I consider myself lucky. I have gotten enough education opportunities to ride on the benefits of globalization and technological changes. So big are the benefits I have reaped that I think I could travel around the world tomorrow if I wanted to without worrying too much about my financial obligations back home. If I lost my job somehow, I could afford to enjoy my unemployment as a short holiday and more importantly, I could get another good job in Malaysia or elsewhere with the skills, the connection and qualification I have. My social capital and wealth are great enough to tide me through such difficulties.

But the same modernization can be unkind to others. Not everybody benefits from such changes. Some are unequipped to ride the waves with the same education paths available to me. Worse, the wave could smash and sink whatever raft they are on. That fact sometimes makes me feel guilty of living the life I live now.

The last time that guilt hit me hard was when I found myself on the side of the Irrawaddy in Mandalay several years back. I remember walking by a shanty town where homes were haphazardly built along the river, with no access to clean water. There was no sanitation. The people lived in wooden homes on stilts with pigsty below. Trash of various kinds could be found everywhere and some children no older than ten would play happily among flies, fleas and maggots, contend with their small world simply for not knowing any better. I have seen how poverty looks like before but the kind in that Mandalay village is by far the worst kind I have ever witnessed.

I felt guilty just for being luckier than them, just for doing much, much better than them economically.

That feeling re-emerged recently as I travelled through southern Thailand for work. The Deep South as the Thais call it is a Malay heartland, just as how northern Malaysia is. The people on both sides of the border, more so on the east coast, have cultural ties restricted by the logic of modern states.

Somewhere by the beach in northern Narathiwat, the province that borders Kelantan to the south and Pattani to the north, is a village called Naim. There is a traditional Malay boatmaker aged in his 50s working hard to meet his orders. The only additional hands he gets are his son’s aged 20.

Ten or twenty years ago, he claims there were about 20 boatmakers on the same beach. Today, he and his son are the only ones left. So few are the traditional builders throughout southern Thailand that he is busy for the next four years meeting whatever demand that exists. It takes about four months to finish a boat, and by that account, he should have 12 boats to build.

The traditional boats he produces are magnificent. Made out of wood, they are 20-30 meters long. He uses modern tools to saw off wooden plank, before shaping and carving them. During my visit to his workshop, he and his son were working on the bottom most part of the boat, which had holes drilled into the sides and wooden studs jutting out of it.


The final stage of boatmaking involves painting the boat in bright contrasting colors, making the intricate pattern drawn on its body impossible to miss on land and in the sea. I would later visit Pattani located farther north and I found similar boats floating on the river that cuts through the city. An former MP for Narathiwat told me even the painters are a dying breed.

The modern economy has made traditional boat building an unlucrative business. It takes about BHT300,000 to make a boat, with the labor share of the cost being very small. Obtaining capital to finance the boat is also very difficult and the boatmaker complained nobody has helped him to keep the trade alive.

He also told me nobody wanted to become an apprentice anymore because of great sacrifices required. Apprentices are usually, or more accurately were, taken in young. Doing so today would mean missing out school days and missing out school would mean limiting one’s economic opportunity to escape poverty and rise up the social ladder. And the people in the village are largely poor living in their wooden homes and riding their motorcycles. Many live in wooden shacks in fact that could be mistaken as having been abandoned. One could get modern education and try to integrate with the modern changing economy, or risk one’s life making traditional boat for local fishermen, who themselves likely unable to compete with larger boats with deep sea capability, at a time when fishing stock is depleting regionally.

Boat building is a heritage of this part of the world. And he and his son are among the last of Narathiwat boatmakers. They are the last of traditional boatmakers on Banton beach.

And the same economic setup I am benefiting is killing that beautiful boatmaking culture. The importance of modern education is taking labor away from this trade, a trade that is a public good.

2 Responses to “[2868] The last Banton boatmakers”

  1. on 12 Apr 2018 at 10:09 voster

    I donate to heritage organisations around the world and am a massive history buff. The language of my mother, Kadazan, is considered endangered and I don’t speak it. I feel the pain of lost heritage and struggle as best I can to preserve the ones I inherit where possible.

    Yet, at the same time, a brief view of history shows us that humanity has been around long enough for many cultural traditions to have died several times over. And I acknowledge that the ones I choose to try and save are my own arbitrary choices, and may not even survive beyond my life (or within it).

    Sad, but ultimately, unavoidably true.

    That we are all lucky enough to ride waves that render us indispensable enough to the modern economy in the foreseeable future shows how the there is as much an element of luck in society’s process of selection.

  2. on 12 Apr 2018 at 14:08 Bobby

    Lovely written

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