Sea Gypsies of Mergui

-Carol Rudy

In Thanintharyi coast at Southern Myanmar, live the sea gypsies that go by the name of ‘Salone’. They are the Salone people, and they move often as they are nomadic people, travelling on canoes and boats on the sea.

These people that live on the sea dive and hunt in the waters for a living. This amazing practise has been passed down for generations and youths still maintain the tradition today. It is an impressive feat as nowadays, there areno ethnic groups that fully rely on traditional skills as their main source of income. On the contrary, the Salones have been sustaining themselves from the beginning.

What makes them stand out from other groups is their ability to adapt to different environments. They move ontoland during monsoon season where the waters are too rough for their canoes and old boats to handle. They would also leave a dog on an island for nearly a year, to test if food and water is enough to sustain all members of the group if they were to seek shelter on the island.

Seafood is considered their staple food as most of them are expert fishermen. They paddle their canoes to the middle of the sea, dive into the water and hold their breath underwater to look for sea cucumbers, fish, squid, clams, oysters and shells. Pearl-diving is also another traditional activity they practise to this day. Sea urchins in particular are their specialty, as they handle sea urchins with ease despite the many poisonous spikes threatening to poke their skin with one wrong move.

Another unusual trait of the Salones is that adults would spear fishes from their boat, whereas their young children would freely dive and swim deep into the sea, reaching the sea floor to collect shellfish and eels. A study from the University of Lund, Sweden showed that Salone children can see two times better and hold their breath longer underwater compared to European children. These children are capable of altering the shape of their eye lenses to adjust to the darkness, and decrease their heart rate voluntarily to hold their breath as long as possible.

It is an amazing sight to watch the Salones swim freely and work with the waters as if they are one with the sea. Their harmonious lifestyle and respect of the sea make them a unique group of people that are often labeled as ‘sons of the sea’. Most of the Salone people earn money by utilising their fishing skills, selling their catch to nearby villages on land and trading seafood for other necessary items.

Nowadays, it is getting more common to see the Salons at sea wearing plastic goggles, flippers and buckets with them. Times are changing and it seems that the Salons are moving along with the country’s shift as well. However, their lifestyle and habits are still very different compared to the common people of Myanmar who live in cities and villages. A distinctive people, their lifestyle is not the only thing that sets them apart. They also worship their ancestors, as most of them do not have a specific religion.

The Salone people celebrate the Salon Festival, where they stay on land to avoid the rough waters of the monsoon season. Instead of their usual diving and fishing activities, the Salones carry out agricultural activities to sustain their short stay on land. This is when you can visit them and observe how they live and go about their day as one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups at sea. Held in April, cultural enthusiasts will love visiting the sea gypsies to watch how they practise shamanism, perform ritualistic dances and play music to receive blessings for their following adventures at sea.

The Salones are a rare breed as they can utilise and manage themselves well at sea with a particular ability to adapt to land as they have lived in the sea for most of their lives. Now that you know the tale of the sea gypsies, are you ready to meet them?