Spirit Poles, Kabangs and the Sea Gypsy

Spirit Poles, Kabangs and the Sea Gypsy

The Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar (Burma) Photo by: Go-Myanmar CC BY-SA 3.0

There are many factors that make the islands of the Mergui Archipelago an unusual and fascinating destination. The  islands are for the most part unknown and unexplored. The Moken people-sea gypsies who are the main inhabitants of the islands, number only around 3,000. The restriction of tourism until 1997 and the limited commercial development of the islands. All these unique conditions contribute to an experience like no other and also guarantee a true escape from the hectic and stress of day to day modern life. Whether you opt for just the basics of a small guided tour, sleeping on board or in simple accommodations, or go the direction of a luxury resort or yacht experience, the experience is certain to be unforgettable.

Lahpet thohk – pickled tea salad Photo credit: en user Wagaung CC BY-SA 3.0

At Island Profiles, we typically explore the culture, cuisine and music of each destination. The inhabitants of the Mergui Archipelago are sea nomads who lead a simple life and carry all that they have with them on their boats, known as kabang. They travel in flotillas of 30-40 boats for around eight months of the year, taking dogs, cats chickens and all of their possessions with them on the sea. Their simple diet consists of fish, dugong, sea cucumbers and crustaceans. Having for the most part rejected agriculture, they trade what they catch for rice. Visitors to the region will find that tea and tea leaves, mango, lime and coconut are frequent ingredients where food is served and will notice both Chinese and Indian influences.

The Moken are at home in the water from a very young age. The following video examines the incredible eyesight that Moken children develop as a result of life in and on the sea.

The Moken religion is characterized by a belief in good and bad spirits. These spirits cause and control things such as the weather and elements, disease and death, prosperity or famine and various other aspects of life. The Moken believe that these spirits require gifts of food and drink, which they leave at the location of specially carved spirit poles. 

The Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar (Burma) Photo by: Go-Myanmar CC BY-SA 3.0

The second week of February marks  the Moken or Sea-Gypsy Festival at Ma-Kyon-Galet. Visitors lucky enough to attend one of these festivals are allowed to participated in or observe the traditional dancing and rituals.

To celebrate our exploration of the Mergui Archipelago, we have the Sea Gypsy cocktail. One of the principal ingredients is honey, which is greatly valued by the Moken. The honey syrup should be made with a 2:1 ration of honey to warm water or strong tea. I used double strength  warm black tea to make the syrup and just shook it in a closed Mason jar until completely dissolved.

Sea Gypsy

  • 2 oz. gin
  • 1 oz. strong black tea
  • .5 oz. honey syrup
  • .5 oz. lime juice
  • 1 tsp. green Chartreuse

Shake all ingredients together and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime twist.


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