Love on the Water: Marriage Rituals of Southeast Asia’s “Sea Gypsies”

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For the Moken people of Southeast Asia, the sea provides nearly everything a person might need. It offers food to eat, a comfortable place to live (assuming one owns the appropriate vessel), and, sometimes, love.

Members of this ocean-faring ethnic group – often called “Sea Gypsies” – roam the Andaman Sea off the coasts of Thailand and Myanmar. The Moken travel on small, handcrafted wooden boats called kabangs, from which they skillfully procure fresh meals of fish, scallops, and clams, using nothing more complicated than a simple spear and a remarkable ability to hold their breath.

Moken people often wed when they are still teenagers—a woman is considered to be of marriageable age upon her first menstruation—and stay together for life. Before he marries, a Moken man must first prove himself to his intended wife and her parents, in a ritual that requires him to build his own kabang. Traditionally, he might have met his wife-to-be on the water. But things are changing. Tightened immigration and fishing laws, as well as the growing the tourism industry, have all but forced the Moken community to trade their houseboats for more permanent coastal settlements. (Even so, their marriage rituals have largely stayed the same.)

Around Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago and Thailand’s neighboring islands, a tiny minority of Moken still lead the nomadic lifestyle for much of the year. (In the traditional manner, they make brief shore visits when necessary and dwell on land during the rainy monsoon season.) Gone, though, are the extended-family flotillas of previous times. And with so few of them now actually living at sea, a young Moken man or woman's chances of finding love on the water are not what they used to be.

This film was edited exclusively for Jungles in Paris using footage shot for Sailing A Sinking Sea, which will screen in March 2015 at the SXSW Film Festival.

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