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A descendant of Urak Lawoi on Koh Lipe
A descendant of the Urak Lawoi on Koh Lipe

Image: Geertjan Preyde


In this article, we zoom in on the Urak Lawoi who settled on the island of Koh Lipe, among other islands in Thailand, over a century ago. The Urak Lawoi is a tribe belonging to the Chao Lay, a group of people living in Thailand who have been sailing the Andaman Sea for at least 300 years. These sea nomads were the first, and for a long period the only inhabitants, of islands such as Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Koh Jam, Koh Bulon Leh / Don, Koh Payam, Koh Surin, Koh Tarutao, Koh Lipe, Koh Adang and Koh Rawi. The last three islands mentioned belong to the Butang archipelago. Today, this archipelago is part of the Tarutao National Park in the far south of Thailand, against the Malaysian border. 

In their own language, which officially has no script, the word Urak stands for people and Lawoi for sea. So it makes sense that the Urak Lawoi are the people of the sea.

Sea Gypsies on Koh Phi Phi

Chao Lay community on Koh Phi Phi | Image: Julien Beytrison (Flickr)

Urak Lawoi bringing food

Chao Lay on Phuket | Image: Dawn Farrell (Flickr)

The Chao Lay

In Thailand there are three tribes of sea people, who in Thai are called Chao Lay – Chao means people and the word Lay comes from Talay which stands for water and in this case the sea. So Chao Lay literally means the people of the sea. In the past, before the Chao Lay settled in Thailand, these people of the sea had no nationality and roamed the Andaman Sea as nomads. In Thailand, there are three different tribes that all belong to the Chao Lay. You have the Moklen who live in province of Phang Nga, among others, and the Moken, known for Moken Village on Koh Surin, part of the Surin Islands. And then there is the largest and most integrated tribe, the Urak Lawoi living in Phuket, Phi Phi and Lipe, among other places. It is the group of Urak Lawoi living on Koh Lipe that this article will primarily focus on.

Fishing boat of the Urak Lawoi in Thailand

Chao Lay on Koh Jum | Image: Morpheus (Flickr)

All three groups are part of the large maritime Austronesian family that stretches from the south of the Philippines, through Borneo, Sumatra to the Mergui archipelago in Myanmar and even further west all the way to Madagascar.

Other names for the Chao Lay are Chao Nam (people of the water) and Thai Mai. The latter is a great insult to the people since Thai Mai means “new Thai” even though they have lived in Thailand for centuries. Westerners often tend to refer to them as Sea Gypsies (the gypsies of the sea). We simply call this particular group Chao Lay.

Image: Geertjan Preyde

De last great migration of the Chao Lay

The last major emigration of the people of the sea began around 1875. Because in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, sailing to the Dutch East Indies could take place via Atjeh. At that time there were many pirates active there and that called for a tough approach. Partly because of this, so the Dutch reasoned, the sultanate of Atjeh had to become part of the Dutch colonial empire.

In 1873 the Netherlands began a bloody war that would last until 1942, during which they also hunted down pirates. Many Urak Lawoi, who were mistaken for pirates because of their maritime lifestyle, feared for their lives and fled to the north. By the way, a small part of the Urak Lawoi were also real pirates.

We already know by now that Urak Lawoi means people of the sea but the origin comes from the ancient Malay language Bahasa Melayu where this people was called Orang Laut.

Sea Gypsies in Malaysia

Sea Gypsies in Malaysia | Image: Fabio Achilli (Flickr)

Toh Kiri

Around 1908, a man named Toh Kiri, along with a group of friends, decided to leave Atjeh, Indonesia. They planned to look elsewhere for a place to settle. First, they rowed to Gunung Jerai in Kedah, present-day Malaysia. Then they sailed on and stayed on the Thai island of Koh Bulon. After a brief stopover on Koh Bulon, Toh Kiri and his friends decided to sail even further north to Koh Lanta, located in Krabi province. Koh Lanta pleased Toh Kiri’s friends and they settled on the elongated island. Toh Kiri himself decided to look elsewhere for a place to start a new life. He sailed back, south again, and eventually arrived at the tropical paradise of Koh Lipe. Here he found what he was looking for, an abundance of food and natural resources on the island and in the sea around it.

Koh Lipe in the distance

Koh Lipe in the distance | Image: ThailandMagazine

The islands of Koh Lipe, Koh Adang and Koh Rawi, compared to the other more northern islands like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta and Phuket, have only recently been colonized by the Urak Lawoi. The immigration of the Urak Lawoi from Atjeh, (Sumatra / Indonesia), came in waves. The first Urak Lawoi came in small groups, island by island and established communities on Phuket and Koh Lanta, among others.

Image: Geertjan Preyde

Thailand or Malaysia?

Because Koh Lipe and the surrounding islands were uninhabited, it was not entirely clear which country they belonged to. Thailand or British Malaya (present-day Malaysia). Toh Kiri got in touch with the governor of Satun, a province in southern Thailand and where Lipe now is part of, to discuss the possibility of a permanent settlement. He wasn’tt unsympathetic; after all, here lay an opportunity to annex the archipelago to Satun and thus Thailand. Therefore, the governor of the Thai province of Satun gave Toh Kiri permission to settle on Koh Lipe and establish a community on the island. 

Shrine in memory of Toh Kiri | Image: Geertjan Preyde

Image: Geertjan Preyde

Pack and go

The community on Koh Lipe grew rapidly and soon settlements were established nearby islands such as Koh Adang, Koh Rawi and Koh Tarutao. Until the establishment of Tarutao National Park in 1973, there were a total of 12 villages of the Urak Lawoi outside the island of Koh Lipe. Eight villages were located on Koh Adang, three on Koh Rawi and one on Koh Tarutao. After the establishment of Thailand’s first maritime nature suit, Tarutao National Park, the Urak Lawoi were forced to leave the islands. All villages had to be evacuated except two, Teloh Cengan and Teloh Puya on Koh Adang. A large part of the group settled on Koh Lipe and the rest left for Koh Lanta and Phuket. Until the rise of tourism, the life of these people was relatively simple. Daily life consisted of fishing and picking up crustaceans and sea cucumbers from the sea floor. 

Drawing of Sea Gypsies on a Boat

Picture This #15 with beautiful photos of Koh Lipe and Picture This #17 with photos of the Koh Tarutao National Park. These areas have largely been home to the Urak Lawoi in the past.

Image: Geertjan Preyde

Sea cucumbers and other trade

The trade in sea cucumbers (trepang) has been a lucrative trade for centuries, which mainly targets China and Chinese communities outside of China. Since the habitat of the Urak Lawoi was very remote, contacts with the mainland Thai were minimal. Thus, the Urak Lawoi depended on a middleman, called a “Taukay.” Goods, such as rice, clothing, luxury items, alcohol and tobacco, etc., were supplied by the Taukay as long as the Urak Lawoi supplied him with a constant amount of fish. It was an easy life where give and take were balanced. 

A sea cucumber

Stealing land on Lipe?!

Later, barter was replaced by money, but the principle of trade remained more or less the same. In the 1970s and 1980s, investors began buying land from residents, telling them that otherwise they would have to give it up to the Tarutao National Park for much less. At the time, many Urak Lawoi lost the rights to the land they inhabited and had cultivated. According to the Satun Land Office, in 1998, of the 2,400 rai (1 rai = 1,600 m2) on Lipe, 934 rai (39 percent) were privately owned land with legal status. Except for the family of the former village chief and a few other families, the ownership of many pieces of land is still unclear. The struggle for land rights continues to this day.

House of the Urak Lawoi on Koh Lipe
Houses of the Urak Lawoi on Koh Lipe

After the 2004 tsunami

After the terrible tsunami of 2004, things went even more downhill. One resort after another was built from the ground and the Urak Lawoi were once again forced to move. There used to be five villages on Lipe, four on Sunrise Beach and one on Pattaya Beach. They were all pushed away to the middle of the island. Cemeteries disappeared under the resorts. There is one left, but no longer in use. The Urak Lawoi now bury their dead on Koh Adang.

Urak Lawoi village on Koh Lipe

Urak Lawoi village on Koh Lipe | Image: Geertjan Preyde

In the week following the devastating tsunami, we in the Netherlands raised tens of thousands of euros at events held at the various events, clubs and other party locations on New Year’s Eve 2004. Many organizations placed a jar at the door for donations and the doormen donated their tip to the victims of the tsunami in Thailand.

Urak Lawoi cemetery on Koh Lipe | Image: Geertjan Preyde

Few of Koh Lipe’s original inhabitants benefit from tourism, the resort owners prefer to work with Thai despite the Urak Lawoi working very hard. They are only asked as guides and skippers, of course they know these waters like no other. They also still fish and sell their catch to the many restaurants and resorts that exist on Koh Lipe, including around Walking Street.

There are still a number of resorts that are self-run by the Urak Lawoi on Lipe. So if you visit Koh Lipe you now know that when you book at one of these resorts you are also supporting the Urak Lawoi.

Walking Street on Koh Lipe

Walking Street on Koh Lipe | Image: ThailandMagazine

The present (2021)

As mentioned above there still are a number of resorts and other tourism businesses on Koh Lipe run by the Urak Lawoi. The transition to modern times has been difficult for many, especially for the older generation. Many households still live in abject poverty. It’s not only the Urak Lawoi who have a hard time, other Chao Lay peoples such as the Moken have an even harder time. Only a few of the Moken on the Surin Islands have Thai nationality. The government has restricted their traditional nomadic lifestyle and they are trapped on an, admittedly paradisiacal, island. All they can do at the moment is act as a tourist attraction. But still we need to keep up the good spirit and stay positive….

A total of around 12,000 Chao Lay currently live in Thailand. These people of the sea live in 44 communities spread across just a few provinces in Thailand.

The Moken on Koh Surin

Moken Village on Koh Surin | Image: Kent Wang (Flickr)

The future generation

The younger generation here has much less difficulty adapting to these modern times where electricity and the Internet are the most normal things. The new generation of Urak Lawoi is increasingly going to study at a college or university, opportunities their parents never had. Many return after their studies to help their communities. Thanks to their Thai nationality, they have many more opportunities than the other groups Chao Lay the Moken and Moklen, most of whom are still stateless. Therefore, we also hope that in the future these groups will also have more opportunities and one day be able to take an example from the Urak Lawoi on Lipe.

A person from the Urak Lawoi community earns no more than 40,000 baht (€1,000 euros / $1,200) per year.

Youngest Generation Urak Lawoi
Old woman (descendant of the Urak Lawoi) on Koh Lipe
Smiling child of the Urak Lawoi on Koh Lipe

Image: Geertjan Preyde

Special thanks to Geertjan Preyde

Our BIG THANKS go to Geertjan Preyde, also known as Somchai Preyde by the Urak Lawoi on Lipe. Geertjan has been visiting Koh Lipe and the beautiful region for decades and even has a home on Lipe. He is very close to the Urak Lawoi who have embraced him into their community. We also understand why, thanks to him this article came about and he is administrator of the Facebook page The Urak Lawoi. Thanks in part to his efforts, we believe that the history and culture of the Urak Lawoi will and should never be forgotten! This article is an ode to the Urak Lawoi on Koh Lipe.

Collage Urak Lawoi tripe from Koh Lipe

Images: Geertjan Preyde


Take a look here at some super nice pictures of Koh Lipe
Click here for all information about Phang Nga
Read here about the fierce history of Koh Tarutao
See great photos of Tim Russell in our In the Picture #29.
Click for more information about Old Town in Koh Lanta
Click here if you want to see the best hotels in Railay Beach
Klik hier voor alle informatie over het natuurpark Khao Sok National Park in Thailand
From Thailand with LOVE! June 2020
Click here to find out more about Sirinat National Park on Phuket
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