A relief run in Thailand
How superyacht Talisman Maiton stepped in to offer support to Thailand’s indigenous Moken people.
Phuket dances to its own tropical tune. Warm and transparent waters abundant in kaleidoscopic marine life provide a backdrop to a land where dense jungle-covered islands, remote sandy beaches and shallow reefs offer both seclusion and adventure. For superyacht owners and charterers alike, it is diverse cruising at its best, rich in island-hopping exploration. For the indigenous Moken people – skilful freedivers, hunters and sea nomads – the picturesque shores of Au Bon Yai bay on the island of Surin (a short sail from Phuket) are simply home.
Though typically idyllic from day to day, the perils of a paradise life are never far away. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, the Moken’s knowledge of the sea – passed down through the generations – was their saviour, enabling them to escape high up into the dense rainforest before impact. But in February 2019, when a fire broke out late one night, ripping through their bamboo beachfront homes, they were rendered powerless. Although no lives were lost, 273 people were left homeless.
Superyacht Talisman Maiton is a regular in the waters around Phuket. Emotionally and financially invested in stepping up the number of philanthropic initiatives in the area to support indigenous communities, the boat launched into action when the fires struck, armed with emergency supplies funded by yacht brokerage Burgess, including water, food and first aid, along with 100 goody bags for the Moken children.
Beautiful, even when broken, the scene on arrival was a paradoxical melting pot of sandy beach, palm trees, smiling children and a multitude of ramshackle pop-up tents, occupied by those keen to escape the glare of the morning sun. Immediately adjacent to the temporary accommodation, the Thai navy worked tirelessly in a bid to rebuild 62 houses, before the onset of Thailand’s rainy season.
The Moken are indigenous to the Mergui Archipelago, a group of nearly 800 islands belonging to Thailand and Myanmar. Traditionally, the semi-nomadic tribes would reside in the sea, but following the tsunami they abandoned the tradition of living in stilt houses for island life.
Daily existence is challenging. There is just one water hose for the entire village. But the Moken are well practised in sharing – their language has no word for “want”, “take”, “mine”. This is self-evident when the Talisman Maiton crew visits the school. A cluster of wide-eyed faces looks up, surprised, as they begin to hand out pads, pencils, hats and highly-prized footballs. Life here is simple, uncomplicated by the West’s obsession with material possessions. And yet ambitions are big, with many of the children expected to make it off the island at some point in their lives to pursue university degrees in mainland Thailand, just as their native school teachers have done.
Over the past 20 years, Thailand has become a destination synonymous with backpacker hot spots, such as Koh Samui and Maya Bay, a pocket of paradise on the coastline of Koh Phi Phi Leh island, made famous by Danny Boyle’s film The Beach. Heavy tourist traffic takes its toll, however, and the most famous beach in Thailand is now closed indefinitely to allow the plantation and ecosystem to recover. Marine conservation is taken seriously in Thailand, as are other sustainability practices, to protect the natural habitat and local coral reefs.
The waters around the national park islands are restricted in terms of fishing, so the Moken live off the sea themselves, but are not permitted to fish commercially. “Many of the inhabitants are employed as guides within the national park, while others make handmade arts and crafts to sell,” explains Suttinee Butpo (Noon) from Seal Superyachts Thailand, who accompanied the relief run.
Both the Similan Islands and the Surin Islands are surrounded by shallow waters (with depths of just 40m) and are alive with turtles, clownfish, and Harlequin shrimp. Accessible by kayaks and paddle boards, Mai Ngam Beach on Koh Surin is an ideal spot for overnight camping. For the Moken, however, the water’s edge remains their permanent residence. Just one month after the Talisman Maiton relief run, all the newly built houses were complete.
“Every resident moved into their new homes at the end of March and their lives are returning to normal,” says Noon. “It’s not only important for superyachts to offer help, but everyone, everywhere. We are all human beings and should help each other out. The effort Burgess and others made following the fire was really appreciated by the village and they are so happy with the goodies too.”
For captain Rob Smith, whose crew remained in touch with the Moken as the housing progressed, it was the first of hopefully many such philanthropic efforts: “The crew and I really enjoyed organising and being a part of the aid run. We all feel so passionate about the region and it was nice to give something back to the local people.”