In Search of the Sea Gypsies (PHOTOS)

Chao Le seems to live their lives as the day comes. They rather use trading instead of money. They fish, hunt for pearls and sell their handcrafts to tourists. Like the local Thais, they have a calm, respectful way about them.
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After a long tedious flight cramped into a seat built for a munchkin instead of a 6'4" Swede, I was finally there.

Stepping off the plane was an experience in itself.

As a cold-blooded Scandinavian, I'm used to a dry, cool climate.

Even when it´s hot, it is still cool, dry breezes. Scents in the air are easily separated, and the air itself is clear.

It was like walking into a wall. Air you could cut with a knife, and you could actually feel it slip into your lungs. The best way I could describe it to someone that never has experienced tropical climate is:

Imagine that you step into a bathroom where someone has taken a really, hot and steamy shower. And everything has a damp smell of wet leather and djungel. There you have it. Beautiful and amazing in it´s own way.

My clothes turned soaking wet in a matter of minutes. A sense of panic came over me. "How the hell will I be able to work in this climate? I will die just trying to get from A to B and then have the energy and passion to raise my camera?"


Well, after a few days I did. Adapting to the humidity and the scorching sun took it's time. After a couple of sunburns, my pale skin turned into a red/brown tan and I could function as a person part of the normal everyday life. Liberating to say the least. My first obstacle had been climbed and conquered.


I spent most of my time just taking the days as they came along.

Enjoying the Thai people's friendly ways. The warmth of the beaches, the street life and the Andaman Sea that didn't exactly cool off your body, just made it... wetter. Even the heavy monsoon rains that came and went in minutes was warm.


I have a fondness for umbrellas. I never use one myself, but I like to take pictures of people who do. It's a cliché, but I can´t really help it. In Thailand, unlike Sweden, people use umbrellas all the time, not only when it rains but also to protect themselves from the sun. It was interesting to see. Small differences between cultures are the ones you react to the most.


Another small detail occured when I was walking into a public mensroom. I noticed a cleaning lady polishing the bathroom mirror. At a closer look I saw that she was cleaning the whole mensroom with her eyes closed. It made me smile, I've never seen such a thing before.


Another thing happened at a major motorway. A little kitten lost its way into the traffic. And a huge trailer truck stopped, out climbed the chauffeur, took the kitten by its neck and put it at the side of the road and then went on like nothing happened.

Not one single car honked its horn behind him when he created the stop even though the ones behind him didnt know WHY he stopped.

A calm respect for all life hoovers over the Thai people.

I spent a day at the fishing docks. The rain was pouring down and I was knee deep in a soup of fish and rainwater. But I had fun. The locals loved my presence. Probably because they knew that the tall, stupid western guy would smell like somthing from hell at the end of the day. And I did, especially my new sneakers. It was interesting to see how the fishermen unloaded their catch, how the women sorted the fish and how buyers came to the auctions to get the best prices. At the end of the day I slipped on a fish and had a short refreshing bath in the fish soup. Thais have a childish humour by the way, but, then again, so do I.






I had one subject that I really wanted to cover during my stay in Thailand: The Sea Gypsies.
I figured that if I only had the chance to do one planned photography story, it would be to visit a sea gypsy village. Before I went to Thailand I did some research about where to find these villages. The thing was, that all these villages was already on the map so to speak. These people knew that tourists would come and visit them and had done changes to their lives to meet the tourists needs. No authenticity left.


So, I went around the coastlines searching for the real thing. I discovered a bridge where the longtail boats passed under as they came in from the Andaman Sea. Because of the high tides I couldn't come close enough to see where they went. So, early next morning I went to the bridge during low tide, walked under the bridge and there it was. It was like a beautiful revelation. A small Sea Gypsie village revealed itself in a lagoon. A djungle like forest surrounded the village and the characteristic Long Tail boats who gently was bobbing in the shallow waters. A vision so far from my own reality back in Stockholm that I had to pinch myself to check that I wasn't dreaming.


To understand and gather information about the Sea Gypsies was a task. I had to speak to other locals and taxi drivers as I couldn't find a Gypsie that could speak English themselves.
And all I spoke to had different stories. The most common one though, was this one:

The Sea Gypsies are called "Chao Le", which means "People from the sea" in Thai.

They are belived to be immigrants from Malaysia and Burma that for different reasons started to live as nomads along the Thai coastlines. They are divided into three ethnic groups, Moken, Moklen and Urak Lawoi. Moken is the only group who still live like nomads, the other two groups are today settled in small villages. They have their own language and religion -- animism.


Animism is a bit hard to explain, but the idea is that everything in nature are tied toghether, every tree, stone and even a rippling brook has a spirit. If a person dies, her spirit lives on forever as long as she is remembered. Chao Le, celebrates the spirits two times a year. The festival is called Loy Ruea. They release small wooden boats with hair, fingernails, weapons and other presents to the ghosts of the sea and the spirits of the dead. Like in most sacrificial religions, it's a way to keep the spirits happy and to establish peace and harmony between the living and the dead.


The Chao Le is also having a yearly hunt for sea turtles. The legend says that a female member of the Sea Gypsies once turned into a turtle with a human face. Because of that, the Chao Le now worships the turtles and looks at them as sisters to the human kind. Why they eat the turtles I actually don't know.


Chao Le seems to live their lives as the day comes. They rather use trading instead of money.
They fish, hunt for pearls and sell their handcrafts to tourists. Like the local Thais, they have a calm, respectful way about them.

From what I learned the Chao Le has lived along the coastlines for thousands of years in the very same way as their ancient ancestors did. But as they never claimed any land, they are today forced from their settlements as the Thais and foreign investors buy land to build new hotels.


There is one thing, that bothered me as you came behind the fasad of the beauty of Thailand.



When you enter the poor neighborhoods where no hotels are to be found and where people like the Sea Gypsies stay. This is what we are doing to our world. This is what our oceans are filled with. This is what washes up on our beaches during low tides only to be swept "under the rug" as the high tides hides it all only to double it all until next low tide.


This is not ok. This is a global problem.

More on the Sea Gypsies to come, but first a short stop in Sicily, Italy.