Sea Gypsies on Koh Lanta

Lanta Island's population of Chao Leh should be left alone

Sea gypsies, known in Thai as Chao Leh, are thought to be the very first inhabitants of the Andaman coastal regions of Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia. Their origins are sketchy - they may be descended from an Indonesian group called the Sea Dyaks. Facially, their features are significantly different from any of the inhabitants of the lands they pass through. Today only a few thousand of them remain, and only a tiny portion of these still live the traditional, nomadic life.

Ban Sangka-Ou, in the south east of Lanta Yai, is home to around settled 400 Chao Leh. They have their own school (traditionally sea gypsies never had a formal education) and community centre, but the tie with the sea here is obviously still strong. Their houses are built on the beach where they are close to their boats and in view of the ocean. Houses are basic with corrugated iron roofs, open doors and no fences, similar to the temporary dwellings they used to build when they had nomadic lifestyles.

Others, more settled, have built Thai-style concrete homes with refrigerators and televisions. Some of them have learned how to farm, raise pigs, and can be employed for various jobs. These Chao Leh like to be known by their new government-given name of Thai Mai, or 'new Thai'.

Many websites and guidebooks talk about Ko Lanta's sea gypsies as if they were a tourist attraction. Unfortunately this is not the case. How would you like it if complete strangers peered into your house taking pictures and pointing?

The Chao Leh people are already having to deal with eviction from their traditional fishing grounds and resting places; their forced settlement on land; and erosion of their culture - without the added impact of western tourism.

Of course, some Chao Leh have chosen to work with tourists, usually driving boats - but they do not need to be visited at home - unless you are invited.

Unethical tour operators are attempting to turn the sea gypsy village, Sangka-Ou, into a human zoo, often asking the residents to perform traditional songs and music - usually associated with specific rituals in the lunar calendar - on demand for money. This degrades and devalues an ancient culture, as well as exposing them to unfamiliar capitalist values.

If you care about the sea gypsies, don't visit them, excepting during their festival times in May and October. There is, in any case, little to see.