The Salon: a tribe on the verge of extinction

By Manthit Nyein (Archaeology)The traditions and honesty of the Salon tribe represent an invaluable symbol for Myeik Archipelago. Salons are nomadic and roam the sea in small hand-crafted boats called kabang for their livelihoods. They swim like a fish, dive underwater and go across the river; they are known as sea gypsies or men of the sea.
Historically, they were believed to have inhabited Malay Peninsula and were attacked by marauders, forcing them to flee the Peninsula and migrate to Myeik Archipelago, a collection of more than 800 islands. They are usually found near Myeik and Kawthoung districts where Myeik, Kawthoung, Kyunsu, Pulaw and Taninthayi townships are included.
In the book ‘Siamese White’ by Maurice Collis and Travelogue by Vongray in 1675, these facts were mentioned: their appearances were somewhat like those of Myanmar or Malay. In the essay ‘Tribes in Myanmar’ by author Louis, the Salons are not included in the three big groups of Tibet-Myanmar, Mon-Khmer and Thai-Chinese, but are related to Malays.
The Salon and Mon-Khmer were believed to have dealt with each other in ancient times. That opinion led us to believe the Salon were once connected with Jargon tribes who were thought to be primitive Malays. Jargon tribes were branched into Orang Bukit (highlanders) and Orang
Laut (sea gypsies), in which the Salon tribe were included. Their dialect is closely connected with Malay one. The Salon have used four kinds of dialects; the main one is Dun, according to the book ‘Sea Gypsies of Malaya’, written by Walter White.

No literature of their own
In 1846, Dr Braken compiled the Salon primer referring to Mr. Steven’s notes, which were published at the ABM press. But Salons were not interested in learning the primer. Again in 1900, Christian missionaries Dr. Daisy, Naw Sebe and Naw Pho Hla coined the Salon language with English and Poh Karen alphabets, and an American missionary invented ‘A Primer of the Salon Language’ by using Roman alphabets. But they still don’t have a language of their own.

A study on their birth
According to findings in 1964, the Salon people cut the umbilical cord of a baby at the moment of its birth and bathe the baby in the waters for three times. The idea is to let the baby become adept at swimming and not to get frightened. These mistaken beliefs sometimes cause their babies to die at birth. They no longer practice that false habit now. Normally, Salon midwives are responsible for their births and send pregnant women to a nurse in a nearby clinic, if they find difficulties during birth.
In studying their livelihoods, one finds that they roam the waters by kabang, a hand-crafted boat with dhani thatch roof. They bring along their family aboard a kabang during the fine weather. During the rainy season, they take shelter in a hut built on stilts at the edge of an island. The Salons are adept at swimming and diving. They now wear swimming goggles when they work underwater for fishing, pearl-cutting and looking for ambergris. In the past, they rarely used fishing nets; but now they have started to catch fishes by using various kinds of fishing nets.
While taking shelter from the rain near the beaches or on the islands, they usually work in tin mines and take the barks off Heritiera fomes (a species of mangrove tree) as their livelihoods. They are not engaged in agriculture, but are employed in collective work. They usually bring a boat out into the sea in unison; the boat would be carved out of a single tree, usually the Yinkan tree, and by using various forms of cane without a single tack.

Articles of clothing
In the past, school-age children, including infants, did not put on clothes; now they have begun to wear clothes of different colours and sizes. Women get dressed fully covered from head to toe, but some still tend to bare their upper parts of the body, once they get married. But nowadays, girls and women are fully covered. Salon men put on longyis or shorts, and used to leaving their upper bodies bare. In fact, they are sturdily built and do not easily fall into illness. Now, they have begun to wear shirts or jackets. Their skin is brownish in colour as they roam about on the waters of the sea. As they try to keep up with times, they are now seen wearing shirts, shorts, pants and jackets of various colours.
Salons not only consume seafood but also eat land animals. They are in the habit of using less cooking oil for vegetables, such as radish, mustard and water convolvulus (from the bindweed family). They do not mingle with other races as they keep their way of living strictly private.
Their religious faith is nat (spirit) worshipping. Dutar-nat is a noble one to them and the spirits of the islands are regarded as bringing bad luck. Participants in nat-pwes have to sit in a row, one after another, and shout a rallying cry. When they reach the edge of the sea, they shout at the top of their voice to expel the evil spirits. In the Salon festival honoring nats, the nat-mentor trembles and shakes when possessed by a nat. He would drink alcohol and eat meat and fish avariciously. Then he and his attendants would worship the nats. When the nat that possessed him leaves, he would become tired and unconscious. This is how the Salon people worship the nats.

An old custom of the Salons
They usually practice monogamy. The young Salon boy and girl would be courting for several years before they get married. When they are in love, they let their parents know about their love affair. Accepting betel leaf from the bridegroom’s side by the parents of the bride means they agree to the love affair. Here again, a nat-mentor is present at the wedding ceremony to legalize the marriage, according to the belief of the Salon people. Then the bride will follow the bridegroom to where he lives. The bridegroom builds a hand-crafted boat for his new household to live.
If a male baby is born, the family tends to live apart from others. Adultery is unacceptable in the Salon community. If a person commits adultery, they will be expelled from their community for good. As they love to live in groups, they are very much afraid of expulsion from their community.
The Salons rely on a nat-mentor for all issues. If a person falls ill, they are believed to have been possessed by nats. They consult with nat-mentors and usually worship the nats. But now some Salons visit a clinic for medical treatment. Some keep worshipping nats after consulting with nat-mentors. Most Salons suffer from malaria and malnutrition.
Salon people traditionally dock their carved boats and motor boats once a year for regular repairs. Old resins are taken off from the outer part of the boats and replaced with new ones. It takes five days to get a boat repaired by the collective efforts of a community.
In the past, they never buried the corpses in the ground, but abandon them on a watch-tower on a faraway island. Then they would stay away from the island for some time. If a boat owner dies, his boat would be cut into halves to cover his dead body before being abandoned. That old custom has gradually disappeared, and now they are burying their dead in the ground.

A place for study tours
As the Salon tribe has been struggling for their survival, they are also being threatened of extinction. The ministry concerned and the regional government have been taking action in preserving their traditions, clothing and lifestyles. Educative talks need to be held to preserve their traditions and natural resources. Study tours should be conducted to meet their needs of preserving their culture, customs and traditions. As the Salon tribe struggles for its survivial, areas where these people live should be turned into places of attraction and study tours for both domestic and foreign visitors.
Translated by Arakan Sein

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