The boat launch is the most sacred aspect of the days-long Loy Ruea Festival celebrated by sea gypsy, or chao lay, people across the Andaman region twice a year in the sixth and eleventh months of the lunar calendar. "Loy Ruea" means "Float the Boat" in Thai.
Every village celebrates in its own way. The close-knit community of the Urak Lawoi tribe on Koh Siray will this year (2014) hold its Loy Ruea in the days around the full moon of May 13 and October 8 in their village along Tukkae Cape on Phuket's east coast.
According to Mani Pramongkit, a boat carver and one of the village elders, the tribe has made its base on Tukkae Cape for some 400 years. Fishing and roaming the ocean have always been integral to the culture, though he said more of the younger generation is turning to tourism for work these days.
Only a handful of people in the village know how to craft boats in the traditional way, said Khun Mani, and their former sea-faring way of life has been severely hemmed in by the creation of marine parks and the privatisation of the land all along the Andaman coastline.
But Loy Ruea gives them the chance to celebrate their distinct culture and raise hopes for a better future. Loy Ruea shares some similarities with the famous Thai Loy Krathong festival. Whereas in Loy Krathong, individuals, couples or families will send off a small floating vessel made with banana trunk and decorated with leaves, flowers and candles, the sea gypsies come together as a group to create one elaborate boat.
Like Loy Krathong, coins, nail clippings and locks of hair are placed into the boat to wish for good fortune, but there's another key addition to the Loy Ruea boat small carved rods of wood are placed carefully inside, each piece representing a family member.
Only a few join the actual pre-dawn boat launch offshore, but in the days before the big pushoff the village turns into a fairground with music and dancing, both traditional and pop, with the ceremonial boat set in the middle for all to admire and pay homage. Boisterous and carefree, crowds flock to the village's main pavilion for a big group dance session round and round as the music plays on. The whiskey flows rather freely, too.
Khun Mani has many stories to tell that help explain why boats are so central to the village's identity. In the past, their long-tail boats in "jangnga", or upwards curving, style were hand crafted from trees that the carvers could easily source for free from the nearby forests. When sailing season began, they would set off for several months at a time with 12 people aboard the sail- and paddle-powered boats.
They would venture all the way to Myanmar and back, a perilous journey not only because they were at the mercy of the elements, but the danger of a pirate attack was always lurking. Khun Mani said they would always bring a few dogs aboard for added protection. As well, before departing, they would bring knives to the village shaman who would bestow them with a protective spell. Because of this magical fortification, they never lost a battle at sea, said Khun Mani.
Scuffles with pirates aside, the work of foraging and fishing was tough enough. Especially when searching for pearl nautilus shells and other treasures of the ocean depths, which in the past were found by making dives without the aid of oxygen tanks, goggles or any scuba diving gear. Still today, researchers are baffled by some sea gypsies' incredible lung capacity and ability to see clearly under water.
Now as a more settled culture, memories of a wild nomadic life are fading for the Urak Lawoi, but their family and village ties remain strong. Loy Ruea gives them a chance to highlight their traditional respect for nature, as well as honour their ancestors and the spirits who protect them.
The festival is a sight that few outsiders see, but the Siray village is welcoming and open to anyone who wants to join in. Details of Loy Ruea are always difficult to find in advance, but just dropping by the village on the evening before the full moon will yield some lively sights and sounds.
The Urak Lawoi village is found on Tukkae Cape, near the Westin Siray Bay resort on Koh Siray.