Skip to main content



ETHNONYMS: The names used by and for nomadic boat people typically refer to the people's connections with the sea. "Moken" (Mawken, Maw khen) is the name people living around the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar (Burma) use to identify themselves. Originating from a Moken story, the name means "drowned people" or "people of the drowning," maw or l'maw (drowning, to dip), o'en-ken abbreviated to oke'n ("salt water"), according to Bernatzik and to White. Anderson mentions people calling themselves Manoot (menut or manut, people) Ta'au (teau or t'ow, sea) or "people of the sea." Similar terms for "people" are found in Thailand (chao ) and Malaysia (orang ) with words for "sea" (Thai le; Malay laut ) or "water" (Thai nam ); hence Thais call Moken "Chao Nam" or "Chao Le" and Malays use "Orang Laut." The meaning and etymology of the Burmese name Salon, Selon, Selong, Selung, or Silung is not clear; it may derive from the Thai-Malay placename Salang (Thalang) Phuket, where Moken may have lived. Other names for Moken are associated with sociopolitical status, geography, and environment; these include "Orang Rayat" (Malay, "subject") or "Rayat Laut" ("the sea subjects"), "Orang Pesukuan" ("people divided into clans"), and "Bajau" (Bugis, "subject"), a term denoting sea people of north Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago (often equated with pirates). Local groups may take the name of geographic places where they live (e.g., Orang Barok, for Baruk Bay, on the island on Singkep).


Identification. This grouping encompasses diverse, seminomadic boat dwellers scattered along the coasts and offshore islands throughout Southeast Asia from Tenasserim in southwest Myanmar down the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia, Singapore, southeast Sumatra, Borneo, and into the Sulu Sea region. "Sea nomads," as they are labeled in the literature, are a maritime-dwelling boat people oriented to the strand, including sand beaches, coral reefs, rocky shores, mangroves, and the sea. The most commonly used name for sea nomads, "Orang Laut," results in confusion, since this name refers not only to boat-dwelling sea peoples but also to strand-living people (in contrast to inland-residing communities known as "Orang Darat").

Location. Within similar nomadic boat adaptations, additional group distinctions can be made based on location, origin, dialect, and recent history. Along the Tenasserim coast and the Mergui Archipelago, the major islands on which Moken wander include Tavoy (Mali), King (Kadan), Elphinstone (Thayawthadangyi, Dung), Grant, and Ross (Daung) in the north; Domel (Letsok-Aw), Kisseraing (Kanmaw), Sullivan (Lanbi), Owen, Malcolm, and Bentinck islands to the south; and the southernmost point of Myanmar at Victoria Point (Kawthaung), including Saint Matthew's (Zadetkyi), Saint Luke's (Zadetkale), and the Loughborough Islands. Moken reside along the Thai coast down to Ko Phra Thong, Tongka, at the foot of Phuket. The Burmese/Thai communities include four distinct dialect groups: Dung (Doang) residing in the northen end of the archipelago around the islands of Elphinstone, Grant, and Ross; the Ja-it dialect group living around Lampi Island and Bokpyn; Lbi speakers living around Victoria Point; and the Lawta dialect group of Lawta and Tongka, Thailand. Farther south along the Thai coast at Ko Lanta Yai and Ko Lanta, in the Trang area, are Orang Laut Kappir (from the Arabic kafir, "unbeliever") . Down the Malay Peninsula along the Pontian coast live Desin Dolaq (Orang Kuala, Duano) and Orang Seletar (Selitar, Sletar), Orang Laut communities that the Malaysian government considers part of the Orang Asli community. On Pulau Brani in Singapore Harbor live the Selat. Documented Johor-Singapore communities that are either extinct or unknown today include Orang Akik, Sabimba, and Orang Biduanda Kallang; with the establishment of Port Swettenham, the British removed the Sabimba and Biduanda Kallang inland to sites in Johor. Orang Laut groups from around the Riau-Lingga archipelago include Orang Tambusa, Galang, and Mantang originally from the Pulau Mantang group of islands south of Pulau Bintan; Orang Moro from Pulau Sugi Bawah in the Riau Archipelago; and Orang Pusek (Persik), Orang Barok, and Orang Sekanak from Singkep in the Lingga Archipelago. The sea nomads of Billiton and Bangka Islands include the Orang Sekah (Sekak, Sekat, Sika). Communities related to the Johor-Singapore and Riau-Lingga groups can also be found along the southeast coast of Sumatra (e.g., Desin Dolaq migrated from Pulau Bengkalis and until World War II visited their kin at the mouth of the Siak River).

Demography. Population statistics are based solely on estimates. Bernatzik estimated the Moken population of Burma to be around 5,000 in 1939. This figure included settled boat nomads. The population for all sea nomads decreased over the past century because of disease and because of attrition as more boat dwellers settled as a result of government intervention (e.g., Skeat and Ridley reported that there were only 8 Orang Biduanda Kallang families left out of the 100 families removed from Singapore to Johor in 1847). 1983 population figures for Orang Laut in Malaysia include 1,924 Desin Dolaq and 542 Orang Selitar. Figures for Riau-Lingga, Bangka, and Billiton Orang Laut in the nineteenth century are unknown, but it is clear that the pattern of decreasing population fits them as well.

Linguistic Affiliation. All sea nomads traditionally spoke non-Malay Austronesian dialects and languages. Today the few remaining Orang Laut communities that maintain their cultural identity speak Malay, with a distinctive pronunciation. When Baptist missionaries established a school among the Moken in 1946, they wrote a Moken script "primer."

History and Cultural Relations

Moken oral history and reconstruction of historical materials postulate origins in the southern end of the Strait of Malacca, suggesting a cultural and historical connection between Moken and peninsular Malaysia's Jakun. Orang Laut history is full of stories of Malay slave raiding and exploitation that forced the sea nomads' settled ancestors to flee in boats and adopt a nomadic maritime life-style. A characteristic consistently recorded about Moken is their timidity and the likelihood of their fleeing outsiders. The transition of sea people into settled coastal fishing peoples, integrating cultural features of the locally dominant culture of the region and accelerating during this past century, was occurring long ago. The sea nomads' maritime mobility and their intermittent and scattered sedentization had a profound effect by carrying and spreading "Malay" cultural traits.


Nuclear families form the primary residential boat unit. Five to ten boats form a community and travel together. Communities come together annually, forming flotillas of up to thirty or forty boats. During the southwest monsoon, boat flotillas form in protected bays to wait out the bad weather. Most Moken communities rarely wander more than about 50 kilometers in any direction from their home-base island. For most of the year, maritime Moken reside on 6to 8-meter-long dugouts constructed with a deck and sailing mast made from palm sheets. The sides of the boat are built up with stems of a palm placed one on top of the other, caulked with tree resin, and lashed together. Amidship, Moken build a hearth with earth on the deck to avoid fire. A sheltered living area, built on deck toward the boat's stern, is constructed of split bamboo arch supports covered with a removable palmleaf roof, which can be rolled up and stowed away or used as a shelter on shore. When Moken anchor near shore they either build small temporary beach huts or, more typically, continue to reside on boats. Sedentarized Moken construct single-room houses on stilts on the strand or out in the water.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Maritime and sedentarized Moken depend on the sea, fishing and collecting strand life. Moken, who seem never to have been totally self-sufficient, depend on trade for food and other material needs. Most boat dwellers do not grow food, but White mentions sporadic planting of fruit trees. Sedentarized sea nomads (e.g., Orang Laut Kappir and Moken on King Island) do cultivate fruit trees and subsistence crops.

Although an otherwise advanced marine-oriented people, Orang Laut traditionally have used only simple technology. The practice of fishing with nets, lines, and traps, found among many non-Orang Laut strand communities and sedentarized Orang Laut communities, is absent among the seadwelling Moken. Spearing and harpooning of fish, turtles, dugong, trepang, and crustaceans at low tide are the most common techniques. Sedentarized and acculturated boat people (e.g., Desin Dolaq) use more elaborate fishing technologies learned from neighboring peoples.

Low-tide strand collecting is the most important activity. Shellfish, including oysters, clams, snails, and crabs, as well as other mollusks and crustaceans, turtle eggs, and sea slugs are collected along the beaches for subsistence and barter. Shallow-water diving for such bartering items as sea slugs, pearl oysters, rays, and sea snails is also important. Forest products collected include wild fruits, roots, honey, and wax. Moken hunt pig and deer with dogs and spears. Domestic animals typically include dogs used in hunting, and chickens; a few households also keep cats.

Traditionally Moken worked for traders, washing tin ore or gathering mangrove wood for charcoal. The Orang Sekana and Galang were both involved in piratical activities with support and promotion by Malay chiefs who had nominal political control over them. Pirate activities had economic, social, and demographic consequences not only for pirating groups but also for the Orang Laut communities being preyed upon. Pacification of many groups is complete, but some piratical activities still continue.

Trading. Much of the collecting Moken do is for barter. The sea products they exchange include trepang, tortoise-shell, mother of pearl, agar, pearls, sea slugs, and shark fins. They barter forest products including birds' nests, woven pandanus mats, and tree resins with Malay and Chinese dealers for rice, sago, cloth, tobacco, alcohol, opium, and iron tools. Bernatzik reported traders marrying Moken women so the women's kin would become their exclusive trading partners. Traders established an exploitative monopoly by putting Moken into debt and dependence through opium addiction. Traders also acted as intermediaries for Moken with the outside world.

Division of Labor. Women were as efficient boat handlers as men. Women gathered strand fauna and wove pandanus mats for sleeping and barter. Men hunted, built boats, and dived for marine life, which women processed by cooking or drying.

Industrial Arts. Wood, grass, liana, bamboo, and pandanus are basic raw materials. Men's boat-building skills are highly praised, as are women's skills in making pandanus mats. Women's potting and men's blacksmithing all but disappeared with the introduction of cheap trade articles.


Kin Groups. There are no permanent corporate kin groups. Boat groups are composed of bilateral kin who could provide aid. The large flotillas that come together are probably larger bilateral kin groups.

Kinship Terminology. In White's account gender is distinguished only for parents, parents' siblings, Ego's younger siblings, and people in the second ascending generation. However, Ambler and Anderson include general terms for sister (lua ) and daughter (me'). Kin terms not distinguished by sex may be marked with the designation kanai (man) or binai (woman) (e.g., aka binai, for "elder sister"). Cousins are called "friend" (ja), suggesting they are outside the family's "inner circle."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Moken recognize couples as married when they begin having sexual relations. Couples arrange their own marriages with the consent of the bride's parents, whom the groom asks through an intermediary. The groom may provide a small bride-price to the bride's parents. Marriage ceremonies are only found among Islamized communities. Among some communities (e.g., Sekah and Kallang), a man must have his own boat before he can marry. Few restrictions are placed on the selection of a spouse; partners may be from within or outside a boat community. Marriage between Moken women and non-Moken men is not uncommon. While there is no proscription against polygyny, it is uncommon. There are no reported cases of marriage after widowhood, but according to White there is a stepparent kin term suggesting the possibility. Patrilocality predominates; with the birth of a child, a couple takes up residence on its own boat. The exceptions to this include Orang Sekah and Orang Sama, who reside matrilocally, and Moken, who do not reside with the husband's boat group until after the birth of the couple's first child. White suggests that the Moken see divorce as "sinful."

Domestic Unit. Nuclear families predominate; cases of extended households include young ,/iyweds and elderly parents. Average household size ranges from four to ten people.

Sociopolitical Organization

Boat communities are autonomous. Mergui boat communities are under the nominal direction of a headman who provides some amount of leadership to boat groups' movements and activities. Among some Riau-Lingga and Billiton groups, headmen had more than nominal authority. Adjacent dominant cultures sometimes imposed community leaders, so office titles vary depending on the dominant culture. Malay lords of Johor and later Binton and Lingga forced Riau-Lingga sea nomads to become their feudal vassals, calling them Orang Rayat ("sea subjects") and persuading the sea people to perform services, including pirating coastal villages and boats.


Religious Beliefs. Traditional animistic beliefs are allied to Malaysian Orang Asli ideology. Islamic, Christian, and Buddhist beliefs have filtered into the belief systems of local groups to varying degrees. Moken of Mergui are the only group Islam has not penetrated. Orang Laut range from nominal Muslims who continue to eat pork and do not fast during Ramadan to more conservative Muslims.

Nineteenth-century missionaries and government officers recorded Mergui Moken belief in a spirit called Thooda (Thida), which Carrapiett argues derives from the Thai Theoda. A more widespread belief is in good and malicious spirits. Spirits are thought to cause illness and death, storms, thunder and lightning, or provide food and protection from other spirits. Moken believe that spirits require propitiation with food and drink left at temples and carved spirit posts.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans lead ceremonies; they communicate with and make offerings to spirits and exorcise illness from the sick. Shamanic ability is not inherited. Women may become shamans. Sorcerers are believed to be capable of causing sickness and death.

Ceremonies. Reminiscent of B'sisi' and Jah Hut on the Malay Peninsula, Orang Laut shamans pull pain spirits from the sick and lure them into carved figures that are disposed of later. Moken have an annual ceremony for which a number of neighboring boat groups come together to "feed the spirits" and ask for good health and a good year's sea harvest.

Medicine. Nineteenth-century reports of Moken all mention the decimating effects of cholera and smallpox on Moken populations. Illness and death are believed to be caused by evil spirits who enter a body through a wound. The shaman holds healing ceremonies in which he or she enters a trance and calls for spiritual help in bringing about a cure. Sick people propitiate spirits and ask for good health at the annual festival. Midwives assist in the birthing process. There is no ceremony following birth. Mothers name their newborn without ceremony.

Death and Afterlife. Souls go to the east but evil spirits remain near the grave. Moken fear evil spirits so cemeteries are located on an out-of-the-way island. The traditional method of disposal was to place the corpse on a four-post platform wrapped with bamboo sticks; boat owners were buried in their boats, which were cut in half. The boat then became part of the grave goods, which also included the individual's personal possessions. By 1850 platform burials were abandoned for burial on the beach.

See also Bajau; Samal; Sea Nomads of the Andaman


Ambler, G. M. (1938). "A Vocabulary of the Mawken, Salon, or Sea Gypsy-Language of the Mergui Archipelago." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Letters 4:195-216.

Anderson, John (1890). The Selungs of the Mergui Archipelago. London: Trübner & Co.

Bernatzik, Hugo Adolf (1951). The Spirits of the Yellow Leaves. London: Robert Hale.

Carrapiett, W. J. S. (1909). The Salons. Ethnographical Survey of India, Burma no. 2. Rangoon: Office of the Superintendent, Government Printing.

Lewis, M. Blanche (1960). "Moken Texts and Word-List: A Provisional Interpretation." Federation Museums Journal (Kuala Lumpur) 4:1-102.

Skeat, W. W., and C. O. Blagden (1906). Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Skeat, W. W., and H. N. Ridley (1900). "The Orang Laut of Singapore." Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 33:247-250.

Sopher, David E. (1977). The Sea Nomads: A Study of the Maritime Boat People of Southeast Asia. Singapore: National Museum of Singapore.

White, Walter Grainge (1922). The Sea Gypsies of Malaya: An Account of the Mawken People of the Mergui Archipelago with a Description of Their Ways of Living, Customs, Habits, Boats, Occupations. London: Seeley, Service & Co.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Selung/Moken." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 16 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Selung/Moken." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (January 16, 2019).

"Selung/Moken." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved January 16, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.