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The last of the sea nomads?

Why the lifestyle of the Moken people, who live off the sea around Thailand and Burma, is under threat

The last of the sea nomads?
Photos: Sofie Olsen

They roam the ocean on small, handcrafted wooden boats called kabang, foraging for food using simple tools. The children spend so much time diving that their eyes adapt, allowing them to see more clearly underwater. They are the Moken people, an Austronesian ethnic group who traditionally lived nomadic, sea-based lives around the Surin Islands off the coast of Thailand and in Burma. They are also the subject of a photo essay by Norwegian photographer Sofie Olsen and of an upcoming documentary by Norwegian film-maker Runar J. Wiik, titled No Word for Worry, as the Moken have no such word in their language.

Olsen quit her job at a private bank in Geneva to sail to Burma’s Mergui » Archipelago in 2009, an expedition that introduced her to the Moken and marked the beginning of her career as a photographer. “I was fascinated by the Moken people´s ancient nomadic oceanic culture,” she says. “Traditionally, they live as hunters and gatherers, far removed from materialism, technology and the perception of time, which we in the West confine our lives to.” Since her first trip, she has returned a number of times to document their way of life.

Yet, says Olsen, that lifestyle is under threat. As local authorities pressure the Mokens live in permanent settlements, modern technologies and values have begun to infiltrate their culture.

“The ocean is an element we often distance ourselves from,” says Olsen. “The Moken people´s ancient nomadic culture and their exceptional knowledge about the ocean are rapidly being diluted and are disappearing.” It is this precarious situation that her photographs and Wiik’s film project aim to shed light on.

“Going beneath the surface of the ocean together with the Moken may remind us that the ocean is a significant part of this planet, and prove you can live a life [in tune] with your surroundings.”

No Word for Worry is set for release early 2014. sofieolsen.com, projectmoken.com


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