These days, the Urak Lawoi live cheek by jowl with the tourists who have taken over the beaches, their tin shacks often rubbing right up against new resort developments. Bao tells me that they welcome the financial benefits tourism brings, with many of them working in resorts and restaurants or using their fishing boats to take visitors snorkelling and island hopping, though there is concern that their vital access to the beaches that sustain them is diminishing. Many have moved to nearby Koh Adang, some permanently where they live on utterly idyllic palm-fringed beaches, others just for the fishing season; one beach we visited was lined with makeshift shelters and tents occupied by cage fishers, who will move back to Lipe once the season is over. “I think you’re the first tourist who’s ever been here” Bao whispers to me as we get off the boat.
Most tourists pass through the Urak Lawoi settlements without stopping or even looking around – my resort backed onto the biggest village of them all – and the locals themselves are generally shy of visitors. Indeed, I was glad of Bao’s company was we wandered around, as I would’ve felt somewhat intrusive and unwelcome photographing them by myself, and Bao’s presence certainly opened a few doors that might otherwise have remained closed to me, as did his teaching me the standard Urak Lawoi language greeting of “Where are you going?” (sorry Bao – I’ve forgotten it already!).
My day with Bao was a fascinating and occasionally unsettling introduction to one of Thailand’s lesser known ethnic minority groups, and an interesting insight into how traditional lifestyles can still (just about) survive alongside modern tourism, despite the two often being seen in Thailand and elsewhere as mutually exclusive.
Big thanks to Khun Bao for introducing me to his fellow Urak Lawoi. If you want to hire Bao and his boat, check out his Facebook page.