Celebrating the Salon’s nomadic sea culture

Salon people, also known as Moken (“people immersed in water”), have resided in Myanmar’s Myeik Archipelago for centuries. Traditionally, Salon people are based at sea, living on kabang boats and coming to live on land only during monsoons. They rely on the sea for fish, and collect shells, sea snails and crabs from the beach to sell. They are famous for diving underwater for minutes at a time without using any breathing apparatus.

Today, however, many Salon people have settled on land. According to the 2015 census, about 2,000 Salon people live in the Myeik Archipelago on the different islands – predominantly Zardetgyi, Jaran, Langann, Mali, and the villages of Done Pale Aw and Linlon-Parawah on Thayawthadangyi Island.

Traditionally, Salon people live on kabang boats. Credit: FFI Myanmar.

Traditionally, Salon people live on kabang boats. Credit: FFI Myanmar.

Every March, Salon people hold a festival to pay homage to their ancestral spirit (nat), with the date determined by the full moon day of Tabaung according to the Myanmar calendar. The festival is held by different villages each year, and Salon travel from all of the islands to celebrate together. The festival includes spiritual dancing and encourages good luck, health and fortune for the coming year.

The Salon nat guardian leads the festival and in the late evening the Salon invite their ancestral nats to the event by praying to their ancestors with offerings such as island bees, beehives and a worm species found in mangrove trees. The taste of these offerings foretells the fortune of the coming year.

Since 2012, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working in the Myeik Archipelago to promote sustainable fisheries and livelihoods for local communities. With support from government departments, FFI has been collaborating with indigenous people to conserve vulnerable marine areas together.

Credit: FFI Myanmar.

Salon festival. Credit: FFI Myanmar.

Working with the Myanmar Navy, the Department of Fisheries, Forest Department and Myeik and Mawlamyine Universities, FFI spent two years surveying coral reefs to establish locally managed marine areas (LMMAs). Three priority areas near Langann Island and Thayawthadangyi Island were selected as important sites for conservation due to their high coral diversity.

FFI collaborated with Salon communities in these priority areas and with the Department of Fisheries to help plan this year’s festival which took place on the 11 March in the Langann LMMA village. Langann Island is home to approximately 400 people – about one-third of people are Salon and the rest are Bamar.

A range of officials took part, including the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development and staff from the Union Fisheries Department, regional, district and township fisheries departments, the Regional Myanmar Fisheries Federation, and local administrative departments. The event was broadcast to the rest of the country to raise awareness of the traditional culture of Salon people.

Credit: FFI Myanmar.

The festival was a great success. Credit: FFI Myanmar.

The celebrations included traditional boat racing, swimming and diving events as well as raising awareness of marine conservation issues. The festival was a great success and everyone was keen to celebrate together again in the future.