Sea Gypsies Saw Signs In The Waves

How Moken People In Asia Saved Themselves From Deadly Tsunami

Dr. Narumon Hinshiranan is an anthropologist, and one of the very few experts who speak the Moken language.

How did the Moken know that the tsunami was coming? "The water receded very fast and one wave, one small wave, came so they recognized that this is not ordinary," says Hinshiranan. "And then they have this kind of legend that passed from generations to generations about seven waves."

It's a legend recited around campfires, bearing an astonishing resemblance to what actually happened on Dec. 26, 2004.

They call it the Laboon, the "wave that eats people," and it's brought on by the angry spirits of the ancestors. Before it comes, the sea recedes. Then the waters flood the earth, destroy it, and make it clean again.

"So basically, the tsunami myth is that the world is reborn after it is covered with water," says Simon. "So, we're back to the Biblical flood."

"Yes," says French anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff, the world's foremost authority on the Moken. He's been living with them on and off for more than 20 years. 60 Minutes joined him on a voyage of discovery.

Ivanoff was going to the Moken islands off the coast of Burma, a military dictatorship closed to the outside world.

Ivanoff's boat, a converted cargo ship called the Moken Queen could have sailed right off the pages of Joseph Conrad. The captain was called "Long Ear," and the crew was Burmese. The deck was shrouded in nets to keep out malarial mosquitoes.

All sense of time of the 21st century seemed to evaporate into the tropical night air as the boat probed farther and farther into what often seemed to be the heart of darkness.

"You are outside of everywhere. You are nowhere, in fact," says Ivanoff.

At dawn, two Moken boats came out of nowhere. The Moken on the two boats hadn't seen each other since the tsunami and started exchanging tales of survival. While the Moken off Thailand had been on dry ground, these Moken in Burmese waters had been in their boats, at sea.

"The water had such unbelievable strength," said one Moken man. "It was swirling like a whirlpool as if it was boiling and coming from the depths of the earth."

Like their Thai cousins, these Moken also knew what to do. Since they were at sea, they made for deeper water and were spared. Others, like some Burmese fishermen near them, were not.

"How come they knew something was wrong, and the Burmese fishermen did not," Simon asked the Moken man. "They weren't Burmese businessmen; they were fishermen. They should know the sea, too."

"They were collecting squid, they were not looking at anything. They saw nothing, they looked at nothing. They don't know how to look," says the Moken man. "Suddenly, everything rose up, their boats were thrown up in the air. The violence was unbelievable."

A family of Moken was living on a boat on the beach when the Moken Queen got to shore. But during the tsunami, they had also been at sea. Simon started by introducing himself.

Simon: My name is Bob.

Moken man: Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob.

We had come here to find out whether these people had survived the tsunami. We wound up captivated by their culture. We had never seen anything like it.