In Myanmar, a small ethnic group, the Salons, hails from Myeik province. Sometimes they are called sea gypsies. Their home is the Kaban boat. Never settling down, they move from one island to another, or along the nearby coast. The Kaban boat is gripped tight with rattan, with an arched roof of Dhani (nipa palm) thatch. Later on, a hollowed-out log is used as a boat. As long as the weather is pleasant, the boat containing the whole family together with the dogs is setting sail from point to another. In the rainy season, they live in huts built on long stilts. (Every Salon family owns a dog and takes it along in their boat. On any beach the dog serves as a signaller of potential danger). The majority of Salons inhabit the Lampi Island in Bokepyin Township and Don Islands in Palaw Township of Myeik Archipelago. Out of their total population of around 1,200, 125 Salons reside in Makyongalat Village.
The Salons now use Myanmar language, but many years ago, their language smacked to Malay. In AD 1846, a western scholar invented a Salon language primer, but it has proved useless because the Salons did not seem interested in education. This has now changed, witness a Basic Education Primary School at Makyongalat village.
The most singular characteristic of Salons is their impressive swimming and diving skills, seemingly developed from infancy. They can dive for up to 15 minutes. Salon children are familiarized with their watery surroundings when the parents push them overboard and pick them up, again and again, many times. Their livelihood activities are fishing, diving for pearl oysters, barnacle removal, harvesting corals, hunting for ambergris, edible bird’s nests and beehives. Lately, they have been gathering sea cucumbers, the dried product of which is exported to Thailand. This has eased their economic life to some extent. Also, those fancying natural pearls can go to the Salons anytime.
The Salons have never undertaken agriculture. When they have to remain close to the shore, they pick up various menial jobs at the harbourside. Sometimes they serve as general laborers at tin mining works. They also gather Kanazou (Heritiera fomes) barks from those trees, abundantly growing along the seacoast.
The diet of Salons is mainly seafood. Their fare is boiled fish and vegetables, without the use of any cooking oil. Cockles and mussels clinging to rocks are harvested, and their innards are taken out, boiled and used as food. They usually buy their other food items and utensils at Kawthaung. They have no functioning market. Young or old, Salons like smoking, especially cheroots. Mainly the cheroot of their choice is a brand named ‘Yasin’, a product of Thailand. Some also use smoking pipes.
The Salons seem to have a nightlife of their own, frequenting restaurants which double as karaoke studios. They eat, dance and sing Indian or Western songs, and very rarely Myanmar ones. The Salons love wearing necklaces of beads and bracelets. They used to neglect proper clothing, but now they are using apparel especially batik longyi (nether garments). Visitors to their communities are warmly treated. The Salons are courteous in speech, but their language has its own peculiar accent.
Like most animists they have a benevolent god, ‘Toodah’, who has created the universe. On the other hand, ‘Katoi’ is an evil god who can cause one’s demise through abnormal means. So they cannot but make a sacrificial offering to him. Moreover, ‘Omankapone’ god has been traditionally worshipped since ancient times. Offering to these gods is done through the spirit-medium. If a person is under a spell cast by the evil god, he has to make an offering of whatever livestock — chickens, pigs — the said god desires. If not, he has to flee for his life, without leaving any trace of his footprints. If a footprint remains, the evil god would pick up sands or earth out of it and, using it, he may cast a magic spell over the footprint owner until he perishes. The spirit-medium is said to be possessed of a shoulder bag of Death, containing a human image, a set of fish jaws, a full dress, and other paraphernalia. The spirit-medium, the possessor of the shoulder bag of Death, is much feared and resorted to by the Salons in everything, be it health or household ceremony or event.
To propitiate a god, the Salons set up a spiritual post, decorating the top with miniature paper flags and paper streamers. Then the blood of poultry, dolphins, and wildlife are offered to him. Participants in the animistic rite seat themselves one after another and making songs of rowing a boat and shouting together, move towards the water edge. Afterward, creating a din at the top of their voice, they drive away from the evil spirits. This animistic ceremony is usually held towards the end of April every year. Young Salon youths are used to making yearlong courtship. For youths in love, matchmakers play an important part, preparing the ground for a proposal of marriage. For matchmaking, the services of a man or woman with many children are solicited. On the trip to the home of the bride-to-be’s family, gold earrings, woman’s skirts and dresses are brought along. Facts like the bridegroom-to-be’s ability to construct a Kaban boat by himself, his expertness in catching sea life, and his ownership of a dog are intimated to the bride-to-be’s parents.
If the bride-to-be’s family do not accept the presents, the efforts to secure an engagement are rendered void. Otherwise, the gifts are placed at the shrine dedicated to forefathers, to be removed for use only after the marriage has taken place. If the engagement is confirmed, the bridegroom can visit the bride’s home overnight. If an engagement had been rendered void still the bride could forcibly pull his girl into his boat. If done so past amidships up to the boat’s bow their union is recognized by one and all. Upon the birth of the first child, a couple usually sets up their separate home.
The Salons believe a death happens in accord with their god’s wish. They want to be free of the fetters felt by a dead man’s spirit so that the latter may be reborn peaceably in the afterlife. To assist this, they dance and sing, bad-mouthing the past deeds of the dead man all the while. The remains are placed in a grave dug in the ground, which is done at the time of high tide for man and low tide for women. But in the past, the remains of a dead man were usually left on a scaffold in a tree on a distant island, which was to be avoided thereafter. If a boat owner dies, his remains are placed between the two halves of his boat which is duly split, before discarding them at some distance off. This practice is now being replaced by the grave dug in the ground. The dead man’s body is left aside for three days; then, to ascertain his death, his name is called out several times. With no sound coming out of the dead man, they proceed to put him in a grave with assurance.