Encounters: The Urak Lawoi Sea Gypsies of Koh Lipe

While researching our recent holiday to the stunning Andaman Sea island of Koh Lipe, I discovered that it was home to a sizeable number of Urak Lawoi sea gypsies (or chao lay in Thai), so I got in touch with a few locals and eventually hooked up with Bao, an Urak Lawoi tour guide and boat captain who agreed to spend the day taking me around the various Urak Lawoi villages on Koh Lipe and neighbouring Koh Adang.

You can read an excellent account of the history of the Urak Lawoi here. To summarise, it is thought that they arrived in the Adang Archipelago in the early 1900s, and spent 75 years living peacefully on its tropical beaches, moving from beach to beach as the winds changed and the fish spawned and moved. In 1974, the Thai government turned the area into a marine park, and the Urak Lawoi were forcibly relocated to Koh Lipe, where they already had a substantial settlement. Over the last 20 years, Lipe itself has become a tourism hotspot (somewhat ironically, the island’s first resort, a small collection of bamboo huts, was established by the Urak Lawoi in 1984) and the Urak Lawoi have gradually been pushed off the beaches and relocated inland, where they now live in metal shacks in cramped villages, often paid for by the resorts who displaced them (“The resort built my house” one villager poignantly told me, “but I would prefer to live on the beach.”)

Urak Lawoi houses on Koh Lipe

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.

Urak Lawoi houses on Koh Adang

Fishing shacks on Koh Adang

Drying jungle tobacco on Koh Adang

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.

Young and old Urak Lawoi villagers, Koh Lipe

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.