Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Moken Kabang

The Moken are an Austronesian people pursuing a nomadic maritime culture in the Andaman Sea. These "Sea Gypsies" live in the Merguyi Archipelago, several hundred islands off the west coasts of Myanmar and Thailand, traditionally spending eight or nine months of each year on the water, and coming ashore only during the monsoon season, during which they would set up temporary communities on islands relatively isolated from the larger mainland societies close by.
Kabang under traditional pandanus squaresail. Source: Moken Projects:
The kabang is the traditional boat of the Moken, and while propulsion has shifted from a single woven pandanus square sail to outboard engines, the rest of the boat appears to be little changed. It is built on an expanded dugout base, with three strakes per side extending the freeboard to make a hull tall and wide enough to serve as a family home. 
Kabang. Source: Click any image to enlarge.
The dugout base is bifurcated at both ends. Tradition holds that these features represent the living nature of the boat: a mouth at the front and an anus at the rear. The practical purpose, however, is to serve as boarding ladders -- an essential feature because much Moken fishing consists of free-diving for finfish, shellfish, sea cucumbers and the like, and a dramatic form of spearfishing in which the fisherman leaps from the boat's bow with a harpoon in hand.  (Moken are accomplished free divers, commonly remaining submerged for three minutes or more. Moken children's eyes adapt to achieve underwater visual acuity twice that of Europeans.)
Spear-fishing technique from the bow of a kabang. Source:
During construction, the dugout base is expanded (i.e., widened) by inverting the hollowed log and heating it over live fire. The log is then flipped over and, while it is still hot, temporary cleats are slipped over the gunwales near both ends to hold their shapes and prevent splitting. Then V-shaped clamps are slipped over the gunwales closer to midships on both sides and the clamps are levered outboard, pulling the sides with them.  

The wide strakes that are added above the dugout base are traditionally split, not sawn, so that only two planks could be gotten out from a single tree. They are reportedly sewn and pegged in place, but I've found no details on these procedures. Ribs are inserted, and the planks are caulked. (Several photos seem to show the raised sides built not of wide planks but of very narrow strips -- possibly split bamboo?)

Partial decks of narrow planks are laid, and a house whose sides and roof are built of pandanus leaves is added. The sides of the house tilt outward, following the rather shallow angle of the hull sides and no doubt creating a bit more shoulder room inside.

I've not seen any measurements, but I would guess the kabang's length overall at 40' or more. Here's a photo essay showing and further explaining several of the construction steps: unfortunately the images are very small.

An organization called Moken-Projects has partnered with the Kon Tiki Museum to test the sailing characteristics of the kabang in Norwegian waters. Apparently, someone has perceived similarities between the kabang and some ancient Norwegian rock-carvings, and come up with a hypothesis that there's an evolutionary connection between the maritime traditions of Scandinavia and Southeast Asia. Sounds pretty silly to me, but not surprising for a museum founded on the legacy of Thor Heyerdahl. (The perceived similarity is probably that of a bifurcated bow, but several scholars believe the Norwegian carvings represent skin-on-frame boats, not logboat-derivatives, and I believe the rock carvings do not show bifurcated sterns like the kabang's.) (Here's a link to Moken-Projects, but beware: when I visited, some pages were infected by malware.) 

The Moken culture is in fairly dire condition, with perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 members remaining in total, and possibly as few as 1,000 still pursuing a traditional maritime-nomadic lifestyle. A movie called "No Word For Worry" about the Moken people and Moken-Projects is in production.

More news about Moken-Projects is on Facebook.


  1. Interesting hull shape. I would like to suggest that the bifurcated structure at the ends could have some additional functions besides the symbolic and as a way to get back into the boat. I had taken a similar approach in a small kayak design, ten foot long built by a student of mine who wanted a small light weight boat. I modified a conventional dish shaped hull where the keel came up at the ends to meet the deck by running the keel more or less straight with just a bit of rocker and joining the deck to the keel with a vertical piece set back from the ends that when covered with a skin resulted in a bifurcated shape. The main advantage of this construct is to make the boat track better as well as giving it better speed by extending the water line length to the full length of the hull while at the same time minimizing the amount of extra wood needed for construction. The design also maximizes usable area on deck and reserve buoyancy for going over waves while maintaining an efficient hull shape below the waterline.

  2. I've seen a few speculations, but I don't think historians or anthropologists have ever gotten a definitive answer for the reason behind the bifurcated bow on baidarkas or on the Hjortspring boat. (It certainly is visually appealing, however.)
    I wonder if the lower arm of the bow acts like the bulbous bow on almost all large merchant ships.