Outside the west coast of Thailand and Burma is a vast archipelago few people have ever heard about. It consists of about a thousand islands called The Mergui (Myeik). This is the ancient home and last refuge of The Moken People.
What makes the special Kabang “mouth”, or bow, distinct, is its “bulb”, or lower spear (“bifurcation”). Shooting out below the waterline like the lower jaw of a huge mouth – it begs for explanations. There are three:
First of all, when plowing the water the bulb makes it so that a counter-wave is created, breaking up the “regular” bow wave and therefore reducing the water resistance considerably. Secondly, to be able to sail up against the wind when you can’t have a deep keel (sea nomads need to pass over shallow corals and pull up on beaches), extending the hull below the waterline will give that same effect when in motion. With this design the Kabang is capable of sailing up against the wind to about 45 degrees. Lastly, and no less brilliantly; to avoid uncomfortable sideways rolling when divers continuously climb back up from the sea, the bulb is used to step on when boarding. In other words: the perfect diving-vessel staircase!
An interesting fact is that modern day tankers in our high-tech world have reinvented the very same design for use on their bows, with huge bulbs sticking out below the waterline. More interesting is the fact that this design is also found on stone carvings dating as far back as the late Stone Age and as far away as Norway. It does seem that people anywhere will eventually find out what works best at sea, given that similar tools and materials are available.
This “forgotten global bulb” truly adds excellence to the Kabang’s performance. In fair winds we have managed an average of 7,7 knots, even with just a 4×4 meter square sail.
The Moken way of life derives from spending their whole existence as voyagers on board their impressive Kabang boats; it is their home, workplace and refuge. Their few belongings are stowed below a strip-bamboo deck, and the clay grill and sleeping mats fit under the roof aft. The deck in front is used for the rig and sail, rowing, and as base for marine hunting activities. To the Moken, the Kabang is a symbolic embodiment of a body; with the mouth in the bow, then comes the cheek (ta-bin), the neck (tu-koh), the shoulder (ba-hoy) the ribs (ta-bing), and finally, the anus in the back. The Moken mythology continues to educate in “Kabang etiquette” – keeping most daily activities up front, whilst keeping “necessities” around the stern.
When young Moken lovers wish to transform their relationship into a more stable and long-term commitment involving children (in many cultures referred to as: Marriage), the young man would traditionally have to build a suitable Kabang and present it to the lady’s father. He would be guided by elders and helped out by friends and relatives, with kids as eager onlookers. Should the potential father in law decline the request, the given reason would usually be that the Kabang was not fit for his daughter. But seriously – there is never anything wrong with the Moken Kabang, so the real reason lies in that the men traditionally carry the responsibility of keeping records of the bloodlines, and would be forced to decline in order to avoid the consequences of inbreeding. Today, following the bloodlines is an easier task, yet prohibiting unwanted consequences is a greater challenge as their numbers grow smaller.
In specific places on the ocean between the islands of the Mergui, you will spot a cluster of strange spikes sticking up from the surface. When you get closer, you realize that these are bamboo rods roped together with something heavy underneath which makes them stand upright. Today, some have sadly been replaced with blocks of dirty white polystyrene. Yet they all still go by the name of Bamboo Islands. To find out why they are there you need to continue the Moken Experience on our Hold your breath page.
The ancient home and last refuge of the Moken people.
The Mergui Archipelago, sometimes also called Myeik Archipelago or Myeik Kyunzu, consists of more than 800 islands, varying in size from very small to hundreds of square kilometers. They are all situated in the Andaman Sea off the western shore of the Malay Peninsula (Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand). It is normal to define this archipelago as reaching from the Mali Kyun in the north to Surin Islands in the south. It could also be argued that the Similan Islands are a natural part of this archipelago.
The islands’ geology is mainly limestone and granite. They are covered with lush tropical growth and rainforests. The shorelines are characterized by long white sandy beaches, rocky headlands, and in some places, mangrove swamps. Off shore the ocean contains plenty of coral reefs, and until recently, due to the absence of modern influence, the area hosted a great diversity of wildlife. Today the fishing industry, climate change, and the new objectives of the Burmese government all deem the future of the Mergui Archipelago, and ultimately the Moken, very uncertain.
Just a few years ago, anyone visiting the archipelagos of the Andaman Sea would experience abundant reefs with Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Blue Marlins gliding by. Today even the diving instructors feel lucky if just one of these is spotted in a season. Reefs suffer from bleaching caused by temperature changes and even worse; dynamite fishing. International corporations are accumulating huge profits by slaughtering the last of the world’s sushi and shark-fin soup ingredients. Local fishermen of the Andaman reminisce over the days where the income from one nights fishing would be more than just the cost of fuel, and lobsters could be gathered on the way back. The Moken often starve. Their situation is made worse by being forced to settle in villages, where they face the risk of being arrested for beachcombing. Many Moken have no other choice but to crew the trawlers to support their families, and some are even forced to risk the hazardous compressed air diving (more on our “Hold your breath” page). There are no regulations enforced on the catches, neither on size nor kind. The oceans are emptying so fast we can see the difference from just one season to the next.
The last Kabang on Surin Island is a stranded wreck on the beach. It is not beyond repair, but it will take a lot to make it float again. The men and women on Surin are eager to save their precious boat, but are struggling hard to make ends meet. Since the hull was modernized at one point by fitting in a small engine, the repairs require some cash to buy parts unobtainable in the jungle. This has stalled the reconstruction process completely. Without a Kabang there is no Moken culture. The key to their legacy is almost gone. The elders need to educate the young so the wisdom will not be lost. But for this to have a lasting effect, the next generation of Moken need help to restore faith in the power of their own culture and abilities. This can be done through establishing new ways of sustainable use for the Kabangs. Project Moken aims to make this happen. You can contribute by signing our virtual campaign on this page.
The Kabang is ingeniously constructed from one single tree; the trunk shaped into a vessel with near-perfect hydrodynamic properties through techniques utilized worldwide since the Stone Age. The process starts with relocating the spirits inhabiting the living tree into suitable new dwellings in the surrounding forest. Failing to do so will subject the boat to harm caused by the mistreated spirit. When the Moken fell the tree, a new one is planted in its place. The felled trunk is then hollowed, filled with water, and widened over fire. This task is meticulously controlled with plants that react specifically to different temperatures until it sets with a risen bow and stern. The hull is then extended with palm leaf rods (Zalacca), making the Kabang a sturdy sailboat capable of crossing open sea (where most other dug-outs would just be a canoe). Today most Moken construct their Kabang with plank gunwales, since Zalacca performs like reed and has to be replaced once or twice each year. For the Kabang roof and sail, Pandanus leaves are sewn together to create a material reminiscent of what would be ultra lightweight sheet metal. The bifurcation (bulb) in the bow and stern of the Kabang serves both advanced hydrodynamic and sophisticated navigational functions, as well as the practical use of it as a ladder to climb in and out of the water.
Our discoveries about the Kabang construction methods, design, and performances at sea, are leading modern researchers and historical enthusiasts to realize that we may reconsider many of our theories concerning early man’s capabilities in terms of migration.