This Is Life in an Andaman Sea Village During Monsoon Season. A Photo Essay.

by Owen James Burke


One moment, the Burmese coast of the Andaman Sea looked like this, frenzied and white-horsed, with gale force winds and pelting–literally stinging–rain. The next, it would abate to the sobering serenity of still air and blue skies. All of this has no bearing on the people living in small stilted villages on the Andaman Sea, who make their homes and feed their children day-in, day-out, year-round, come wind, hail, rain or shine. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Watching these small narrow boats fade out on the horizon behind a line of squalls chilled my bones to the marrow. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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The sound of the rain meeting this tarpaulin-tin city was tremendous. It hushed all conversation and jarred your concentration. Photo: Owen James Burke.


But then, moments later, it would look like this, but regardless of the weather, tide or hour, these longboats seemed to be buzzing in and out port all day long. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Some were covered in the fashion of the traditional Moken Kabang, a live-aboard vessel designed around stone-aged dugout longboats. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Less timber for building kabangs has resulted in sparser designs for many Andaman Sea communities, who’ve begun to improvise covers using thatch or tarps. Photo: Owen James Burke.


My iPhone’s weather forecast for the extent of my time in Kawthaung.


The tides look deceptively large here; they’re not. But in shallow mudflats like these, a six-foot tide means the difference between hauling the day’s catch through a football field, knee-deep in mud or delivering it directly over the rail and onto the back porch. Needless to say, returning home at low tide is less than ideal for these fishermen, regardless of the season. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Through a whirlwind barrage of merciless rains and squalls, piers, stilts and abodes are under constant repair. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Relatively large fish like these are something of a rarity and a delicacy. Here are the frames, or skeletons, which are what the locals keep after they’ve sold the high-fetching fillets at market. Smoking, of course, helps preserve the meat. The matriarch of this household generously offered me a beautiful palmful of this treat, but I couldn’t accept. Photo: Owen James Burke.


She was also sautéing some mussels, which are much more readily available, and she had me there; I couldn’t help but indulge. Photo: Owen James Burke.


I pondered how easy it would be to snap a limb–especially one of my poultry legs–in one of these narrow gaps, and also how far we were from a hospital. I decided that it was much too far to entertain the idea of reaching one within any reasonable amount of time. Regardless, a hospital, at least at this given point in time, is a completely useless facility for the members this community, who were, apparently, largely undocumented citizens of The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Unlike the industrial complex of Myeik to the north, the people of this village seemed generally and genuinely pleased with life. Most everyone smiled, and many invited me into their homes, which was refreshing after the undeniable reality of doom and gloom up north. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Superficially, they had little more than the roofs over their heads, the shirts on their backs and the rubber thongs on their feet, but on the whole, everyone seemed healthy–and several of the elders seemed to be living well into their nineties. Spiritually, that is to say, they might just have it all. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Mullet, small dogfish and crabs seemed to be the staple sources of protein. The larger dogfish above was pregnant. I motioned to the women who were cleaning and preparing the day’s catch that she was bearing pups–and I’m sure they were well aware. I suggested they throw her back, undertaking a shabby sequence of charades to propose that saving the unborn pups might mean more food next year. They concurred–or at least obliged–and we set her free. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Women sat on the ends of the piers all day receiving catch, mostly banding the claws of these crabs, many of whom worked without gloves. Every once in a while you’d hear a hushed exclamation, and see a crab with a death grip on a finger. Cool as you like, the women would casually flick the crustaceans off their hand and get back to it. Photo: Owen James Burke.


If you’re a fan of the blue crab of the eastern United States, you’d feel right at home dining on these puppies. Photo: Owen James Burke.


The berried she crabs–that is, the egg-bearing females–were not so easily returned to the sea. And fair enough, if any one species appeared to be flourishing, it was this ornate, speckled crab, and the precious protein packed into their eggs which are, nutritionally speaking, priceless. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Another staple was this gorgeous and otherworldly zebra-branded melo melo sea snail, which also, on occasion, produces a highly coveted pearl, the sale of which has sustained communities like these and the Moken, the semi-nomadic sea-dwelling people I’d originally set out to find, for hundreds of years. Photo: Owen James Burke.


There were nearly two-foot waves rolling in over the mudflats at times, which resembled open-ocean swells and astounded me considering these islands were so well protected. Photo: Owen James Burke.


The women who weren’t separating and preparing the catch for market sat side by side with the men in flooding boats mending nets and bailing buckets all day long. No rain gear, no cover. Under the blazing sun or a barrage of rain, no one seemed to bat an eye. Photo: Owen James Burke.


. . . Except when they caught sight of me and my camera, which confounded them a great deal. Photo: Owen James Burke.


And it rained, and rained, and rained. Photo: Owen James Burke.


The front porch served as the living room in most households, where a thatched roof kept most of the rain out. Plants and furniture lining the walkway gave the community a welcomingly snug and homely atmosphere. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.


Never mind the weather. No one seemed to be hiding out inside. Photo: Owen James Burke.


So close, yet so far. I was told that the Moken lived on the other side of the far islands above, but being so close to the Thai border, customs offers patrolled persistently. Making the passage without being nabbed was “almost impossible,” I was told. Still, I found myself mired in internal conflict from my seat in this infinity pool at sunset: How could I be sitting here at the Victoria Cliff Hotel, waiters at my beckoned call, while the people I was trying to meet were shoring up their houses and boats in preparation for the next gale, just far enough offshore to be out of reach, no doubt? Photo: Owen James Burke.

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