What I learned in a Moklen Village in Thailand
written by Emily Stout
IVS alum and Editor-in-chief for the WWU magazine The Planet.
On nights I can’t sleep, I fill the silence of my Bellingham home with the sound of motorbikes speeding down the streets of a Moklen village in Thailand. There’s also the sound of waves hitting the beach and geckos clawing at the ceiling. These sounds aren’t really here, they belong in a certain time and space. Sometimes it is hard for me to grasp that once I was in Thailand. But, I know that I can go back when I want, with a strong support system to help me spend my time there responsibly and sustainably.
I went on the Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainability in Thailand Program in 2017 with the Institute for Village Studies and was there for a quarter of school, hopping between villages and homestays in three regions of the country. If I had to write about just one thing this trip did for me, I would choose the way it made me feel connected to others. Before I left, I thought it was going to be a lonely few months. Even though I had twelve classmates and three faculty members with me, I still had a fear of being in a new place and all the unpredictability that goes along with that. But, almost as soon as I arrived at my first homestay, I felt at ease. Everyone that I met during my trip was welcoming and caring. I felt welcomed and well taken care of, surrounded by people who gave me an endless feeling of safety and taught me about their community with openness.
I learned about certain aspects of these communities that I never would have from books. One of the things that impacted me the most while living in Southern Thailand with the Moklen people, or “Sea Nomads,” was learning about the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 that ravaged many countries around the Indian Ocean. Because I was so young when the tsunami happened, I had never learned about it in detail, but while staying with the Moklen I learned about the ways their village had been affected. The Moklen are more attuned to the sea than most because of generations living and fishing on the water, but even with this knowledge, loved ones were lost in the waves. They were also impacted after the tsunami, as their traditional homes were destroyed and their land was occupied by beach-front resorts.
It was strange at times, learning the Moklen’s traditional fishing practices and their almost-extinct language while walking past huge hotels filled with tourists, many of them not knowing they were surrounded by a group of people with a rich history on that land.
It was even more strange thinking about how, if I was not on that specific trip with people guiding me, I probably wouldn’t have known either. I understand the draw of beach-front Thai vacations and resort-living. Thailand is a beautiful country. But, this trip made me understand even more that it is important to look around you and learn, really learn about others and the impact you may be unknowingly having on them. The tourism industry, as we see in many ways, has the potential to destroy indigenous land and practices and can leave people forgotten. But, done in a different way, it has the potential to lift up indigenous cultures and leave everyone with more of a feeling of connectedness.
Our main local partners while staying with the Moklen, Pee-Kay and Pee-Ying, have been working with the community to provide tourism experiences to travelers who want to learn more about local Moklen culture. They’ve gotten community members, mainly the younger generation, to provide tours like fishing and squid trapping expeditions, snorkeling, making traditional baskets and squid traps, etc. It’s their hope that having the younger generations lead these tours will give them pride in their culture- a culture which is often discounted by the Thai government and other tourist operators in the area. They are working on eventually getting the necessary permits to become legitimate tour operators, so they can sell their tours through agencies.
I am trying my best to put into practice the big-picture lessons that I was taught there. Now that I’ve been home for awhile, aside from not wanting to forget the details of the trip (the smell of the streets, the taste of Tom Yum, the tones of the language), I am trying my best to put into practice the big-picture lessons that I was taught there. I’ve made a more conscious effort to relish the small, silent moments that I have with people in my life. And, I am realizing that every relationship is reciprocal. It is important to know that no matter how much you think you can give someone, they have something to give in return. Something to teach you- with mind or heart.