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The Chao Ley About 100 years ago, on Lanta Island in Krabi, an Indonesian man named ToKiri married into an Urak Lawoi family. Urak Lawoi from Malay, Orang Laut, which means People Sea.
Considered magical, the charismatic ToKiri led a group of these sea-faring people to the Adang Archipelago, just north of the Thai-Malay border. It was there that the Urak Lawoi settled on the islands of Adang, Rawi and Lipe.
Urak Lawoi stayed close to their villages during the months of the unpredictable monsoon seasons. Each year during the dry season, however, up to ten families at a time would travel to other areas of the archipelago in order to fish and harvest sea life. Those trips could take place for weeks or months at a time.
During such trips the Urak Lawoi would set up temporary homes on beaches that contained a fresh water source and which offered protection from the wind. That practice, called “baghad” helped to label the Urak Lawoi a semi-sea nomadic people.
No matter what the season, the Urak Lawoi were never far from the sea. Hook and line fishing helped to sustain the Urak Lawoi communities as did the harvesting of abundant sea life such as sea turtles, lobsters, sea cucumbers, and clams. This sea life was harvested by skin divers who were capable of diving up to six meters below the oceans surface.
In addition to sea creatures, the Urak Lawoi collected land products such as coconut, papaya, mango and banana. They also grew upland rice to diversify their diets.
Overall the Urak Lawoi were a relatively self sustaining people, only occasionally selling their “catch’ to mainlanders in order to purchase spices, supplemental rice and clothing.
The strong connection between the Urak Lawoi and the sea was also prevalent in Urak Lawoi culture. Animist by origin, the Urak Lawoi believed that every beach, sea and bay possessed a spirit that had to be respected. Further, the Urak Lawoi lived by the tides and the lunar calendar. Each night of a full moon, the Urak Lawoi filled their villages with the sound of ramana drumming and celebration.
Overall, the Urak Lawoi way of life was firmly connected to the sea, and their seaside villages were established with a communal ethic that ensured that most things were shared, and that everyone knew each other.
Today the Urak Lawoi way of life differs from the practices of the past. The status of the national Marine Park, the influx of tourists and the competition with commercial fisheries for marine and coastal resources has forced the Urak Lawoi to adjust their lifestyle.
Unlike in the past, practicing baghad for an extended time period during the dry season is rare. Now the Urak Lawoi with the exception of one village on Adang live on Lipe. It is on Lipe that the impact of the rapidly growing tourist industry is heavily felt. Advertised as a pristine, undeveloped area, unlike other coastal destinations, in southern Thailand the area has attracted many tourists. The Urak Lawoi have been provided with alternative employment opportunities. In addition to fishing, the Urak Lawoi are now able to work in tourist resorts and bars, as well as boat taxi drivers.
The growth of the tourist industry however, has not only affected the Urak Lawoi in a positive manner. As the number of tourists increases the Urak Lawoi have found their ideas of traditional land ownership challenged. Customarily lacking the idea of owning land legally, the Urak Lawoi have lost the seaside land they once inhabited to privately owned resorts. Consequently, they have moved, or been forced to move, further inland, away from the shore.
Land disputes, especially with outside capitalists, have become an urgent issue. Additionally, the Urak Lawoi must share a limited supply of fresh water, during the high tourist season, and Lipe island lacks a waste management system capable of accommodating the large number of visitors.
Tourism however is not the only modern industry to affect the area. Commercial fishing has changed the way in which the Urak Lawoi interact with the ocean. In contrast to the small-scale fishing of the past, many of the traditional fishing methods such as traps and hook and line fishing are now used for large-scale commercial fishing in the archipelago.
In response to globalization and the desire to modernize the Urak Lawoi face a continuous challenge to maintain their own traditions. The once common sights and sounds of Rong Ngang dancing and Ramana drumming circles are now only seen and heard on special occasions. At the same time, signs of “modernization” are evident. For example, visitors may see a cell phone tower that was installed in 2004. As the Adang Archipelago continues to develop, the question of tourism's sustainability arises. The highly volatile industry can leave locals waiting for the tourists and losing out if they do not come. This was clear in 2004-2005 when tourism faltered following a tsunami and southern violence.
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*This article produced with information provided by Chiang Mai University studies on sustainable development within the islands of Thailand, January 2005