Thailand and Indochina Traveller
April/May 2000

Roughly three centuries ago, a tribe of people fled turmoil in Indonesia for a nomadic life on the ocean. They fished their way up the eastern edge of the Andaman Sea, and by the late 1800's had established semi-permanent communities on the islands of Phuket and Koh Lanta in present-day Thailand. Known in English as "sea gypsies", they are most often referred to by their Thai name of chao leh, literally "people of the sea".

The chao leh have the British to thank for their homes on Turatao National Park off Thailand's southwest coast. From their Malaysia colony, the ever-acquisitive Brits were eyeing the uninhabited specks of islands just north of Malaysia's Langkawi Island. Realising that Thai claims to the islands would be stronger with Thai nationals living on them, the governor of Thailand's Satun province granted the chao leh the right to settle there in 1909. Villages emerged on two tiny islands, one on Koh Lipe and the other on nearby Koh Adang.

They could hardly have picked a more beautiful or more isolated area. On both islands, the white sand beaches are washed by turquoise Andaman waves. Pulau Lipe - (chao leh for "flat") lies like a gentle, forested jewel in the sea. Pulau Hadak (chao leh for "strong") boasts forested granite mountains which provide a dramatic backdrop for the chao leh village hugging the coast. From their villages on Lipe and Adang, chao leh fishermen ventured forth to harvest fish, shellfish and sea cucumber from the generous ocean. They supplement the fruits of the sea with limited farming and trade with the mainland.

In 1972, the Thai goverment outlawed their existence. The establishment of Tarutao National Park, encompassing 51 islands surrounded by 1,200 square kilometers of ocean, banned all fishing, farming and settlement within the park boundaries. But rather than forcibly removing the chao leh, today the park authorities are trying to achieve a balance between the noble goals of conservation and residents' rights by tolerating chao leh subsistence fishing and farming.

The chao leh and the park rangers do not always agree, and contradictions have led to violent clashes in the past.

But the past decade has seen a lessening of tensions, partly because the rangers and the chao leh have learned to live with each other and partly because tourism means the chao leh are less dependent on fishing for survival. But there are still plenty of people who chafe at being told that their lifestyle is illegal but tolerated. Una Sekoy, the sixty-year-old owner of one of the bungalow operations on Koh Lipe becomes visibly angry at the subject of the park. "We were here first," he says with snarling finality.

While the park is a source of tension, the chao leh are generally pleased to be in Thailand. A perfect example is the pride many take in their last names. A twenty-five year old name Supawat Hantale tells of the visit of HM the late Queen Mother "when my mother was a little girl." As part of an effort to include the chao leh more fully into the Thai community, the Queen Mother introduced surnames to the islands. Every other chao leh one meets, it seems, is surnamed Hantale - it means "Unafraid of the Sea" in Thai.

While considering themselves Thai, the chao leh have maintained their own traditions and religious beliefs, not to mention a language which is Indonesian in dialect. Chao leh communities all along the Andaman are animist and worhsip spirits found in nature.

Their festivals include the twice-yearly Loy Rua festival, where a brightly painted

vessel is loaded with all the worries of the village and sent out to sea; and the annual Pitee Wai That festival which pays respects to Toh Kiri, the founder of the community one hundred years ago.

But outside religious influences are visible in chao leh villages. A Thai mainlander who teaches at the chao leh school on Lipe speaks enthusiastically of the Buddhist shrine on the school grounds: "Before they had no religion, so we bring them Buddhism." Perhaps even more worrying for the continuance of chao leh beliefs was the Thai booklet spotted in the teacher's lounge devoted to "Phra Yesu", more commonly known as Jesus Christ.

The advent of tourism is bringing economic changes as well. Sanya Sirian can earn as much as US$27 in a day for taking groups of snorkelers to the fantastic sites off nearby Rawi and Hingam Islands. His friend Niwat Likang does not have his own boat, but uses one belonging to a bungalow. He hands over half his take for the privilege, but still finds the work an easy and valuable supplement to fishing. Whether harvesting fish or tourist dollars from the sea, the chao leh live and die by their boats - the evocatively shaped longtails with their upturned bows and languid curves. While the men work the sea, women stay on the land, like thirteen-year-old student Phimpha Hantale, who earns US$50 baht per month for waitressing at one of the bungalow restaurants.

The chao leh village on Lipe is easily accessible from anywhere on the island, and it offers a great way to glimpse the other side of life in paradise. As a collection of corrugated metal shacks with TV antennas, it is not exactly a postcard picture. However the wide dirt "avenue" lined with palm trees, the shacks looking out into the dazzling blue sea and the children happily playing on the white sand in between, has one quickly concluding that there are far worse places not to be wealthy.

Where Koh Lipe Village is easily accessible, Talo Puya, the chao leh settlement on Koh Adang, is quite remote.

The village is tucked into two coves on the eastern side of the island. Land access from the park site at the southern tip of the island - the only other inhabited area - is limited to a 9 km hike along the wild and rocky shoreline.

The chao leh, of course, travel by boat, and there are rarely any foreign passengers along for the ride. The park's guidebook, in fact, insists that the villagers are unfriendly and likely to ignore a newcomer.

My arrival at Talo Puya was not greeted with any fanfare, but when I asked a group of villagers about getting a drink - the hike to the village had not been easy - a young coconut was quickly procured and opened for me. I sipped the delicious juice as the sun glinted off the waves and even requested a spoon to get at the meat. While not unfriendly, the villagers did go about their business and left me to mine as I supped. When I asked who and how much I should pay for my treat, they all smiled as if I had made some witty bon mot. No payment was required, they insisted, and none would be accepted.

Father up the coast, a group of women was engaged in what seems to be Talo Puya's primary pastime - cards. This group was playing with a Chinese deck - half inch by one inch cards inscribed with various Chinese characters and numbers - but other groups played with standard western decks as well. Some money was changing hands to add a bit of spice to the game, but the mood was convivial. With friends around and the sea breeze wafting in from the open ocean, I could think of no better way to spend a quiet afternoon.

With the day lengthening, it was time to begin my journey back. On my way out, I stumbled upon Vichun Hantale loading his longtail with supplies. He had the faraway look, common among the chao leh, of a man accustomed to scanning the distant horizon. He was heading to an outlying island where he would camp for three days while collecting his fish traps and sea cucumbers. He told me about the prices his take would fetch and the peace and quiet on the isolated island. But mostly he talked about how he would miss his wife while he was away.

We set off, he in his boat and I on foot. During my long, solitary hike back to the park station, I thought of him often. And then again on the boat ride from Adang to Lipe, as we passed near another longtail. It was full of tourists giddy at the unparalleled beauty surrounding them. At the stern stood a chao leh, his hand skillfully steering the boat through the waves and his eyes, as always, looking out ahead into the deep blue sea.