SOUTH SURIN ISLAND, Thailand, Jan. 16 - They call it "wave that eats people," but the Moken sea gypsies, who have lived in isolation here for decades, emerged from the tsunami almost unscathed.
A community of about 200 Moken was living on South Surin Island, 40 miles from the Thai mainland, when the wave hit on Dec. 26 as it was barreling toward the coast. The Moken's village of thatched huts on stilts was on the beach, but when the water crashed over it, the Moken - including wizened old women and parents with babies on their backs - had already run to the hills.
The Moken know the mysteries of the ocean better than most Thais, having roamed it for centuries as fishermen and divers. They used to live half the year in houseboats on the Andaman Sea, wandering between Thailand and Myanmar, formerly Burma, and while less itinerant now, they remain closely attuned to the water. They are animists who believe that the sea, their island and all objects have spirits, and the Moken use totem poles to communicate with them.
Salama Klathalay, chief of the Moken here, said his elders taught him to expect a people-eating wave whenever the tide receded far and fast. So when he witnessed such a sight on the morning of Dec. 26, he started running and shouting.
"I had never seen such a low tide," said Mr. Salama, a lively white-haired man who said he was at least 60 but unsure of his exact age. "I started telling people that a wave was coming."
One member of the community, a disabled man who could not run, was left behind in the panic, Mr. Salama said, sitting in one of the tents in which the Moken are living while they build a new village. The man died, and to avoid bad luck, Mr. Salama said, they were rebuilding on a different beach. They could avoid future tsunamis by moving to the hills, he said, but they fear the snakes that live there.
The Moken's eyesight under water is so sharp that researchers have studied it. Many cannot read or write, passing lore and knowledge down through the generations orally. They have their own language, though many younger Moken now speak Thai. Some go to the mainland to live and find work, but Mr. Salama said many return.
"They're not used to it over there," he said. "They're used to working on the sea, and there, they have to work in a factory or something."
The Moken have been little more than an oddity for tourist guidebooks and a nuisance for the Thai government, which has chastised them for fishing and foraging on environmentally sensitive water and land. But now, because of their agile escape from the tsunami, these people who live without electricity or schooling are a cause célèbre. The Thai news media has painted them as heroes, and politicians have called for preserving their way of life and spreading their long-held wisdom.
Mr. Salama and other Moken seemed tolerant of nosy visitors, but their thoughts were clearly elsewhere. The wave destroyed most of their wooden boats, most of which have motors these days, and all their homes. It indefinitely closed a small national park office, which employed some Moken as guides and garbage collectors and bought the fish they caught. The disaster also scared off tourists, whom the Moken took diving and to whom the Moken sold handmade replicas of their boats.
After the tsunami, rescue boats took the Moken to a Buddhist temple on the mainland, where they stayed about 10 days before restlessness overwhelmed them. They returned to their island last weekend and started building new homes with donated bamboo and palm fronds. Park rangers are helping them build 54 new homes, which they hope to finish in a few months, and perhaps a small school and souvenir shop for tourists.
A few thousand sea gypsies - called chao ley, or water people, in Thai - live on the Andaman coast or islands near it. Most are more assimilated than the Moken, but they still lead segregated, impoverished lives.
Yupa Klathalay, 35, a Moken, said she visited the mainland a few times a month to sell sea cucumbers but had no interest in moving there, even after the tsunami.
"This place comes from the old generation, and we have to continue it," Ms. Yupa said as hammers pounded and saws buzzed. In the late afternoon, when the group working on construction was dragging in the heat, Mr. Salama pulled up in a longtail boat and leapt out, shouting and hoisting wood to re-energize them.
Mr. Salama, whose father was the chief here before him, said his people believed that tsunamis came because the sea was angry. Another group of Moken, who lived on a different island and are now at a refugee camp in Takua Pa, about 70 miles north of Phuket, on the coast of the Thai mainland, said they, too, thought the wave was punishment from the spirits. They said some dolphins appeared to be agitated shortly before the tide receded that morning, a sign that something was coming. Most of that group also survived.
Each spring the Moken hold a ceremony celebrating the sea and asking for its forgiveness, and this year will be no exception, Mr. Salama said.
"We didn't do anything bad, but maybe somebody else did," he said. "The wave has cleaned out the bad things."
(Source: The New York Times)