On the Road to Meet the Andaman Sea Gypsies. Part II: Boating Amongst the Slaveships in Myeik, Burma.

by Owen James Burke


Photo: Owen James Burke.

A pale-gray haze lay over the port of Myeik, backed by a droning cacophony of outboard motors and dredges. Few were talking. Almost no one was smiling. The scene looked bleak, and the scarcity of the sun didn’t brighten the picture.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

But then almost all commercial fishing ports carry this tone. It was only later, in Thailand, that I came to realize how close to the edge of hell some of these people were living.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

With no permission granted from the government to visit the Mergui Archipelago where the Moken–a small, disenfranchised group of sea-dwelling ethnic Austronesians known in Burma as the Selung–are said to live, I had left Yangon for Myeik, 535 miles to the south where my travel agent–though she’d advised against it–suggested I might find a captain willing to sneak me out to meet the elusive virtuosos of the sea.

My flight had landed earlier that day and I’d caught a motorcycle taxi straight down to the port of Myeik, which I was told would be the busiest and therefore likeliest harbor for me to hitch a ride out to the Mergui Archipelago where the Moken are said to weather monsoon season.

I had no intention of spending a single night in Myeik–I’d already lost enough time in Yangon. It was still early in the morning, and as far as I could tell, the weather looked fair enough to set sail for open water.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

I jumped on the back of a motorcycle taxi and got off at the harbor.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Selung is one of the Burmese words for the Moken, and I said it to everyone who looked my way. It was one of the few words I can recall learning while in Burma and it dictated my every move of the trip.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Between snapping photographs and trying to figure out what the hell was going on all around me, I continued on saying “Selung?” to any mariner I saw, hoping someone might bite.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

While I was taking photographs of an old man in a long tail boat, he waved and gestured for me to come aboard. I had no way of knowing where he was going, but I had all my belongings with me and enough canned food to last a day or so. I hopped on.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

A young man who was probably no older than 20 tossed a few grocery bags into the bow, untied us, hopped aboard and shoved off.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

He smoked heavily, intently. He looked exhausted, or distraught—I couldn’t quite tell, and I had no real way of asking, not that it was my place to do so. In his plastic shopping bags were a few cartons of cigarettes, canned sardines and some cookies.


This is what a Burmese fisherman with him takes to sea.

As we crossed the river mouth, I noticed a small swell wrapping in from around the coast. If it’s this bad in here. . ., I started thinking to myself. But then I was more interested in where this young man was going, and what he’d be doing. That was, after all, my best chance at achieving what I’d come all this way for.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

We pulled up alongside a wooden fishing trawler and my questions were answered, if only vaguely.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

All operations aboard stopped when the crew caught a glimpse of me. The captain—at least I can only assume that’s who he was—stuck his head out from the bridge and waved me aboard. People sure were welcoming along the waterfront here, curiously. I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood, which, in summation, was spent lingering around docks. Only once or twice had a perfect stranger ever invited me on their boat, let alone cracked a smile in my direction.


These Burmese sea dogs couldn’t get enough of the idea of having this gangly, pasty westerner aboard their ship. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Joining this excursion sounded good, in a Jack London sort of way. My Burmese would certainly have improved. But then, I didn’t know how long I might be stuck out there. A few days would have been fine, but weeks, or even months were also possibilities, and Dixon, my editor, gracious as he is, surely would have been forced to set about finding my replacement after more than a week or so of my missing. No, I wouldn’t be getting on this boat–likely a blessing, though for reasons I was yet to appreciate at the time.


Behind these pleasant, light-hearted smiles were young, desperate minds mulling over unanswerable questions like when–or even whether–they’d see their land, families or wives again. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


The reality of home for Burmese seamen. Work is perpetual, pay minimal. Photo: Owen James Burke.


The incessant drone of humming diesel engines dredging the river mouth of Myeik, one of Burma’s large fishing ports, was something of a nuisance to those ashore. To the teenaged boys running the machines day and night so that their fathers could steam commercial fishing boats in and out of port, it was little more than the dial tone soundtrack to their lives. I wondered if they even noticed it anymore. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

We left our friend and rafted up against a ferry on the island of Pahtaw Pahtet, home to a sizable fishing village. I clambered over the rail of the ferry and across the deck, up the gangway and into the fishing village where, yet again, all eyes were on me.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Hoards of fishermen and other mariners seemed to be lining up for the ferry back across the river as I made my way into the village. Once there, a man approached me and, to my surprise, in perfect English, asked me what I was looking for.

“The Moken,” I said.


“Sea Gypsies–er, Selung,” I corrected myself.

“Ah, Selung. Go to Kawthaung, closer to Selong people.”

Was this another wild goose chase? I’d flown here, to Myeik, because I was told this was the place from which to reach them.

“Can’t I just get a boat from here?” I asked.

“You can, but it’s far. Boat captains don’t want to go.” He paused. “It’s late, time to leave.”

My new acquaintance took me gently by the arm—in the way a grandfather might—and directed me back toward the ferry. This would be the last ride home for the night, he explained, and I was glad he caught me before I ended up spending the night in the bush swarmed by mosquitos. My other ride had since departed.


My first ride turned back for Myeik. I was fending for myself on this island with not a lick of Burmese. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I asked him what he’d been doing on the island, and he told me that he was a retired banker, doing some boatbuilding and repairs to keep busy and spry. I commended him.

“So why can’t I get to the Selung islands from here?” I wanted him to make his reasoning clear before I hopped on yet another plane for another town.

“Seven, eight, maybe ten hours by boat. The sea is very dangerous this time of year. Many captains will not go to sea now, and the government does not let them bring foreigners. Come back in six months and you will find a boat.”

He wasn’t the first person to feed me this advice and, growing impatient with my disposition, wasn’t enthralled to receive it again, sage as it might well have been.

Arriving back in Myeik, I thanked him for his advice, however detrimental it was to my plans, and we exchanged goodbyes.

I walked out to the edge of the road and waved down a motorcycle—every vehicle in Myeik seems to be a taxi, once you raise your hand.

I was ready for a float in the pool, but my driver, a devout Buddhist, insisted that I visit “Myanmar’s most beautiful temple” for sunset.

So up the hill we went. Naturally, I wasn’t wearing proper garb, so the driver took off his longyi—the post-colonial version of the larger, more elaborate paso, effectively similar to the sarong worn by Malay men—and handed it to me.

He showed me how to wear it and then said he’d wait while I visited the temple.

I didn’t want him sitting around for me as I didn’t know how long I’d be, but he assured me it wasn’t a problem. I found the Burmese very accommodating in this way, which, thanks to the importance western civilization places on time, tended to make me feel guilty.

I pointed to a cafe and invited him to join me for tea first.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

It was golden hour now. There were a few clouds reflecting the dimming sunlight down onto the gilded temple, and I was glad I’d come.

I took my shoes off, made my donation and started up the steps. A monk, eager to speak English, asked me what I was doing there, and I told him I was in search of the Selung.

“Go to Kawthaung,” he replied, without missing a beat. It was unanimous. I decided I’d book a flight to Kawthaung the next morning.

The old monk invited me to pray with him. It’d been a while–and that’s the understatement of the century–but I couldn’t help but oblige. He was polite, and I was both stunned and enchanted by the beauty of this temple perched atop a precipice overlooking the harbor. The assistance of divine intervention was looking more and more like my only hope of getting to the Moken, and now was as good a time as any to pray, I surmised.


“The most beautiful temple in Myanmar.” I can’t say how many times I heard this said elsewhere, but each and every time, I couldn’t disagree. Photo: Owen James Burke.

The monk led me through the down-up, down-up, down-up ritual, and everyone present—the temple is a social scene at sunset, especially for young lovers—watched keenly. I guess I passed the test, because there was a round of applause at the end.

Afterwards, I walked over to the wall and caught the last rays of the setting sun as it tucked behind the hill on the tiny island I’d just visited.

IMG_4248 (1)

Panoramic photo: Owen James Burke.

It was getting dark now and coming time to find my ride home, if he was still there. Sure enough, he was—at the very least, he must have wanted his threads back.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

He dropped me back at the hotel where I strolled into the bar for a bite.

IMG_4254 (1)

“Raw prawn salad” soused in lime and curry. Caught by whom? I’m still afraid to guess, and at the time, I hadn’t a clue. I imagine shrimp, which I’ve since stopped eating, would taste a little less sweet to me today. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Dinner in Burma is a curiously inexpensive affair, even by Southeast Asian standards. Three dishes, three cocktails and one large bottle of Myanmar beer ran me about $9 USD. A real drinker could achieve some serious rotting of their viscera here. Signing by bill, I concluded that it was in my best interest to leave the restaurant and swim a few laps in the pool.

Bloated, sated and now pruned beyond my wildest dreams, I retired to my room feeling, however despicably, like royalty.

The next morning I made arrangements for a flight to Kawthaung as both the banker and the monk had advised. The next plane wasn’t until the following morning, so I drifted out into the street toward the harbor. If I retraced yesterday’s steps, I mused, chance might have it that I’d find a boat out to the islands in the meantime.

Being a westerner in Burma, you don’t tend to get very far in most places before someone offers either their services or assistance. I found the Burmese particularly so before I’d made it halfway down the block, a young taxi driver pulled up alongside me and asked where I was going.

I gave him my story, in so many words, and he said he’d come along with me to the island to translate. Great. There was just one thing—he would have to pick up a few schoolteachers and deliver them home first.

It was a little early for school to get out, I thought, but this guy—Jack, he called himself—seemed to be my best shot at finding a boat out of Myeik, so I went along.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

We jumped into Jack’s truck, and he told me it would only be a short ride to the school.

One hour later—I’d moved into the bed of the truck for fresh air and a better glimpse of the scenery—we arrived here:


Photo: Owen James Burke.

These children, their principal and the only English speaker at the institute told me, had never seen a westerner before. They formed a circle around me–pushing, laughing, screaming and staring, some sprinting away as fast as their feet would carry them. A few worked up the courage to shake hands or swap high-fives. It was my twenty-seventh birthday, and though I wasn’t at sea as I’d hoped–on the contrary: this was the farthest from the sea I’d ever spent a birthday–I couldn’t have imagined spending it any differently. But then, I did feel a little moral remorse for disrupting class.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Back in Myeik. Photo: Owen James Burke.

By the time we’d retrieved and delivered all six instructors, another hour-and-a-half back into Myeik, there was scarcely any daylight left. So much for making it down to the harbor, let alone the islands. Jack then said he knew a hotel owner who was also a sea captain with a good boat, so we stopped in for a can of beer to find out whether his friend would be willing to take me out to the Mergui archipelago.


The old captain’s house in Myeik. Photo: Owen James Burke.

The old captain, whose hotel was empty, said that he knew where some Moken were staying, and would be happy to take me to them, but a storm offshore would delay our trip by at least two or three days. I told him thanks but no thanks, that I didn’t have the time. And it was true, I didn’t–I had a week before I had to be back in Bangkok, and delaying two or three days, or potentially more, might cost me a very expensive plane ticket back home.

Besides, I had my flight to Kawthaung scheduled for the morning, and the prospects of this old skipper and his tired wooden trawler were, at any rate, less than comforting.

Jack brought me back to the hotel where, rattled and bruised from three hours of riding in the back of a pickup on a rubbly dirt road, I packed for Kawthaung and swam laps in the pool under the stars until well past midnight, wondering if any better luck lay ahead.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Weeks later, reading investigative reports on the sea slave trade published by The Associated Press and The New York Times‘ Ian Urbina earlier this year, I got to thinking back on the sight of these ships, endlessly strewn along the horizon in Myeik. Most of the indentured or enslaved fishermen were Burmese citizens who had been somehow coerced–kidnapped or shanghaied (that is essentially drugged and kidnapped), according to the AP story.

I came to a stark and sudden realization that it’d be impossible to distinguish whether or not these were the same slave-run ships sending livestock feed, pet food and frozen shrimp through supply chains that would land in the cans and on the shelves of companies and stores like Iams (pet foods), Meow Mix, Wal Mart and Safeway in the US and EU. They certainly didn’t look any different from the vessels in photographs published by the AP and The Times. With such little regulation in place, and in such close proximity to Thailand, it’s not difficult to imagine why or how Thai-owned slaveships—among others—might seek refuge (and more unwitting recruits) in Burmese ports like Myeik, too, but further investigation would be required to validate that supposition.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

The scope of the slave-based fishing economy hit me in Ranong, Thailand, where a nationwide moratorium on commercial fishing had just been instated. Most vessels had followed government orders, but others, according to my captain (photographed below), had skirted offshore in order to retain their enslaved crews and continue operating in less-trafficked waters—“The Outlaw Ocean,” as Ian Urbina so poignantly placed his finger on the daily civil and environmental injustices taking place in the monolithic swathe of blue that makes up over two-thirds of this big blue marble.

ranongharbor (1)

An eerily still, usually humming Ranong Harbor, Thailand, where seafood from all over the Indian Ocean–caught legally and otherwise–is processed and exported to any nation, supplier or franchise willing to accept their high-volume, low-cost commodities with as few questions and qualms as possible. Photo: Owen James Burke.

For well over a year, the EU has been threatening to add Thailand, the world’s third largest seafood exporter, to their list of nations banned from exporting food to the EU. Meanwhile, The United States shows no intentions of proposing any legislation that might affect the $7 billion USD per year industry (2013 statistics, courtesy of SeaFish.org), while representatives of companies like Wal Mart have issued limp statements along the lines of “We care about the men and women in our supply chain, and we are concerned about the ethical recruitment of our workers,” with absolutely no commitment to probing into the matter at all, so long as peeled and deveined shrimp continue to reach their freezers at pennies a piece. But that leaves it to you, dear reader–your dollar, your decision.

As for my search for the Moken amidst the monsoon gales, that finally came to an end on my way out of Burma, after I’d decided to cut my losses and accept defeat, thanks in no small part to this chatty captain who led my through not only one but two gales in his tiny boat. That is, however, yet another story under way at this very moment, and with any luck I’ll finish it before the ball drops over Times Square tonight. Stay tuned . . .


Read On the Road to Meet the Andaman Sea Gypsies. Part I: Yangon (Rangoon) and Dala, Myanmar (Burma). A Tale of Two Cities.

Facebook Comments