that, on Phuket, hundreds of Urak Lawoi Sea Gypsies became Christians after the tsunami.

‘Over the last few years, as people up and down Thailand’s coastline have been rebuilding homes, infrastructures and lives, a remarkable change has taken place among this minority group that has in the past been very resistant to the Christian message,’ reads a report on the society’s website, ‘…what has happened since the tsunami is amazing – God has been at work building his Church.’

Ali Pramongkit is headman of the thirty-six families who live in a ramshackle shantytown on the northern end of the backpacker paradise-island of Koh Phi Phi. His people are Chao Ley (literally ‘people of the sea’) and there are only four families of Moken. Here too Ali claims that twenty people were converted to Christianity with the offer of boats. The Sea Gypsies of Koh Phi Phi are more fortunate than many of their compatriots and at least here they are able to make a living by ferrying tourists around the island.

“In Phi Phi town there are few families who did not lose loved ones in the tsunami,” says Ali. “Nobody knows for sure how many people died on the island but they say around two thousand. Not a single person died in our village.” It was the tourists and the mainlanders who went out to explore the naked reef who were the first victims. Thousands of years have taught the Sea Gypsies that, while they could count on the ocean for food and security, they should never trust it unreservedly. Among Sea Gypsy communities all over the islands the story is the same; at the first hint of strange activity in the sea the people instantly took to whatever high ground they could reach. On Koh Phi Phi they were also able to warn farang (foreigners) to follow them.

There can be precious little good news to come out of what is now known as the most horrific disasters ever witnessed by modern man. As Ali points out though it was a poignant reminder that at least some of the Sea Gypsy’s legendary knowledge has been passed down…and that even today it can prove to be a key to their survival.


FOOTNOTE: The islanders of ‘Koh Noi’ are currently fighting to be integrated into Thai society. The process is a long and arduous one and rather than risk complicating the matter still further the names not only of the islanders but also of the island itself have been changed.





In Bangkok, David Whitley finds himself immersed in the bizarre world of ranking elephants



You don’t have to spend too much time sat in Bangkok’s delightful traffic jams to realise that the elephant holds a special place in Thai hearts. Roundabouts will have hedges cut out in the shape of ellies, and monuments will depict big pink ones lifting a god to the heavens.


It would be reasonable enough to assume that this is because elephants are cool animals – they are, after all, great – but a visit to one of the city’s oddest museums shows that there’s a lot more to it than that.


The Royal Elephant National Museum is tucked away inside the grand and bizarrely unThai-looking Dusit Palace Park. The park was once the king’s main residence, built under the orders of a Westernised king with a penchant for Victorian and Mughal architecture. It performs more of a touristy role now, and the old stables that the Royal Elephants were kept in have been converted.


To start to understand the Thai reverence for elephants, you first need to understand that a Royal Elephant isn’t just any old elephant.


Royal Elephant is an official rank. These ellies are raised to the title by the king after a ludicrously OTT ceremony that goes through both Buddhist and Hindu rituals. There are chanting monks, dousing in holy water, ‘magic spells’, processions and sacrifices involved – some of which are shown in photographs along the walls.


There’s a massive rule book about what makes an elephant ‘auspicious’ or not. Illustrations of elephants with barely perceptible differences are laid out in rows. They bear labels such as ‘Isavara Family Phaturasok Group’ and ‘Agni Family Nopsuban Group’. Apparently each family of auspicious elephants is named after the God that created them.


There are a few things on display within the museum – old tusks, saddles, sticks and chains used by the mahouts – but aside from the giant gold-adorned model elephant in the second building, most of the fascination comes from the bizarre complexity involved.


White elephants are particularly important in this labyrinthine system of pachyderm-ranking. If one is found in a village in Thailand, it is almost always presented to the king as a gift. A white elephant is an “auspicious symbol of cloudy rain of god who creates all fertilities for plants, animals and the prosperity of the emperor”.


There’s also a book setting down seven characteristics a white elephant must have to be considered properly auspicious. These include properly white testicles. Don’t you go presenting a grey-balled jumbo to the king, now.


Even then, there are three classes of white elephant. The class A elephants – called sarasweet – have a large figure and the skin colour of a conch shell. They are considered “auspicious of the country”.  Second class elephants have “pink skin, the colour of a dry lotus petal”. One of these is “reserved for marital affairs use”. The mind boggles.


The true joy of the museum is that it leaves you with far more questions than answers. I want to meet someone whose job it is to assess elephants for their level of auspiciousness. I want to memorise which elephants belong in which group. I want to know if the king has a favourite. And I want elephant-ranking to be my Mastermind specialist subject.


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park It’s mainly a business hotel, but it looks surprisingly stylish


Hua Hin

David Whitley discovers that there’s no such thing as a free game of pool in Hua Hin, Thailand 

“Ooh! There’s a pool table. Shall we have a game of pool?”

It all started innocently enough. Wandering back from the waterfront seafood restaurant, a succession of nightcaps were in order. One in the vaguely saloony theme pub, one in the uncharacteristically swish wine bar… and one in the bar with a free pool table seemed like an excellent extension of the plan.

Until this point, I’d formed a fairly benign opinion of Hua Hin. The guidebooks say it’s where the weekending wealthy from Bangkok come for a break. A little like Brighton is to London, or Cape Cod is to Boston.

On a weekday, though, this doesn’t shine through. A walk down the beach – it’s long, the sand is fairly white and the water is a dubious muddy colour – reveals a lot of Scandinavian reading material. It’s a place with a different scene – a little too pricey for the backpacker crowd, and a surprisingly high concentration of middle-aged northern Europeans.

Menus and shop signs are often translated into Finnish, Swedish and Danish. Bars show obvious allegiances to Norway or Germany. There are more couples than you’d normally associate with Thailand. On the whole, it seems like one of those places that isn’t quite great at anything but is rather enjoyable for that. Everything – the markets, the restaurants, the bars, the beach, the tours and attractions nearby – is reasonably good without ever threatening to veer into excellence.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, if you just want somewhere to hole up and chill out for a few days, but without having to go stir crazy.

After picking up the pool cue, chalking it and breaking, I took a little look round the bar. When we first walked in, it looked to have a good mix of locals and tourists, but closer observation made the key demographics more apparent.

The locals were all women in their 30s, beyond the initial flushes of youth, yet still surprisingly friendly towards the foreigners. Who were all paunchy white men in their late 40s and 50s.

Aaaaaah. One of those bars.

We finished the game of pool and moved along. Better to move to a bar where there won’t be undercurrents every time a waitress takes my order. But strolling down the lane, it quickly became apparent that our bar with the free pool table was the tip of an iceberg.

Each bar we walked past was more obvious than the last. The girls got younger, the clothing skimpier and the middle-aged Scandinavian men drooled more blatantly.

The bars were interspersed with massage parlours of the happy ending variety. Girls sitting on benches started propositioning me.

“Bloody hell,” said my wife, suddenly twigging that we’d walked into a red light district more readily associated with Pattaya. “It’s like Shaun of the Dead, but with prostitutes.”

My embarrassment was compounded by the fact that I was suddenly lost. All attempts to get to the main road or the beach were marked with more wrong turns and even more pick-up bars. “No! You’ve got it all wrong,” I wanted to explain. “I’m not a sex tourist. I’m just very lost.”

Or “No love, I’m sure you’re very nice. But I’m not after that.”

Or “There’s been a terrible mistake! I shouldn’t be here.”

Or “Do I really look like a sex tourist? Please tell me I don’t look like a sex tourist.”

Seemingly wandering round in circles as girls danced very unsubtly by streetside tables, I began to imagine how mortifying this would be if I were an older man travelling alone.

Despite any protestations to the contrary, all the seedy old men would think you’re one of them. And any the other tourists wandering around lost would put you in the grubby lech camp too. It’s a marvellous place for a reputation to be ruined…

You can get Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the Islands included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

Hua Hin slow train




David Whitley decides to head to the Thai beach town of Hua Hin by train. The experience ends up being something of an eye-opener 


The sign on the side of the building is not an encouraging one. “North Bangkok Hospital”, it reads. My geography can go askew at times, but I’m pretty certain this is not a good thing. The train started in central Bangkok and is supposed to be heading south. Unless named as some kind of evil joke to play on dumb foreigners, the North Bangkok Hospital is a strong indication that the train is going the wrong way.


Over half an hour or so, it has crawled painfully through the Bangkok suburbs, giving often bleak insights into what life is like for the city’s poorer residents.


Shacks back up right against the railway lines, often topped with corrugated iron roofs that don’t seem to be attached to the rest of the structure. Yet despite all the signs of squalor, many of the shacks seem to have satellite dishes attached to the top. We live in a world of bizarre priorities.


My previous experience on a Thai train started in the dark and saw me confined to a sleeper. This time, I’d see them during an afternoon of sticky tropical heat and – eventually – an almighty downpour.


The ‘Rapid’ 117 train, which leaves Bangkok for Thailand’s southern reaches at 1pm daily, is anything but rapid. It chunters along, stopping to change engines, wait for freight trains coming the other way and perform other inexplicable tasks of no doubt great importance. It also, I’m relieved to discover, heads the wrong way out of Bangkok before turning south.


The second class seats are not uncomfortable – there’s plenty of legroom and they crankily recline if required. But there’s something a little old world about them – the carriages are made of wood, and the air conditioning is provided by a series of frantically whirring ceiling-mounted fans. Everyone wrenches down the windows as soon as they get to their seat, making the traditional clackity-clack noise of slow progress drown out that from the fans.


Peace and quiet is, seemingly, not a priority. Throughout the journey, a never-ending stream of people pours past. They’re all selling food and drink – fresh fruit, egg rice dishes, undefined meat curries in boxes and cans of Coke from a bucket. Our emergency snack purchases from the station-side stalls in Bangkok are completely superfluous.


Everyone else just buys when they feel hungry. The foreigners tuck in and then wonder what on earth to do with the empty containers. There are no bins to stuff them into. The Thais don’t see this as a problem, and just chuck the plastic plates and polystyrene boxes out of the window. It’s a wonder that the tracks aren’t lined with litter.


The food-sellers keep coming, their piercing calls getting ever more familiar. With a relatively clear head, this is an endearing experience. With a hangover or a desperate desire to get to sleep, it must be the stuff of nightmares.


The train finally trundles into Hua Hin well after dark. It’s an hour and fifteen minutes late in what’s supposed to be a four hour, fifteen minute journey. By car, that would have taken two to two-and-a-half hours. Heaven knows how late the train will be running once it gets to the end of the line in the far south.

But you don’t get on a Thai train for its punctuality or speed. If you did, you’d end up severely disappointed – timetables towards the end of the line, in particular, should be taken with a fistful of salt. You get on them to see something different – and that’s not necessarily the scenery outside the window.


You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here




In Kanchanaburi, David Whitley looks beyond the Bridge Over The River Kwai tourism industry to learn of the horrors suffered by Allied POWs in World War II 

The carriage is crowded. Those standing are lurching over those sitting, angling for the best view out of the window as the train appears to fly over the river. The wooden trestle bridges that carry the train around the hillsides at Thamkrasae are engineering marvels – but they’re ones with a dark past.

The railway line was constructed during World War II. The Japanese wanted to connect Thailand and Burma properly, so that they could get troops and heavy weaponry over the mountains that divide the two countries in preparation for an invasion of India.

The 415 kilometre rail link should have taken five years to build, but the Japanese tried to do it in a year-and-a-half. And they did this by putting prisoners of war to work in brutal conditions. The men were forced to work 16 to 18 hour days, slogging away in camps that were riddled with tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery.

The most famous site along the line, however, is the Bridge Over The River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. Made famous by a largely preposterous book and an even more ludicrous film, thousands of people every year flock to Kanchanaburi to take photos of the bridge. Even though it wasn’t built in Thailand, most of it is a reconstruction, it’s not over the River Kwai, and there’s no river called the Kwai in the area.

The bridge is originally from Java. It was brought over because the Japanese lacked raw materials to build new ones – it was better to strip less important regions of the new empire. That bridge was repeatedly bombed by the Allies during the war, and very little of the original remains. The river is actually the Khwae – pronounced like the ‘quare’ in square – and the bridge isn’t over it. It’s over a tributary that was called the Mae Klong at the time and has since been renamed the Khwae Noi as a sop to confused tourists.

This doesn’t mean Kanchanaburi isn’t worth visiting, however. To the contrary, it’s the best place to learn about the whole Death Railway project. The cemetery for the Allied and Dutch soldiers who died during the construction is just outside the Thai-Burma Railway Centre.

This has long functioned as a research hub, trying to find out as much as possible about the POWs who were forced to work on the railway. It’s also a superb museum.

It covers the backstory – Japan’s 1930s incursions into China and imperial ambitions that set off World War II in the East – but focuses on the conditions the POWs had to put up with. Some of the pictures of the emaciated men, every rib of the cage clearly visible, are horrific. There was no modern machinery. Most of the digging was done by hand, and there are photos of malnourished men having to push huge carts of rubble away from the construction site.

The brutality involved is also covered, but it’s the reasoning behind it that’s often more interesting than the descriptions of the punishments. In the Japanese Army, anyone could inflict corporal punishment on those of a lower rank. The guards were often at the lowest rank (and were often Korean rather than Japanese). Much of the beating and depriving of rations would be about taking out their own frustrations.

As often with war, it’s the personal rather than the widescale that brings a lump to the throat. At one point there is a list of the members of a single Australian platoon, stating matter-of-factly what happened to them. One died of cardiac beri-beri, another of a fractured skull, another at sea on a Japanese ship because the Japanese refused to tell the Allies which ones were transporting POWs and it was bombed by friendly fire.

Elsewhere, there’s a case full of beautifully engraved cigarette tins. They weren’t originally like that – the POWs did the engraving themselves. It was one creative outlet in a world of despair and squalor. Humanity is at its most affecting when it is desperately clung on to.


You can get Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the Islands included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW