More than a century ago, boat-loving people turned a tropical archipelago into their home and lived off the sea and jungle. After a while, outsiders pushed them aside in a burst of state-sanctioned conservation and profit-driven tourism, two things that are more related than you might think. This is the story of the Urak Lawoi people of the Butang (or Adang) archipelago in Thailand’s Lower Andaman Sea.
I’ll preface this fascinating story by pointing out that many of the archipelago’s islands have two commonly used names — one from the old Malayo-Polynesian dialect of the Urak Lawoi natives and the other coined by Thai people who took hold of these islands more recently. These baseline disagreements hint at the friction that surrounds so much of the archipelago’s history.
For example, the Urak Lawoi call the archipelago’s fifth largest island Pulau Bitsi (“Iron Island”) while Thais refer to it as Ko Lek or “Small Island.” The commonly used name for the third largest island, Ko Tong, is a Thai rendering of the original Urak Lawoi name, Pulau Betak or “Bamboo Island.” As for the fourth largest island, the name Ko Lipe comes from the Urak Lawoi nipih, meaning “flat.”