ME NAISET
LEADING WOMEN’S MAGAZINE IN FINLAND
PUBLISHED 10 JANUARY 2008

MAGIC ISLAND PARADISE

The island of Koh Libong of Thailand is trying to become a sustainable travel destination. One of its rarities are, among other things, the last mermaids of Thailand which are supposed to change your life if you see them.

Peaceful small islands

The Trang Islands have until now been quiet and out of the scope of mass tourism. Now Ko Mook is in the list of Finnish travel agencies. It is small and there is not much to do but relax – it is ideal for family holidays. The highlight of Ko Mook is the Emerald Cave which when you swim through a small tunnel you will arrive at a beautiful lagoon and beach. Ko Mook is the most popular island and is starting to receive package travelers more than the usual backpackers. The biggest and least developed island is Ko Libong which is suitable for people looking for peace and nature activities. At Ko Ngai you can find mid price hotels and accommodation. Further out is Ko Kradan where there are only two basic bungalows. You can reach all these islands by travel from Ko Lanta, Had Chao Mai and Pak Meng Beach. For more information, you can read the travel guide.

Beware of the Copies

In Thailand, you can find many different copies of almost everything. Be it DVDs or clothes. Resorts are now copying services. In the case of the Nature Resort on Ko Libong, there is also another business of a similar name, but the other place has nothing to do with Ecotourism. For the
REAL Libong Nature Resort, check this website www.trangsea.com or email natureresorts@trangsea.com. The best way to travel is by coming through Haadyao Nature Resort.

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The small red and white fishing boat is going across the white horses of the waves. Although the white horses are making Professor Laurence wet, the grey haired Thai anthropologist smiles. "If it would be anyone else but the boat driver, I would be afraid,” he said pointing to the stern of the boat where there is a very tanned man with a T-shirt and swimming costume who is steering the boat with his legs. "He knows the sea, he is a Chao Ley sea gypsy".

We arrive wet but safely on Koh Libong, the biggest island in the Trang region. The retired professor is managing, with his family, a small 12 bungalow eco-resort on the island. Prof Laurence is trying to develop Libong to be the first sustainable travel island in Thailand, where a tourist would know that he is doing only good, producing no rubbish and the local inhabitants would benefit from the tourists.

“I sit alone in the evening in front of the bungalow which faces the beach, I listen to the waves and watch palm trees which are framing the stars. From a nearby sea gypsy village you can hear the faint sound of karaoke. The only neon light in the village is the red light of the bar. The beach is not the best in Thailand and that is the reason I like it, because the rocky beach has kept the hotels and corrupt business men away. It is also worth a fortune for the original inhabitants of Libong because in the area surrounding the island there is the last sea cow or dugong colony. The name dugong comes from the Malay language 'Du Yong' which means the 'sea mermaid”.

 An Increase in Potency

The village headman gives a taste of the most important product of the village. "Please try this. It is very healthy." He has pulled out a rubber-like piece of worm from a container of honey. As you would imagine, as with many other natural alternative medicines, the worms are expected to bring long life and increase potency in men. The region's police and mayor are both loyal customers. The police chief collects sea worms during low tide from the rocks and his wife works in the restaurant of the resort. The professor has hired all his staff from the local village. In addition to the preservation of nature, one of the principals of eco-tourism is to respect local culture. "It was said to me that the sea gypsies cannot do ordinary work, because they do not have any educational background. But I believe that they need to get the benefit of tourism, as by so-doing they will also become interested in the preservation of nature."

Thai hotels usually recruit their employees from outside the beach resorts, which endangers the local communities and makes them aliens in their own land. The professor believes that if he teaches his employees waste management, this knowledge will then transfer to the local village. There is a lot to do. The village is like a rubbish dump with plastic waste everywhere. If during the last thousand years you could throw your rubbish on the floor, it will take a long time to get used to the modern ways of waste disposal.

The professor has at least managed to get rid of the use of the chain saw. A young man was cutting down precious forest trees and his cousin was working in a forest company and another in the local police. Because of his connections it was not possible to do anything in the past. The professor then asked the man to come and see him, and threatened to fire five of his relatives from the resort. "At first the man just laughed, but he stopped cutting down trees when his relatives pressurized him". Professor Laurence says they are "Now friends and he is even doing some small jobs for me".

The locals are also excited about the protection of the coral reefs since they have realized that they can earn money by organising snorkelling trips for the tourists. Local fishermen are also taking tourists on dugong safaris; they are the only people who can find these animals.

An Aphrodisiac

The boatman looks at the horizon of the still sea. The previous nights' thunderstorm has made the water cloudy. The same colour as a dugong and therefore it is difficult to see the animal. The professor says that "The fishermen have the capacity to see things that we have no clue about". He describes how the sea gypsies swim like fish, that they can see clearly underwater and they can follow the movements of groups of fish from above the surface by watching birds, water reflections and other signals. For thousands of years they have lived beside the sea since they were little.

The professor stayed on the beach this time, but his daughter Anita, who has a doctorate in law from an Australian university, has changed from a life in business to a quiet life on Libong Island. "According to an old belief, if you see a dugong it brings you luck and a big change in your life," Anita says, "One believes that dugongs have magical capabilities as you can produce an aphrodisiac from their tears."

While waiting for the dugongs to appear, Anita tells the story of an unhappy Swedish journalist whose fiancé had just left him before their wedding, and the man was tired with his job as a travel writer. Two months after he had seen dugongs, Anita received an email from him. The man had moved to a new city and started a new job with a history magazine. He was also engaged.

 

"Over there," the boatman shouts, and points to a place 200 yards away where there are bumps rising from the sea. A number of animals have just raised their heads from the sea to breathe. Just behind their heads are their fins. Anita says, "I have never seen anything like this before; they are swimming with dolphins. You are really lucky today." We get into the canoes and paddle closer. One of the animals puts its nose towards the sea floor and lifts a beautiful mermaid-like tail into the air.

The dugongs do not let us close to them which can be a good thing. If you see them from very close it could be a disappointment - rather than mermaids, these animals are more reminiscent of a Finnish man after two weeks of continuous drinking. They have a drinker's puffy face, small human-like eyes, and scruffy stubble. Dugongs are related to elephants, and the beauty of these animals is in the way they move under the surface of the sea like mermaids.

On the way back Anita tells the story of a British couple who had arrived to watch dugongs soon after the death of the husband's mother. The mother had been a keen animal lover and she had a picture of dugong in her flat. She had suddenly died and they did not have a chance to say goodbye to her. One of the dugongs swam right under the kayak of the couple. When they finished their kayaking they were in tears. They felt that his mother had come to say goodbye to them in the form of a dugong.

A Heart in the Right Place

On the last night I am again sitting on an empty beach listening to the sound of the waves mixed with the sound of karaoke singing. Earlier sea gypsies lived on boats and moved freely around SE Asia from Burma to the Philippines. They were collecting everything that nature had to offer from the sea and the rainforests. Later on, border guards and passports checks were established and the sea gypsies had to settle down. Now it is difficult to tell the difference between a village of sea gypsies and the ordinary fishing villages of southern Thailand. The sea gypsies are still very comfortable on water, but old traditions are slowly dying. Thai people have considered sea gypsies as second class citizens and this attitude has transferred to the sea gypsies themselves. Since no-one has been interested in their traditions, they have themselves started to doubt their own value. The boatman says that he does not do any of the old rituals any more when he is going fishing because his parents never taught them to him. He says that "His parents did not think they were important. I know that the daily catch does not depend on praying, but on natural conditions, stars and luck."

I asked the professor whether he is sad about the disappearance of an ancient culture. He said that the sea gypsies have the right to live the present time and to destroy their way of being and their health if they want to. The professor then quotes a poem of a Lebanese Kahlil Gibran, "Your children are not your children, they are the children of the future. Parents are the bow and children are the arrow. You cannot keep them for ever. You have to let them go and they will land wherever their destiny takes them." The professor continues, "The sea gypsies will have to choose their own destiny."

I am running sand through my fingers. I know I will miss Libong. It is a nice place, as are the original inhabitants, dugongs and the village of the sea gypsies. At the same time the island is large and a little scruffy but nevertheless it has its heart in the right place.

In the end, what will happen to the island of Libong and its mermaids, and the remaining paradise islands of Thailand is not dependent on the Laurence family. It depends on the holiday makers and whether they are ready to invest in ecological travel - to pay a little bit more for minimal facilities. For example a luke-warm shower of rainwater, no air conditioning or that the lights are turned off early in the evening. But there is no doubt that it is beneficial if people choose the ecological option. When the boat is pulled up on the beach the next day, Anita runs to the beach to say goodbye by saying, "Do not forget to tell us how your life changed after the encounter with the dugongs". Soon after I saw the mermaids I decided to propose to my wife.