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The nomadic Sea Gypsies (Chao Ley) arrived on Ko Lanta more than 500 years ago with their unique language, matriarchal social system and animist beliefs. Today they are struggling to preserve their traditional culture in the face of growing tourism and the influence of western culture.
Sea Gypsies came to the area as nomadic boat people of Indo-Malay origin with a subsistence-based fishing livelihood. Today many have been granted land, surnames, and citizenship in Thailand. These unique people blend into the local population but they retain their own language, culture and close ties with the sea.
The Chao Ley are from a tribe called Urak Lawoi, who according to local legend are relatives of Morgan, another group of Sea Gypsies on Surin Island in Phang Nga. Both groups migrated along the coast of Saiburi, now Malaysia 's Kedah state, around Gunung Jerai Mountain . They later separated and established separate settlements on various islands in the Andaman Sea.
There are still two Chao Ley villages less than a kilometre apart on the southeast coast of the island. There is one tiny, private Sea Gypsy museum called ‘Sea Gypsy House’ nearby, a seaside compound with various buildings standing amongst the mangroves and tidal pools near Ko Lanta’s Old Town. It serves as both an educational centre for visitors and a place for the Sea Gypsies to fashion jewelry and traditional musical instruments.