The village of Sang-ga-u in the south east corner of Koh Lanta is home to a unique group of people known as the Sea Gypsies or “Chao Ley” (people of the sea).Formerly living a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the Andaman Sea, these seafarers of Indo-Malay origins were also the first settlers on the island some 500 years ago.
The true origins of the Urak Lawoi, (the largest of three groups of Chao Ley) is unclear. Because the language is only a spoken, nothing written exists to verify their real origins. Only their historical legends and anecdotes can give us an idea of their past.
Traditionally the Urak Lawoi had permanent houses on land but were nomadic in their food foraging practices, especially during the dry season when for several months the entire families travelled to different places in the Adang archipelago. For them, the sea and shore are their main sources of income and also their home. The core of their culture has developed around this environment.
They are good boatmen, skilled fishermen and excellent divers able to move freely and stay comfortably underwater for long periods of time.
The Loy Rua (floating boat) festival reflects their close relationship with boats. They use the occasion to pay respect to their ancestors & the spirits and symbolically float away their misfortune with a small ceremonial boat.
Their animistic belief in the supernatural and traditional spiritual worship is strong. They worship spirits by raising two high poles as a door or threshold and dispose of their deceased on cemetery islands where the spirits of the dead live on. Offerings are made on special occasions to ask for good harvesting and some carry a talisman to ward off bad spirits and misfortune. Others believe that illnesses can be treated by a spirit medium.
PLEASE NOTE: Many websites and guidebooks talk about Koh Lanta’s sea gypsies as if they are a tourist attraction. They are not. They have faced many problems in the past – eviction from their traditional fishing grounds and resting places; forced settlement; erosion of their culture – without the added impact of western tourism. If you visit Sang Ga U village, please be respectful of these people and their customs by not being intrusive.
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