SSI x Edges of Earth: A Dive into the Moken Way of Life

With its breathtaking natural beauty and unmatched wildlife, many divers have placed Thailand at the very top of their bucket list, but few divers know about Thailand’s Moken people. The Moken are the last marine nomads on Earth, known for their incredible free-diving abilities and deep connection to the ocean. Find out more about these remarkable people in the Edges of Earth’s latest news.

Conserving Thailand’s reefs – The impacts of the pandemic

With its azure waters and stunning coral reefs, Thailand experienced an influx of tourism when it became known as a premier dive destination. This left a heavy footprint on the country’s delicate ecosystems. The unfolding situation set the stage for us to understand what is being done to preserve community, culture and marine ecosystems in one of the most incredible places on earth. 

During the pandemic, the Thai government closed all 133 of the national parks in the country to limit the amount of visitors and to help its wildlife rebound. In a somewhat counterintuitive fashion, the global pandemic created a resurgence of wildlife in some of the most unlikely places.

Thailand was no exception, with authorities seeing marine life prosper that had not been encountered in decades

In some places throughout Thailand, tourism was so detrimental to coral reefs that they were on the brink of full collapse. With thousands of visitors a day touring the southern islands, the country decided to close the national parks during monsoon season, between May and October. This ensured the wildlife had a chance to recuperate from the effects of such heavy tourism.

Today, some of these islands continue to have restrictions in place as to how many people can visit per month and only with certain operators. These types of measures have certainly helped Thailand’s conservation causes, but they are only part of the solution. 

RELATED: Diving in Thailand – 15 Unmissable Dives

Thailand’s 1,430 islands each present their own unique potential for diving adventures, aside from areas designated only for military use. This vast array of options for diving in Thailand, combined with a thriving community of dive professionals, makes Thailand a premier destination for both scuba and freedivers.

It is a hub where beginners come to learn to dive and seasoned divers return year after year to deepen their expertise. But what we were searching for was a bit different from your standard dive tour in Thailand. 

There was one experience that emerged as particularly profound and aligned with our values: meeting the Moken people and supporting their quest for rights and recognition

Never heard of them? That is ok, we had not either. But once we learned about their way of life and what has happened to them over the decades, it became one of our expedition’s goals to learn from them.

From their centuries-old diving practices to their harmonious coexistence with the waters surrounding Thailand, we knew there would be a lot to learn from these seasoned aquanauts

This group of sea nomads has lived in unity with the ocean for generations, their lives intricately blended with the coastal waters of Thailand and Myanmar. Aboard their houseboats or ‘Kabang’, which could accommodate an entire family, they practiced a nomadic lifestyle, navigating the seas and leading lives marked by simplicity and a deep respect for nature.

As adept spearfishermen, skin divers, and artisans, the Moken epitomized sustainable living, skillfully balancing their needs with the bounty of the sea and taking only what was essential for their survival.

READ MORE: Deepen Your Connection – 6 Great Reasons to Go Freediving in the Ocean

But the Moken story echoes a familiar theme found among indigenous communities worldwide. The turning point came when, in an effort to integrate the Moken into mainstream society, they were settled in permanent villages. And of all times, the government chose to enact this mandate after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc among southeast Asia, killing just under a quarter million people.

There are many theories in play as to why the Thai government acted when it did. Some believe that it was planned long before the disaster, to anchor the Moken and gain control over their once wide-ranging movements. The tsunami may have been the perfect moment to establish some rules and restrictions to mitigate the degree of damage that had unfolded.

But this directive changed everything for these stateless people, requiring the Moken to settle on land permanently and contribute to the societal fabric. In return, the government offered protection, security, and access to modern amenities like healthcare to those willing to formally identify themselves as Thai citizens.

For some within the community, this exchange appeared reasonable, acknowledging the evolving times and emerging threats to the marine environment. However, for many, this policy marked the onset of a cultural erosion, threatening to diminish one of the planet’s most remarkable and unique ways of life.

Connecting with the Moken people

Currently, the Moken people reside on select islands within Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand’s Mergui Archipelago, many of which remain remote and largely off-limits to outsiders. Yet, there exists a more accessible location in Thailand for those wishing to connect with the Moken called Koh Surin.

In this unique setting, Andaman Discoveries is the sole organization wholly committed to safeguarding and uplifting the Moken community amidst their new normal. This team’s efforts are focused on providing support that truly enriches the lives of the Moken, ensuring their cultural preservation and well-being in tangible, meaningful ways.

While various attempts have been made outside of the Andaman Discoveries team to connect with the Moken, bridging the vast cultural chasm between modern society and their lifestyle has proven to be a daunting task. The Moken, a people for whom concepts like possessions, government, and money were once very foreign, face difficulties adapting to externally imposed modern-day customs. 

READ MORE: SSI x Edges of Earth: Diving Consciously - Lessons from the Bait Ball Shoals

Recognizing this, Andaman Discoveries’ Bodhi Garrett (Founder) and Thamrong ’Tui’ Chomphusri (Director) embarked on a mission to deeply understand the Moken’s traditions and provide guidance on navigating their new reality without access to their traditional ways out at sea.

Over the past decade, this duo’s commitment has been to devise strategies to help ensure the continuity and survival of the Moken culture, prioritizing the community’s well-being over any personal advantage. This approach reflects a profound dedication to preserving the rich heritage of this ancient community amidst evolving circumstances.

Gaining direct access to the Moken required a full year of outreach and communication, given the restrictions and complexities of traveling to Koh Surin

Key among these considerations was seasonality. Surin National Park, home to an estimated 230 Moken individuals, is accessible only from November to April, aligning with the monsoon season’s hiatus.

This period not only facilitates visitors’ access but also coincides with the Moken’s temporary return to traditional practices, such as controlled fishing. Outside of these months, the harsh conditions of the rainy season keep the park inaccessible to visitors. 

Securing time with Andaman Discoveries is another aspect to work through when arranging a meeting with the Moken. Given the organization’s small team and commitment to personalized experiences, each visit to their settlement is arranged on a private basis. These programs are meticulously designed to ensure that interactions are both respectful and sustainable, prioritizing genuine benefits for the Moken community from these encounters.

Andaman Discoveries has crafted these engagements to allow the Moken to share and monetize key elements of their traditions, facilitating a balance between earning income and preserving their cultural heritage.

In December 2023, we finally connected with Tui, a dedicated supporter of the Moken, ready to dive deep into their way of life. Our expedition was focused on learning about freediving, spearfishing, and life aboard the Kabang—the very last remaining Moken houseboat—along with their rich cultural traditions. The week was shaped by Andaman Discoveries in direct collaboration with the people we were there to meet and learn from. 

Exploring the idyllic Surin Islands

Diving into the clear turquoise waters of Surin National Park, we were immediately surrounded by the vibrant coral life and schools of tiny fish, just a 15-minute boat ride from the Moken’s land camp.

It was not just the visibility and marine life that captivated us, but also the Moken’s ability to navigate on a single breath hold, as well as their special spearfishing technique 

Our Moken representative and guide, Sutat Klatalay, led us through his underwater world, showing us how deep he could dive and how high he could jump off the boat with his long spear. All of his demonstrations encapsulated what it was once like to catch fish as part of the Moken tradition.

It became quickly evident that the Moken share a unique connection with the sea—a bond that we could only begin to appreciate, but never fully comprehend

From our perspective, the aquatic environments of the area were pristine, hosting an epic display of diversity and abundance. But Sutat reminded us that these vibrant underwater scenes were merely shadows of his childhood memories. The tsunami had inflicted severe damage on the coral reefs and marine life around the national park and Surin Islands, altering the underwater landscape to something unrecognizable from what he had once known.

Despite the park’s efforts to rehabilitate the reefs by limiting tourism seasonally, Sutat revealed that these measures have not led to full restoration. He urged us to understand that this disparity is a reminder that, despite ongoing conservation efforts across Thailand, the challenge of fully restoring the marine environment requires so much more. 

Surfacing from our dives, Sutat taught us how to climb back onto the Kabang using a specially designed notch in the bow as a step. Struggling at first, it certainly took a few tries to gather how to board this handcrafted vessel made from a single log from the forest. With park restrictions now put in place, the Moken can no longer choose and cut down a tree to use for crafting a Kabang, so this was truly the last boat of its kind.

As the sun began to set, our group, including Tui, Sutat, and some of his extended family, sat quietly on the Kabang. In our silence, it seemed evident we were all reflecting on the Moken’s past life, imagining their tranquil daily rhythm with the sea, diving for survival as opposed to recreation, and living in sync with nature.

Realizing how distant the Moken people now are from their traditional way of life was sobering

Without Andaman Discoveries, they might be engaged in commercial fishing or diving for long and hard hours, capitalizing on their unique skills but at great personal risk. Such work would likely offer minimal compensation and push them even further from their heritage.

Every evening, we returned to our campsite on the beach, situated a few small islands away from the Moken’s home base. The weight of their situation often left us lying awake, contemplating the changes they have faced.

Yet, the Moken we met displayed optimism, and gratitude for our interest in their culture

They conveyed an eagerness to share their world with us, both on land and in the sea. Their openness and resilience were powerful reminders of their determination to preserve their way of life.

In today’s world, where unique cultures tend to wane and their livelihoods are steered more towards the capitalist future, the choices we make as travelers are more crucial than ever. Opting to freedive with the world’s last sea nomads can offer a completely different experience to that of a fully-fledged commercial diving operation elsewhere. 

While not all dive operators are built the same, choosing to invest in a sustainable dive operator or experience that supports local communities is more fulfilling than putting dollars in the hands of those who prioritize profit over conservation. Such decisions not only enhance your travel experience but also contribute positively to preserving the delicate balance of cultural heritage and environmental stewardship.

BE PART OF THE SOLUTION: Join the SSI Blue Oceans movement

As divers, we have a role to play. Not just for the ocean itself, but for the original explorers, navigators, and sea dwellers. If our tourism dollars are to go somewhere, they should go to the most deserving of places.

And if that means spending a few more days researching the most exceptional partners, then we would say that time is well worth it. If more of us make conscious choices about how we travel, where we dive and who we dive with, then more of us are supporting the futures of communities sitting right on the fringe. 

If you are planning a dive trip to Thailand, consider adding a visit to the Surin Islands, especially Koh Surin. Connecting with the Moken people can offer a deeper understanding of a life intertwined with the sea. By choosing to dive sustainably, you contribute to preserving the beauty that attracts us to Thailand’s waters, ensuring its survival for future generations.

Get inspired for your next dive trip. Find out more about diving in the Surin Islands


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website