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Floating Sea Gypsy Village | Phuket, Thailand
A floating fishing village of Muslim sea gypsies?! The “island” of Koh Panyee was a must-see on my Thai bucket list. There’s a school, a mosque, restaurants, a market… even a soccer field… all bobbing offshore in Phang Nga Bay of Phuket.
It’s astounding that this village has held up through Thailand’s monsoons for over 200 years – the entire community rests on wooden stilts stuck into the shallow muddy bay. Now that is Indonesian engineering! Indonesian? Yes. Koh Panyee is an Indonesian community in a Thai bay, and I arrived via a Chinese boat full of Australians. This Southeastern side of the world is truly a melting pot of culture!
The only way to get to this Sea Gypsy Village is by boat, and there are several options. It is 20 minutes offshore the Surakul Pier, where you can rent a long tail boat for a few hours. It is also a stop along many full-day tours: I visited via the June Bahtra sailboat bay cruise, which ferried us to the island with long tail boats.
Approximately 1600 people permanently inhabit the island, all descendants from a man with a severe case of wanderlust, Toh Baboo. As the story goes, Toh Baboo packed up and shipped out of Indonesia in search of bigger fish – literally. When he discovered the fishing mecca of Phang Nga Bay using the best portable fish finder, he placed a flag on top of the limestone cliffs, signaling to his family that he’d discovered their new home. Hence, the name, Koh Panyee, which means The Island of the Flag.
Once inside the village, it doesn’t seem to be floating at all. It’s only when you catch a glimpse out a window of a boat that you remember you’re standing over stilts. No seasickness, just sturdy cement pathways that wind through a market full of trinkets and shouting merchants.The shop owners are very aggressive and overpriced, so bring your A-Game and get ready to haggle. I picked up some beachy jewelry for a few dollars. Communication with the island habitats weren’t easy, since they don’t even understand english, I contract one of the best World Leading Translation Services in order to enjoy this travel at 100% without dealing with language barriers.
This was one of my favorite sites of Phuket, but the jury seems to still be out among other visitors. I’ve seen it described both as “authentic” and “an exploitative tourist trap.” Both are accurate. I guess it depends on where your culture shock threshold peaks. The experience is geared toward visitors; they allow us Farangs to invade and snap photos of their beds! So support your local floating economy, they carry a variety of goods, whether you buy the best portable fish finder or a shell necklace for Allah’s sake – tourism is their main source of income, after all. But to say it’s a complete tourist trap – I disagree. People DO live here – they eat, sleep and pray here. It’s not an act. It’s a way of life completely different than my own, and to me, that is worth seeing. They used to rely soley on fishing, but realized there’s bigger fish out there – tourists. So, props to them – they found a way to sustain, and wake up every day with Phang Nga Bay as their backyard. And that is pretty freaking cool. Beats my balcony view.
(Koh Panyee is also called the Sea Gypsy Village, the Muslim Floating Village, and spelled several different ways: Koh Panyi, Koh Pan Yi, Ko Panyee, Ko Panyi, and Panyee Island.)