Ko Surin, Thailand (CNN) — These days, Salamak Klathalay, like most of us, lives in a house, on land. But this is a relatively new experience for the 78-year-old."As a kid, I lived on a boat part of the year and on land part of the year," Salamak tells me from his home on Ko Surin, an island-bound national park in Thailand's south."We would go to land during the monsoon season to look for tubers. After that, we would go back to our boats."Salamak is a member of Thailand's Moken ethnic group.Also known as the "sea gypsies" or chao ley -- Thai for "sea people" -- the Moken lay claim to an astounding list of traits.
They're one of the only groups of humans who, traditionally, lived predominately at sea, in houseboats called kabang.After centuries of nomadic living, Thailand's 'sea people' adapt to life on land. They can hold their breath for remarkably long periods of time. And their ability to see underwater is reportedly better than anybody else's.These skills were honed over centuries of nomadic living -- sailing, hunting and gathering among the islands of Myanmar's Mergui Archipelago and Thailand's upper Andaman Sea coast.Tsunami forces Moken onto solid landThe Moken village in Southern Thailand's Mu Ko Surin National Park.Austin BushThis unique lifestyle ended abruptly in 2005, after the previous year's tsunami. The Moken emerged from the disaster almost entirely unscathed, relying on traditional knowledge that taught them to seek higher ground to avoid the wave, but the Thai government ordered them to relocate to solid land, in a makeshift village within Ko Surin National Park.
Traveling to Thailand during Covid-19: What you need to know before you goIn the years since, Thailand's Moken have, more or less, adapted to a relatively modern life. The 315 people who make up the village live in simple wood and bamboo houses outfitted with solar panels and running water. And for the first time, they have access to a relatively regular source of income in the form of tourism."The village makes income from selling stuff to tourists or leading boat tours," says Ngoey Klathalay (all Moken share the same surname), the village head, who tells me that on an average day as many as 100 people might visit his village.A 2019 fire that wiped out half of the village was yet another devastating blow to the community. But the pandemic, which has closed Thailand's doors to international tourism, stripping the Moken of what was virtually their only source of income, may prove to be an even greater challenge.Hook Klathalay on the deck of his houseboat.Austin BushBut if there's one group that has the skills to survive in tough times, it's undoubtedly the Moken."I don't have a home! I've lived on this boat for two years now," says Hook Klathalay, Ngoey's brother, who estimates that he's the only Moken in Thailand who lives on a boat full time.
Empty beaches, chained doors: Surreal scenes in Phuket as island pins reopening hopes on vaccinesAt 35, Hook is among the last of the generation of Moken who grew up at sea. When he was five, his parents moved to land so he could get an education.But as an adult, Hook felt the pull to return to a traditional Moken life, a journey that's portrayed in the 2015 documentary, "No Word for Worry."For Hook, the first step in this process meant building a boat. Traditionally, Moken boats were hollowed out of massive logs, but national park rules prevent the Moken from cutting down trees.