When world-wandering writer Candace Rose Rardon spent a week with the nomadic Moken off Thailand’s coast, she began to understand how travel and home intersect.

“The heart wants to go on; that is its dharma. For unless it moves, it dies.” – Rabindranath Tagore

I knew a man had died. On our boat ride from the mainland of southwest Thailand to Koh Surin Tai, one of five small islands comprising the Surin Islands archipelago, my translator Nui shared the news with me. Over the roar of the outboard motor she told me that his name was Wylip, he had died from tuberculosis and he was only 30 years old.

In the village that night, I heard them drinking and dancing, the group of men and women and children keeping Wylip’s body company until the burial. On the way to the toilet, which was set back a short distance in the forest, I passed the house where they were gathered. They danced outside within the sphere of light cast by a single hanging bulb, while generators hummed and music pulsed from a table full of speakers. I asked Nui if we could join them, to get a closer look at their death ritual, but she said no. She didn’t feel comfortable joining them herself.

It wasn’t until breakfast the next morning, as Nui and I sat on the porch dunking Hobnobs into our cups of instant coffee, that six men suddenly appeared carrying a long plywood crate on their shoulders. Three stood on either side of the coffin, over which had been placed a plaid cloth, blue and orange in colour. They moved quickly through the rows of stilted, thatched-roof houses, toward the longtail boats moored along the sandy beach.

Nui was sitting across from me, with her back to the village, so I was the first to see the men. In my haste to alert her, I tipped over my coffee, the last of it draining through the uneven bamboo floor onto the sand below. By the time I looked back up, they had slid the coffin across the bench seats of a boat and pushed off.

Breakfast came to an abrupt end; this time, Nui said, we would join them. Within minutes we were in the final boat to leave. As we headed to the neighbouring island where they bury their deceased, I was transfixed by the sea. Near the shallow shores of Koh Surin Tai, the water was as clear as glass and gleamed a mesmerising blue – the blue of icebergs and glaciers, of sulphur lakes and blue lace agate. But the further we moved from the coast, the more the water darkened, losing its tropical, turquoise quality. It shifted in shade from jade to slate to sapphire, the depths below imbued with a certain opacity. Had the water itself changed, I wondered, or was it merely reflecting its environment? I slipped my hand over the side of the boat, letting the sea pass through my fingers.

~

When I first heard about the sea gypsies on Koh Surin Tai, I assumed we were talking about pirates. I knew nothing of the Moken, as they call themselves, a name that means “diving into the sea”, nor of their nomadic past or their current struggle to attain full citizenship from the Thai government.

The 200 or so Moken living on the Surin Islands are part of a larger ethnic group spread out across the Mergui Archipelago off the coasts of Burma and Thailand. Following a tradition of maritime nomadism in the region, the Moken shifted from island to island for centuries, subsisting on what they gathered underwater, along the foreshore and from the forest. While other related groups were semi-nomadic and formed coastal communities, the Moken considered themselves true nomads of the sea. Their lives revolved around their kabangs, dugout wooden boats that have distinctive notches carved out of their prow and stern that function as steps into the water. These boats were their homes in which they lived, worked, cooked, gave birth, raised their families and died. Only in the monsoon season would they construct temporary huts from pandanus leaves, repair their boats and wait out the rain.

The Thai have two names for the Moken: chao ley, people of the sea, and chao nam, people of the water. When you take into account the ease with which they inhabit the ocean, free dive to depths of 15m or more, hold their breath for minutes, hunt for turtles, shells and sea cucumbers, and navigate between distant islands, led only by instinct, both names are equally fitting. And so it seems all too problematic that in recent years the Thai and Burmese governments have been requiring them to settle down, to stay in one place, to stop moving.

In 1981, the Surin Islands were declared Thailand’s 29th national park. After the 2004 tsunami devastated the region, park officials brought the several Moken settlements together on the same beach on Koh Surin Tai. “Easier to manage that way,” Nui told me, even though it would lead to overcrowding. All of their homes and boats were destroyed in the storm. Although organisations such as Reuters donated new Thai longtail boats to the village, one boat per two families, nothing could replace the kabangs they had lost.

But the biggest human rights concern has been that of the Moken’s identity, the question of where they belong. Obtaining citizenship hasn’t been an easy process, and for those who do have a Thai ID card, there’s yet another issue at play. Every ID card has an identity number, but if the number starts with 0, the holder of that card is not allowed to travel outside his or her province. Half of the Moken living in the Surin Islands have an identity number beginning with 0.

There’s a government-sponsored primary school in the village now, as well as a small clinic run by a Thai nurse. During the dry season, many of the men are employed by the national park, manning the boats used for snorkelling trips, and the women weave mats and baskets from pandanus leaves to sell to the groups of tourists who visit their beach every day. As Nui explained to me, by earning these small amounts of money, they no longer need to dive as often for goods to trade, which can be dangerous for their health. Today their children have the possibility of attending university, and medical care is available both in the village and on the mainland. The changes being implemented are sometimes practical, but at what cost to their culture? “Before, they moved everywhere,” Nui said. “It was not fixed.”

~

I learned by chance about the Moken from family friends who lived in Bangkok. They were connected to a Thai NGO working in the Surin Islands and arranged for me to stay in the village on Koh Surin Tai for a week.

What my friends didn’t know was that I was also in a transition; that I had recently brought my own nomadic way of life into question. After nearly five years of travelling and living overseas since my college graduation, I was beginning to long for things seemingly incompatible with my lifestyle – a relationship, a stable community of friends, a home – and so I was considering returning to the US to set up a more permanent base. It was an idea that had crawled into my head one morning in Delhi, where I was living at the time, and hadn’t left.

The question I kept asking was: could I give it up? “It” being the freedom and flow of a life lived untethered from traditional responsibilities; a life without roots, deracinated. A friend had once described my wandering existence as “fluid”, and though it hadn’t felt like a compliment at the time, I’d held onto this fluidity as though it were my most prized possession in the world. I loved that plans could change at a moment’s notice; that a single email could redirect my course. And perhaps like the Moken’s own affinity with the sea, whose depths were as familiar to them as its vast surface, I loved that getting to know the world continually brought me to a deeper understanding of myself.

But even as changing my address every six months was losing its appeal, I still wondered if one could truly settle down without settling. I sensed this chapter in my life closing, an era nearing its end, and to find myself about to spend a week with people facing the same dilemma – albeit with much greater consequences – seemed no accident.

Nui met me in the seaside town of Khuraburi, where we boarded a speedboat to the Surin Islands, located 50km off the Thai coast. The journey took an hour and a half, and as we clipped across the choppy waves, pale shadows of land grew ever darker on the horizon. We stopped first at the largest island in the archipelago, Koh Surin Nua, home to the national park’s headquarters and two sites of bungalows and tents available for tourists to rent. Already I was struck by the lack of openness. The rugged terrain betrayed nothing, with undulating ridges rising sharply from the sea. Draped in vines and thick vegetation, the hills permitted only the narrowest of beaches along their periphery. They seemed to hold a mystery as inscrutable as the clotted branches of their mangroves.

Koh Surin Tai is the second largest in the group, another oddly shaped amoeba of land. As we proceeded around a bend and into an opening in the island’s jungled coastline, I suddenly leaned forward on my hard bench seat. There, at the far end of the cove, situated on a fringe of sand between verdant hills and an iridescent bay, lay the Moken village.

There were some 50 or 60 small, square houses built along the shore, each a few metres from its neighbour. They sat above the ground on stilts, like flamingos balanced on impossibly thin legs. Their roofs were made of overlapping pandanus leaves, their walls from another kind of dried leaf – both of which, Nui told me, had to be replaced every couple of years. Nui led me to the house where we’d be staying for the week. Inside, there was no furniture; no chairs or beds, no nightstands or tables – only a few tall cabinets and shelving units placed against the walls, the slatted wooden floor swept bare. “Every Moken home is like this,” she told me. “They keep the centre clean – maybe because that’s how it was in the boats. They would cook in the middle, then push everything to the sides so they could sleep.”  

That night, I slept uneasily in a hammock strung between two posts on the porch. A light rain fell, waves brushed up below the house, and something one of the Moken women had said earlier in the day circled in my head. “If you stay in the same house, to stay long time is boring. We want to move, to change environment. We move to see new things.”

I knew exactly what she meant.

~

In the days after I arrived, the Moken largely kept to themselves, my greetings of “Sawadee ka” often going unreturned. I read, took notes, chatted with Nui, swung in the hammock, but never felt like anything more than an observer. One afternoon, I sat sketching on the porch, my feet balanced on a rung of the wooden ladder leading up to the house. As a black kitten competed with my sketchbook for lap space, I noticed a girl sitting on the ground by a neighbouring home. She held a thin stick in her hand and was drawing with it in the sand, bringing a flower to life petal by grainy petal.

I climbed down the ladder and approached the girl, who looked to be 10 or 12. I tore a sheet from my sketchbook and placed it in front of her with a pen on top. She made no move toward them, but two other girls playing nearby saw what was going on and swooped in to join us. I offered them each pen and paper and sat back to watch. They both drew a wavy horizontal line across the page. Above the line, trees were drawn, as were flowers, hills, clouds, butterflies, a few people and a round sun in the centre. It was a scene any child might create. However, a vastly different world soon appeared below the line. The girls drew fish – not the kind I had drawn growing up, with an oval body and triangle tail, but fish with gills and fins and scales. Fish that actually belonged underwater. They sketched squiggly seaweed and sea anemones and jellyfish with symmetrical tentacles; they sketched tiny spiralled conch shells lined up on brown boulders. Their world below the surface was as alive and brimming with detail as their world above it.

This continued every day while I was with them, and every day the assembly of young artists grew in number. My sketchbook was slowly emptied of paper, but no matter how many sheets I gave them, they drew the same thing each time – one scene on land and another underwater, either on a page that had been divided into halves or on opposite sides of the same piece of paper. In their lives as in their sketches, the children seemed to exist between land and sea, equally at home in both worlds.

~

They say old habits die hard, and the more time I spent on Koh Surin Tai, the more I saw this to be true for the Moken. Every evening I watched an elderly couple, Sunai and his wife, Pa Do, depart from the village in their weathered boat, not to return again until the next day. One morning, Nui called out to them and asked where they’d been. “She said they sleep better in the boat,” Nui explained, cradling her hands and rocking them, to evoke the motion they were so accustomed to after a lifetime of being swayed to sleep by the waves.

She also told me that every year some families on the island switch homes with each other – perhaps enough of a change to sate their innate need for movement – and that when the village was rebuilt after the tsunami, officials had instructed the Moken to set their homes as far back from the shore as possible. But over the last decade, they’ve been inching closer and closer to the tide. It was almost comical to imagine – that whenever the national park turned its head, the houses would gather up their skirts and tiptoe a few more metres forward, until they were back, as Moken researcher Jacques Ivanoff once described it, with their “feet in the water”.

I had come to the Surin Islands expecting to find a culture on its way out, but what I discovered was more adaptation than destruction. The Moken were at the mercy of a changing world, one in which there were no easy answers for their assimilation, but I sensed that no matter what the answers might prove to be, their lives would continue to rotate around the same axis – a fixed fulcrum of identity at the centre of their ever-shifting universe. Girls would look for shells just as their grandmothers did generations before them, boys would help bail out the rain from their fathers’ boats every morning, and the shoreline would never be empty of naked children laughing, swimming and doing handstands in the surf. They might not have grown up on the water as their parents had, but the sea would still be a part of them, and they a part of it.

At the same time, I sought to discern the point around which my own transition would pivot. What had drawn me to my wandering life, and why was it so hard to relinquish? Over the five years in which I’d called England, New Zealand and India home, I had come to believe that as long as I was moving through the world, I was moving forward in life. Starting over in new countries kept me from becoming too comfortable; it kept my routines from becoming ruts. Never before had I felt so alive in my daily existence; never had I lived with such an awareness of the people, places, and possibilities around me. Like the Moken, who have no tradition of saving what they earn or catch today for tomorrow, I had stopped fixating on the future. It was only through travel that I’d learned to stay present in each moment of my life.

But what if I didn’t let go of this presence? What if I kept moving forward, even as I learned to stay still? In watching Sunai and Pa Do go off to sleep on their boat each night, in seeing how the Moken belonged to one another – if to no one else – I believed I could finally summon the courage to do just that. To take the fluidity I’d so prized, and let it guide me to more solid ground.

On my final afternoon in the village, a group of visiting filmmakers invited me to go snorkelling with them in the waters just beyond the Moken’s beach. I was delighted to join them, to plunge below the surface of this place. I had only just begun to take in the dazzling array of life on the reef – the bright orange clown anemone fish, neon-striped sweet lips, feeding frenzies of parrotfish – when I followed the direction of someone’s pointed finger and spotted an octopus, the first I’d ever come across in the wild. I instantly stopped moving to watch him steal across the floor of the sea. He wasn’t big, but he struck me as beautiful, his pliant arms unfurling with poise. And when he changed colours, I knew I would never see anything as astonishing again. His skin flushed from pale blue to beige to a dappled grey, taking on the tone of every piece of coral and rock he encountered. Only the octopus himself never changed.

~

Along with the filmmakers, whom I’d learned were Norwegian, two other people had returned to the village: 20-something Moken brothers named Ngui and Hook – “like Captain Hook,” he said when we were introduced. While Ngui had followed a rather traditional path in life – he was married, had three children, and it was his house I’d been staying in – Hook felt more tension between life in the village and that on the Thai mainland. He had spent a season in the busy resort town of Phuket, driving a tour boat, and the decisions he was working through were actually the subject of the film crew’s documentary. “He’s a man between worlds,” the cinematographer had told me during our snorkelling trip that afternoon. While the other Moken men I’d met alternated between printed sarongs and swimming trunks, Hook had arrived wearing a stylish sweater and fitted jean shorts that were cuffed at the hem; while the rest of the village rolled their own cigarettes, he smoked store-bought packets. His thick dark hair was as shaggy and dishevelled as a rockstar’s, which was exactly the impression he gave.

That night, Hook, Ngui and I sat on the bare living room floor and talked about their trip to Norway the year before to kick off the documentary – their first time on a plane – which led to a discussion about flying and flight times and distance. I drew a wobbly-shaped world map in my notebook, with arcs connecting Bangkok and Delhi, Oslo and London, and my hometown near Washington DC, so that it began to resemble an airline’s route map.

They told me they’d needed to get their passports for the journey, and then asked, “You want to see them?”. We happily exchanged books, and as I flipped through their passports and they through mine, I was reminded of what these objects – and their pages, and the colourful stamps inside – had always represented for me: expanding worlds and boundless possibilities. A life whose comfort zone is forever being challenged and redefined. Through travel, I had fallen in love with the thrill of the new, with the untested border. The call before me now was to greet the contours of my everyday world with the same expectations of discovery.  

After handing back their passports, I asked Hook what kind of life he’d like to lead. “Phuket too many people, too many cars,” he said, telling me that he still enjoys coming back to the village for part of the year. “I want to live half-half.”

The two words hit me like lightning. All week I had seen the idea played out in the children’s sketches, as they created worlds that were half land and half sea. For the first time, this dichotomy was more than a picture – it was Hook’s reality.

I was discovering that the tension the Moken faced – especially forward-thinking Moken such as Hook – and the tension I myself was experiencing could perhaps find resolution in a delicate balance. It isn’t giving up one world for the other; it’s uniting the two halves – new and old, land and sea, home and away. It’s borrowing from both realms and then forging our own. We make our own home, our own country, our own world.

~

In the weeks and months after my departure from the Moken, one image stayed with me above all others, following me from Thailand to India to the US. I often replayed in my mind the burial I witnessed on my first morning in the village.

My translator Nui and I had stood on the beach, which was heavily sheltered by trees and undergrowth, while men took turns digging Wylip’s grave. They sang as they dug, their tuneless songs keeping time to the beat of a cooking pot drum. I could almost taste the freshly turned soil and cigarette smoke, sharp from the unfiltered tobacco they used. When they rested, they sat on the plywood crate as though it were a coffee table, not a coffin.

Roots covered the earth, some thick as a man’s leg. They were long, too, spanning the entire length of the intended grave. The men wrangled with the roots, twisting them back and forth, up and down, like sailors battling a sea monster. They swung their hoes and knives high above their heads, chanting “Oi, oi, oi” with each strike. When the bigger roots were defeated, the whole group cheered.

It took six men to lower the crate into the ground. Before everyone returned to their boats, they each tossed two handfuls of sand onto the narrow mound of soil. And then, when only one woman was left, she brought over two tree seedlings, little green shoots with just a couple of leaves on them. She planted one at the head of the grave and the other at the foot.

Never before had I seen the answer I sought made so visceral – the call to grow, to adapt, to move through life’s myriad evolutions with our soul intact. We dig up roots, wrestling with the habits and patterns we’ve established for ourselves, only to put down new roots. We change environments, change countries and jobs, change homes, but our essence is immutable.

We change, but we stay the same – just like water, just like an octopus, just like the Moken.