Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Coastal region and small island papers 8
Indigenous people and parks 2

ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL SETTINGS OF THE SURIN ISLANDS

The Surin Islands, a beautiful, unspoilt paradise far from the mainland, are an attraction to Thai and overseas visitors.

Environmental setting

Hundreds of islands stretch along the Southeast Asia peninsular from Langkawi in Malaysia in the south to the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar in the north. Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, renowned for the splendour of its underwater world, the spectacular landscape of limestone outcrops towering above the water’s surface and the lush forests and white sandy beaches, has long attracted tourists. As a result, southern Thailand has seen the development of a booming tourism industry centered on the popular resort island of Phuket.

Close to the border of Myanmar lie the Surin Islands, an unspoiled group of islands that acts as a refuge for fishing boats during storms and host to two small communities of Chao Lay. The Surin Islands are situated some 60 km from the coast of Phang-nga Province. The islands have largely retained their beauty and pristine condition. The rainforest is abundant with wildlife, and small patches of mangrove forests and seagrass beds are present. This biodiversity makes the Surin Islands an important ecological site. Recognizing the unique tourism and research potential of these islands, as well as their natural beauty, the Royal Forest Department designated the Surin Islands a national park in 1981.

A Moken village on South Surin Island.
The Moken spend almost half of their life in a ‘Kabang’, the
traditional boat of the Moken. Wooden planks have 
replaced the Zalacca wood as the preferred material of the
gunwale. A bifurcated bow and stern is a distinctive 
characteristic of the Moken boat.

The park covers an area of about 135 km2, of which 76 per cent is sea, and comprises five islands (see map). A few kilometres to the north of the park is the border with Myanmar, and about 100 km to the south are the Similan Islands, another marine national park.

The coastline of the Surin Islands is very indented with wide sandy bays protected by rocky headlands. Due to the islands’ distance from the mainland and the presence of adjacent deep waters and strong ocean currents, the waters of the Surin Islands are very clear, fostering healthy coral growth. Marine life is bountiful with numerous types of coral and fish species present on the reef. Occasional visitors include whales and whale sharks. Three species of sea turtle use the islands’ beaches as nesting sites.

The islands provide a unique habitat, both on land as well as in the surrounding water, for a variety of species. The two larger islands with their summits extending several hundred metres above the sea are covered in thick forests, ranging from tropical evergreen forests along their flanks, to beach forest and several patches of mangrove forest along the bays. Dipterocarp trees rise above the dense forests often interspersed with Pandanus palms. No less than 80 species of animals inhabit these islands, including egrets, terns, Brahminy kite, the rare Nicobar pigeon, the lesser mousedeer, monitor lizards, reticulated pythons, crab-eating macaques, lemurs, flying foxes and a number of bats and squirrels. Wild yams and other edible plant species are also found on the islands.

The monsoons exert considerable influence over the islands. The southwest monsoon, or rainy season, prevails from May until November. During these months the winds are strong and the seas rough, often rendering the Surin Islands inaccessible by boat. No tourists can visit the island during this time. The northeast monsoon or dry season begins in November and lasts until May. This season corresponds to the tourism season. Although freshwater sources are in ample supply on Ko Surin Tai, there is not enough to sustain large numbers of visitors to the islands.

The Surin Islands’ principal attraction for tourists is the fact that it is an unspoiled paradise far from the mainland, with healthy forested islands and diverse coral reefs accessible to snorkellers and divers. An increasing number of tourists, the majority of which are Thai, arrive each year, many on pleasure cruises. Tourists are accommodated in a number of bungalows run by the Royal Forest Department. Other tourists who visit the islands stay in tents on the beach. During the dry season (November to April), a ferry service operates from Khuraburi. It takes approximately four hours for the ferry to reach the islands.

 Social and cultural settings

The islands and coastal regions along the Andaman Sea are home to a distinctive group of people, known as the Chao Lay, whose lifestyles, languages and cultures differ from the rest of Thai society. In the English language they are known as sea nomads or sea gypsies due to their maritime nomadic way of life. The total population of sea nomads is estimated at around 9,500, i.e. 7,000 in Thailand and 2,500 in Myanmar.

There are three groups of sea nomads (now based in semi-permanent settlements along the Andaman Sea coast), namely the Moken, the Moklen and the Uruk Lawoi. It is still inconclusive whether these three groups have distinct lines of ancestry or whether they might have shared common ancestry but developed distinct languages and cultural traditions because of their dispersion throughout Southeast Asia.

The Moklen (around 2,500 people) are former sea nomads who have settled along the coast and inland areas of Phang-nga and Phuket Provinces. Their language is very similar to that of the Moken. Because of their permanent residential status, most of them have been integrated into Thai culture. The adults hold Thai citizenship and the children go to Thai schools. Although many of them adopted Buddhism, they still maintain their belief in ancestor spirits and organize big celebrations in Bangsak (Phang-nga) every year.

The Urak Lawoi (around 4,000 people) are the most populous of the Chao Lay groups. Their villages are found in Phuket, Krabi and Satun Provinces. Although gradually integrating into Thai culture, they still hold their biannual boat-floating ceremony.

The three groups of Chao Lay are animists and they organize spirit-offering ceremonies throughout the year. The Moken have their biggest festival of the year during the fifth lunar month, when they carve wooden ancestor poles and make grand offerings. During this time of year, the Moken and other Chao Lay from different islands gather around their settlements and do not return to the sea for three days and three nights.

An old woman strips and
dries long pandanus 
leaves before weaving 
them into mats and 
boxes.

Moken woman cleaning 
seashells for sale to 
tourists. This picture was
taken in 1994 before the 
park authorities enforced 
a ban on the collection 
and sale of shells on the
islands in 1997.

 The Moken (around 3,000 people) maintain a somewhat semi-nomadic lifestyle. National boundaries are an unfamiliar concept to them and they travel extensively across the waters of Thailand and Myanmar. Several decades ago a group of about 150 Moken people chose to base themselves in the Surin Islands. While other islands and coastal areas have suffered gravely from the impact of human settlement, the Surin Islands have remained relatively unaffected due to the unique lifestyle of the Moken. Their presence has not left a lasting scar on the surrounding landscape.

With the declaration of the Surin Islands as a national park in 1981, restrictions on the fishing and foraging activities of the Moken were imposed. Despite national park status, the Moken continue to live off the resources found on the land and in the sea. The extraction of natural resources by the Moken is not without environmental impact. Their gathering patches are somewhat over-exploited since they have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle. Due to the high price of certain seashells and other marine life, the Moken gather and hunt these products for the local market to exchange for rice and other necessities. Some species such as green snails and top shells have become sparse in the sea around the islands. The Moken, however, are traders and the gathering of marine resources has been a means of subsistence for them for centuries. Therefore, it is crucial that the management of protected sites like the Surin Islands take into consideration not only the conservation of the area, but also the basic cultural needs of the indigenous people.

Moken woman gathering sea urchins on the reef flats.

Despite the Moken’s use of the islands’ natural resources, there are no obvious signs of severe over-exploitation. Damage to the ecosystems around the Surin Islands is mainly the result of illegal fishing activities by the semi-industrial Thai fishing fleets and reef damage resulting from the anchoring of pleasure boats. No dynamite fishing or cyanide fishing is evident in the waters around the Surin Islands. In fact, the Moken are not considered true fishers, since they mainly extract resources from the reef and mudflats by gathering, rather than fishing. 

Administration of the Surin Islands 

Before the islands were declared a national park, the only inhabitants were the Moken who frequented the islands and sometimes made temporary shelters there. A few Thai went to the islands in search of fragrant wood and other wild products, but their visits were short and their settlements temporary. The Department of Local Administration found no reason to exert their authority over this wild and largely ‘uninhabited’ territory.

However, once the islands were declared a national park, they fell under the jurisdiction of the Marine Parks Division of the Royal Thai Forest Department. The superintendent is in charge of the islands and the surrounding waters, and together with his assistants and a number of other staff, is stationed on the islands or at the National Park Office in Khuraburi. They all report to the Director of the Marine Parks Division, at the office of the Royal Forest Department in Bangkok. 

Moken children, some in school uniforms, take a boat 
shuttle to the small school on North Surin Island.

There is a small Marine Fisheries Conservation Unit also located in the Surin Islands. The fisheries officers report to the Director of the Andaman Sea Fisheries Conservation Unit in Krabi Province. The main concern of the fisheries officers is to prevent illegal fishing and trawling in the northern Andaman Sea. The emphasis on conservation prompted the officers to establish ‘Suraswadee’ in 1994, a one-classroom school that provides Moken children with a basic education and teaches them about the importance of marine conservation. Transportation and lunch are also arranged for the children in order to facilitate learning. Their efforts have received support from Thailand’s Non-Formal Education Department and additional volunteer teachers are sent to the school during the dry season.

Health officers from the Malaria Control Unit visit the islands at least once a year to conduct blood testing and to spray insecticide around inhabited areas. The inadequate number of health officers does not permit any outreach health programmes. When the Moken are sick, however, they can seek free medical treatment from any state hospital on the mainland. 

Size of the Moken population in the Surin Islands
Year 1993 1994 1997 1998 1999 2000
Number of households 35 45 34 37 36 42
Number of males 65 92 57 58 56 66
Number of females 71 109 77 86 85 96
Total population 136 201 134 144 141 162

Representatives from the Department of Local Administration (the Governor of Phang-nga Province and the Khuraburi District Chief) visit the islands occasionally, but there is no cooperative effort or formal discussion between them regarding policies affecting the Moken. The Department of Social Welfare wanted to involve the Moken, but was discouraged by the small size of the Moken population which, in the Surin Islands, averages around 150 persons. However, it varies from year to year, as can be seen in the adjacent table.

The Moken tend to escape the attention of both the Local Administration and the central government since their population size is considered negligible and their situation too complicated.  

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