Light it up

Solar technology has changed lives overnight in the remote Moken sea gypsy community

From a quick glance, the Moken sea gypsy community at Moo Koh Surin's Ao Bon, off the southern coast of Phangnga province, seemed just as it had always been over the years; rows of raised huts are set right at the shoreline, men are busy with their boats, women (some topless) are engrossed in their handicraft work and little kids run around.

There’s now plenty of light for the children to read and do their homework.

But taking a stroll through the village and observing closer, it is not an overstatement to say that the people there have begun living a completely different kind of life, one that would be unimaginable to their predecessors centuries before. This immense and dramatic change comes from a little solar panel not much bigger than a sheet of A4 paper, now set on every thatched roof of the home of people who were once sea gypsies.

With support from Plan International, Childline Thailand Foundation and the Provincial Electricity Authority, it is an overnight transformation that is likely to change the villagers' way of living forever.

According to the 30-year-old head of the community, Tawan Klatalay, the population of almost 300 people are delighted they can now literally step out of darkness.

"At first, we asked the foundations for a solar cell panel, just enough to produce electricity for our school refrigerator to store food for the children. I wasn't too positive at first because there have been quite a few foundations who have come in and given us hope, only to just disappear. But now every family has its own solar cell panel. We are all very happy."

The solar cell panel given to each house is just a little bit bigger than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.

The solar cell equipment set given to more than 60 huts is comprised of three main components: the solar cell panel, a compact electricity generator, and an LED fluorescent tube.

Asked why he chose this electricity source for the village, Warah Chanchao, the director of Provincial Electricity Authority Area 2 at Nakhon Si Thammarat province, said the solar panel was the best answer for such a remote community.

"This will not only give the Moken a basic need for a better life, but a reason for them to stay here and not wander away again. The panel produces only 12 volts and is totally safe for the people. Using diesel to generate electricity the way they had been doing not only wastes a lot of money but also creates pollution. The energy source from solar cells is green and sustainable. The battery is also replaceable."

The compact generator not only sends power directly to the fluorescent tube but also serves as a battery, storing power during the day for night use. There's also a USB port at the generator so villagers can charge their phones. Aon, 30, also uses the USB port to power little speakers to keep himself and his girlfriend entertained with music. With Jason Mraz's I'm Yours lulling in the background, he demonstrated how easily the system works.

"The panel on the roof is weather-proof, and there's a wire through the roof down to the generator and to the fluorescent tube. It takes only four hours to fill the battery and it can last as long as eight hours in the night. If there's sunlight, the fluorescent gets the energy from the panel directly and the light can be switched on without having to charge."

When asked how he felt about the equipment, Aon, who moved from Ranong to be with his Moken girlfriend, responded with the widest smile. He said he was very glad, especially because now his girlfriend is five months pregnant.

"In the dark, my girlfriend could easily stumble on something and fall down through the bamboo flooring. When the baby comes, it will be much easier and safer to take care of it during the night."

A gas candle only gives out dim and feeble light.

Although it might seem to some people like an easy, rich-foundations-give-out-money situation, Plan International country director (Thailand) Maja Cubarrubia said in this case it was quite the other way round.

"That's the mistake of so many organisations who think the job is done once they have finished building and given out something. The real challenge is to make them own it. This is not as much about giving as guiding them to be independent. For the solar cell panel, it's important that they know how to use, maintain and repair it properly."

More important than an immediate improvement in welfare is what good this project can do for the community's future. Kang Klatalay, the first Moken to become a teacher at the community school, said she's very pleased.

"This is the best thing for children's education. Before, there was so little time to read before the sun goes down and after that they have to read by a gas candle which is too feeble and dim."

Childline Thailand Foundation chairwoman MR Supinda Chakraband said that it's a basic human right to have electricity at night.

"We feel that we have given them more dignity and we will work on and help them develop more as a community."

The smell of the gas candles the Moken relied on in the past might be something they have gotten used to, but to an outsider the smoke smells almost no different from car exhaust, which is even worse in a close, unventilated room.

But there's no trace of such gas candles now if one is to ramble through the community in the night. Instead, there is clean, white and wide-spreading light from every household.

Unplugged from the solar panel, the generator and the tube are portable, and a common sight after sunset is people walking from house to house holding the generator and the fluorescent tube to light their way.

Cartoon Klatalay, 18, who lives alone with his grandmother, is another good example of the Moken's first exposure to electricity bringing about positive change in their lives.

"I go out to work with a tourist's speedboat almost every night. My grandmother likes to wake up during the night to prepare her betel palm. She used to fall quite few times and there was no one to help her. It will be so much better now that there's this light."

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About the author

Writer: Kaona Pongpipat
Position: Writer for the Life section