The Moken people are known as “sea gypsies.” They live on islands off the coast of Thailand and Burma. Amazingly, only one person in the largest group of Thai Moken died in the tsunami. Why? Because they knew how to listen to what nature was telling them. For example, cicadas stopped chirping before the waves hit. Silence spoke volumes to the Moken.
The Moken live simply. They don’t have a written language. A Denver Post article says, “They have no electricity or running water and eschew most modernity.” Many would call them primitive. I call them advanced. Advanced, that is, in knowing how to live happily and harmoniously.
Last Sunday, “60 Minutes” had a segment on the Moken people. Of all the cultures on earth, they are said to be among the least touched by modern civilization. They practice an animistic religion. They are nomads. The “60 Minutes” correspondent said that he quickly became captivated by their culture. It is easy to understand why.
When asked, “How old are you?” none of the Mokens could answer. They don’t know. They don’t pay attention to time. Their language has no word for “when.” Amazing. I envy them.
Per usual, I rushed around much of the time today trying to get things done when they needed to be done. When I’m done writing this, I’m hoping the Portland Trail Blazers basketball game still will be on TV, as I really want to be able to watch the fourth quarter and root for them to lose.
There’s another word that isn’t in the Moken language: want. A French anthropologist who has lived with the Moken for many years said, “Imagine not having the word ‘want’ in your language. How often do you say, ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that’?” The Moken people just have words for “give” and “take.”
That’s beautiful. If you have something, you can give it to someone else. If you don’t have something, you can take it from someone else. Where’s the need for wanting? The anthropologist said (using our terms) that the Moken don’t want to accumulate anything. They have no desire for wealth. Too much stuff is a burden for nomads. Also for we non-nomads.
My favorite “60 Minutes” scene started with the correspondent sitting on a wooden boat, talking with the anthropologist. A Moken man carrying an ax wandered into the camera shot. He and the anthropologist exchanged words. “What did he say” asked the correspondent.
“He said that you’re sitting on his boat.”
“Does he want me to move?”
“No, he just wanted you to know that you’re sitting on his boat. He needs to work on it.”
“Are you sure he doesn’t mind waiting?
”Oh, yes, I’m sure” said the anthropologist with a smile.
The Moken man could be seen standing calmly with his ax, listening to an English conversation he didn’t understand. He showed no trace of impatience. He looked like he could stand there forever, for as long as the correspondent and anthropologist wanted to sit on his boat.
Recently I had to wait for a few minutes in the “ten items or less” line at a grocery store while the cashier handled a problem with the pricing of chicken breasts that the woman ahead of me wanted to buy. I felt horribly aggrieved. “Hey, I’m in the ten items or less line! It should move quickly! Something is terribly wrong here.” I wasn’t in a Moken mood. Maybe next time I will be.
The Moken people also don’t have words for “goodbye” or “hello.” The anthropologist said that if you live with them for a year and depart, you simply leave. You go.
I was left with the impression that though the Moken aren’t conventionally religious, they are far more spiritual than Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other followers of organized faiths.
The April 2005 issue of "National Geographic" says, "The Moken have faced pressures to accept other faiths, such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, but many have refused, retaining their animistic beliefs." I hope they continue to do so.
The Moken actually live life as it should be lived. They don’t talk about it, or write about it, or preach about it, or proselytize about it. They simply live it. Marvelous, the Moken.