The Orang Laut, who mainly settle in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the Moken in Thailand, and the Sama-Bajau who mainly live in East-Malaysia and the Philippines are ethnic groups that have a seaborne or amphibian lifestyle and culture.
The Malayan name Orang Laut literally translates as Sea People. The Moken are also called chao nam in Thai, meaning “people of the water”. Both the Moken and the Bajau are nomadic societies, moving between islands along various coasts, some families even spending long periods of the year living on their boats. The largest group, the Bajau, are said to exist for over 1.000 years. I did not know that there were nomadic sea faring societies like that at all. Apparently several Bajau myths exist that explain how and why they first adopted their nomadic lifestyle.
This picture of a “typical” settlement of Bajau in the Philippines I find particularly striking for the isolation of the individual buildings and the lack of any visible land close by:
Traditionally these societies lived from fishing but there are anthropological indications that at least the Bajau were once an agricultural society. Their traditional lifestyles center around fishing and harvesting sea plants and the often nomadic lifestyle make them very vulnerable to environmental damage, economic and political exploitation and oppression. Many of them have meanwhile settled on land and further off the sea coast for better employment opportunities.
Two other links are noteworthy here:
In the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, the Moken people who lived around the Surin Islands of Thailand were able to predict the events quite accurately which allowed them to warn and protect the island population. However in other places, Moken suffered severe devastation to housing and fishing boats by the tsunami. (see related scientific report on indigenous knowledge and disaster here.)
These ethnic groups are probably the inspiration to many myths about sea people in the region. As biological studies have recently revealed, the Moken and Bajau show genetic traits that allow better under water vision and a significantly greater ability to dive and hold their breath. These sea people are probably the closest humanity gets to mythical figures like “aqua men”, “frog men” or “mermaids”. (See for example the Filippino movie “Beyond Atlantis” from 1973.)