The history of the Similans has surprisingly little to do with Thailand. They were originally named by fishermen speaking the Yawi Language (ภาษายาวี). Yawi is a Malay language spoken by Thai Malays in the South of Thailand and in the Northern Malay state of Kelantan. The vast majority of Thai nationals do not know the real origin of these names.
Most Thai and English speakers refer to the nine Similan islands with just a number. However, the original Yawi names of the nine islands are as follows: Koh Huyong (1), Koh Payang (2), Koh Payan (3), Koh Miang (4), Koh Haa (5), Koh Hok (6), Koh Payu (7), Koh Similan (8) and Koh Ba-ngu (9).
The nine islands would have also played an important role to another ethnic group not of Thai descent. As the fishermen traveled up and down the Malay peninsula, between Malaysia and Myanmar, they would have almost certainly encountered nomadic sea gypsies. This Austronesian ethnic group are known as the ‘Moken’.
The Moken were traditionally a sea faring culture that migrated from China over 4000 years ago. They would spend most of the lives on large ‘Kabang’ boats built from one solid piece of wood. The Moken language has no written form so their culture is kept alive through fascinating folk stories and legends. Some of these tales refer specifically to the Similans, including an epic poem called ‘Gaman the Malay’.
The poem is a story of adultery. Gaman the Malay was banished to live on the Ocean, for the rest of his days, after sleeping with his wife’s sister. This story refers to the Seway islands, which is the Moken name for the Similans. Interestingly, ‘Similan’ in Yawi and ‘Seway’ in Moken, both translate as the number nine. The history of the nine Similan islands is a multicultural one and should not be forgotten in modern day Thailand.