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Sea nomads | The Spokesperson’s Review

When I travel abroad, I think of Mr. Magoo. Like him, I am often at risk of falling. In open water, I swim like a kayak that has lost its rudder. Swimming with my wife – stronger in the water than me, a former breaststroke champion – I keep her fins or her feet in sight. This pattern continues out of the water when we travel in tandem. She traces the beautiful routes and I follow. The clumsy Magoo to his silent advice, the clumsy blind to his keener foresight.

We are heading to an island ruled by Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Patience and time have brought us this far, far south of Bangkok on the Malay Peninsula. Muslim head coverings mingle with Buddhist statues. Lots of people go by scooter. Women’s clothes flap and flow like the ones worn by actress Sally Field in “The Flying Nun.” Helmeted toddlers, balanced on gas tanks, hold the handlebars firmly. The outstretched arms of their parents surround them.

Where we stop the chartered car for lunch, our waiters grace us with the wai – bowed head and praying hand gesture available today as a phone emoji. The intricacies of this gesture, this silent expedient of gratitude and social leveling, take time to master. We travelers can return a wai whenever one of them lands on us, but we should only cause it with the elders. Thailand is predominantly Theravada Buddhist, and the greeting originates from this strain of faith, likely to show that no ill will was in sight, no weapon concealed.

The small island where we will be staying, named Koh Lipe, is the only inhabited place allowed in Tarutao National Marine Park. Tourism is the engine of Koh Lipe’s economy. Tiny and isolated, sheltered by the marine park within the limits of which it is located, it does not welcome any cars. A motorcycle taxi takes us on a rutted road in front of the houses of the Urak Lawoi people. Known as chao ley or chao lair in the Thai language, these are the micro-minorities of Koh Lipe. These lands and waters have nourished them for millennia, this archipelago of Adang on the Andaman Sea.

The bungalows of our Serendipity Beach Resort extend along a hill. The open-air restaurant at the water’s edge below the bungalows has been carved out of smooth stones. It’s a fickle place to have built, but that’s the way it is. Johnny-come-latelys bought all the yards worth it. Religious icons animate the shadows of the restaurant. Carved Buddhas in shaded niches spring like bracelet charms. Big Buddhas, small ones, carved in stone or native hardwood. Tiny baby Buddhas, like so many still GIFs, crawl on hands and knees.

Nothing is not to like in Thailand, except Bangkok, Chang Mai and Phuket. The beaches are powdery white. The food is prodigious. The porters, cleaning ladies, drivers and cooks are so sweet in character and face. Just as Costa Rica has its word mark Pura Vida, emphasizing an ethic of sustainability and health, Thailand has its own word mark: Land of Smiles. Sincere, kind, unforced smiles call out our beaming sympathy in return.

The smile is the slow motion that people return to between gears. They know which side their bread is buttered on. Their economic interests lie in kindness. We come to share a sense of shame if we don’t repay each of their radiants. We taste disgrace if we don’t have proactive smiles ready for every chance encounter. They have not yet known the exhaustion of overtourism. Or if they taste its burn, they constrain themselves by the motto of jai yen, which translates to cold heart.

The practical boat for crossing the maritime channels, the shore craft of choice, is the longtail. It takes its name from an incredibly long propeller shaft at the stern that resembles a stinger on a wasp. Like a setting post on a keelboat, the shaft is turned or raised to clear wreckage or coral. The boat itself has a high bow. Paint, fabric or flowers adorn its proud bowsprit. The boats serve much the same purpose as the semi-wild horse herds for the American Plains tribes.

If one subscribes to geographic determinism – the notion that environment shapes human nature, just as it shapes the evolution of other species – then genetic disposition has equipped the Lawoi to navigate these seas. Seascapes and landscapes shape character, or so assumptions go. Lawoi have an acute ability to hold their breath underwater for minutes at a time, which is why they can spear fish so well. More remarkably, they can see, can keep their eyes wide open in the salt when working or playing underwater. A pupillary reflex acquired through training, or now nestled deep within the genome, has given them full immersion vision, an acute marine vision capability.

We go downtown for our evening meals. At our favorite open-air restaurant, Ja Yao, we arrive early for lunch. Most of the staff seem genderless. Loads of gender nonconforming individuals spice up this microcosm of the world. A waiter near us tears the basil leaves from the stems. Then they get up, lift a water vase and carry it to the side of the road. Our respectful server, in a shrine facing the restaurant, performs an upright curtsey. Then they sprinkle the path that passes in front with their fingertips.

In the center of the island, rutted roads criss-cross Lawoi’s lodgings. Motorbike taxis speed past homes built of thatch and corrugated iron. Pilings raise the houses against floods, tsunamis and monsoon mud. The Lawoi watch from hammocks or pallets, from beds that invite fresh air beneath them, and watch taxis and tourist blur. The near equator gives off heat. Their dogs dig burrows against high temperatures and steam.

Information about the Lawoi people is scanty and erratic. The island’s first inhabitants, they are the smallest ethnic group in southern Thailand. An innate skill helps them survive frequent storms and interpret the tides. Geographical determinism still seems to have favored them. Supernaturally, they foresaw the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. Dodging in time to higher ground, they lost none of their limbs.

They have lost prime waterfront parcels. Only a monopoly on the longtail services that move tourists between the beach and the offshore pontoons allows them today to stay economically afloat. The disturbances caused by tourist frequentation aggravate the distress. In 2020, sovereignty campaigners “demanded the government to pass the Protection of Ethnic Groups Act” on Koh Lipe. The Bangkok Post reports that “the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Flora is trying to reclaim some of the land occupied by local people and new investors.” Amid such reclamation, the Department hopes to ensure the protection of Lawoi houses and restore some ways of life.

Trapped in webs of disinformation, the Lawoi were once sea nomads. reliable. Even though Thailand is the second largest exporter of rice in the world, tourism brings in much more money. Tourism immediately equaled propaganda. The World Tourism Organization, before joining the United Nations a century ago, was known as the International Union of Tourist Propaganda Associations.

Sovereignty activists attempt to claim the role of art for cultural preservation. A Lawoi painter, hoping to restore some lost autonomy, depicted people dancing in “a curse-dispelling ritual”. The curse they refer to is industrial tourism. In a biannual ritual during the full moon, people build a model ship to carry their misfortunes out to sea. By adopting this ritual, they aim to regain some independence that they now lack.

No matter how neglected they may seem today, the Lawoi are not relics marching towards civilization. They will turn out to be durable and dynamic. The ebb and flow will recur. Peripheral people like theirs allow themselves to be dragged or hovered around the edges of the urban landscape in order to savor its abundance. Other distant Lawoi might purposely leave to escape their loved ones.

A generation or more later, if exploitation and indebtedness have confined them, they or their descendants can come back from the margins. They can learn to thrive again. They can join those who remember. We are lucky to still have them to preserve ancient skills – fishing, sailing, reading the tides, much more. They alone maintain the old attachments to natural forces. The identity of those we consider to be “the other” often turns out to be more complex than we think. People can get lost in our modern world. Get lost, persevere and show great resilience.

Our station employs a lot of people. The meal server serving us breakfast rings the outside bell and waits for our call to come in. Inside, he kneels in front of our coffee table. By balancing the tray on the edge of the table, it lifts bowls and drinks wrapped in plastic to avoid insects. What keeps him and the others so long and so strong? Customer tips? An innate desire to please? A hope of evolution? Or a tacit recognition that their fortunes are more blessed than many others?

Up and down from the restaurant to the bungalows, service workers climb the winding stairs above the jungle floor. Beneath them, large creatures creep unseen. A red-headed horned striped lizard. Massive black and yellow centipedes. A rat whose eyes are reflected at night. Geckos that chirp and chirp so loudly they prevent sleep. Four-inch grasshoppers at the bottom of the food chain, fried in markets alongside crickets and other insects, twenty grams of protein per person.

In our privileged lives, we travel above the hidden circumstances of our destinations. The monsoons bathe us. Mosquitoes sing. The landings under each staircase give walkers the opportunity to pause in Serendipity, catch their breath and take a step back. Go down a few more stairs. Level your head towards the water that puddles on the landing. Watch the raindrops bounce and roll like ball bearings over each living puddle before merging, returning and becoming part of the whole.

Paul Lindholdt is Professor of English and Philosophy at Eastern Washington University and author of “Interrogating Travel” (2023).