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The Urak Lawoi’s Boat Floating Ceremony


Thailand has long been celebrated for its beautiful clear waters and white sandy beaches in the southern region. Every year, millions of tourists travel to these idyllic islands and beaches to immerse themselves in nature, enjoy water activities, and find relaxation. However, few have discovered that nestled along the islands and coasts of the Andaman Sea, there are communities of the “People of the Sea,” or the Urak Lawoi, whose deep connection with the ocean is vividly portrayed through their enduring traditions and ceremonies. This article will introduce you to the fascinating boat floating ceremony, or loy ruea which highlights the rich cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs of the Urak Lawoi people.


The Urak Lawoi communities, Krabi Province



Who Are the Urak Lawoi?

The people of Urak Lawoi are an ethnic group that lives on the islands and the coasts of the Andaman Sea in Southern Thailand. Their name, derived from their word “urak” meaning “people” and “lawoi” meaning “sea,” highlights their deep connection with the ocean. The Thai refer to the Urak Lawoi and other seafaring ethnicities of the Andaman Sea as “Chao Lay,” meaning “People of the Sea.” Some foreigners visiting Thailand have come to refer to the groups as “Sea Gypsies,” though such term is considered inappropriate to many.


Urak Lawoi People



There have been numerous speculations regarding the origins of the Urak Lawoi people. Some suggest they might migrate from the Yangtze River basin in China, traveling southward along the Mekong River to the Indochina Peninsula. Others propose they may have come from Malaysia. Given the physical characteristics and historical records of the Urak Lawoi, some scholars have classified them as the Malayo-Polynesian ethnic group. However, there is no conclusive evidence regarding their origin. Amid various assumptions, according to the Urak Lawoi’s legend, their ancestors once inhabited the Gunung Jerai mountain range (meaning the banyan mountain) located on Kedah peak, north of Penang in modern-day Malaysia, before migrating to southern Thailand around 500-600 years ago. The Genung Jerai is considered their sacred land and is related to their spiritual beliefs and rituals.


Historically, Urak Lawoi people led a nomadic lifestyle, dwelling on boats while traveling from island to island in search of fish and other marine resources to consume and trade. However, during the monsoon season, from April to November, they would build small huts as their temporary homes along the coast. Today, the Urak Lawoi have established permanent settlements on the islands and the western coast of Thailand, including Phuket, Krabi, and Satun. Their first settlement is on Ko Lanta or what they call Satak (ซาตั๊ก) which is considered the central home of the Urak Lawoi.


Ko Lanta

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Even though the permanent settlements have brought about significant changes in their way of life, with adaptations to Thai social and cultural norms, the Urak Lawoi people still have a unique lifestyle, culture, and values. They have strong beliefs in, and respect for, the spirits of their ancestors, and guardian spirits of places. Therefore, ceremonies organized for worshiping spirits are an essential part of their cultures. While many ceremonies have been modified or faded away with time, one of the significant rituals that remains a cherished tradition and is passed down through generations is Loy Ruea (ลอยเรือ) or boat floating ceremony.


The Boat Floating Ceremony

With their lives deeply connected to the sea, boats hold a special place in the hearts of the Urak Lawoi people. Boats are not just a means of transportation and essential fishing tools but also their companions and their ancestors’ first homes. Historically, they navigated between islands in traditional boats known as pachak (ปาจั๊ก), powered by oars or sails. Today, they have embraced modern ruea hua tong (เรือหัวโทง), local-style fishing boats equipped with motors or long-tailed engines. Despite these modern adaptations, traditional boats are still cherished and play a vital role in Urak Lawoi’s traditions.


Loy Ruea (ลอยเรือ) or boat floating ceremony

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The boat floating ceremony reflects the Urak Lawoi’s spiritual beliefs, reverence for their ancestors, and deep bond with the sea and their sacred land, Gunung Jerai. This ceremony is held twice a year, during the full moons of the sixth and eleventh lunar months, typically in May and November. The occasion marks the seasonal transitions: May signals the start of the southwest monsoon season and the rainy season in the south, while November indicates the beginning of the northeast monsoon season and the start of winter.


The ritual of floating boats into the sea symbolizes casting away sins, evils, sorrow, and sickness from the community. During the ceremony, the Urak Lawoi people pray for protection and good fortune for the coming seasons. The community’s to mor, spiritual leader, plays important roles as the main performer of the rituals, fortune teller, and medium between people in the community and their ancestors and sacred spirits.


Held over three days, the Urak Lawoi take leave from their daily activities to fully participate in this important event. Here is a glimpse of the activities and rituals performed each day:


Day 1: Paying Homage to the Shrine of “To Kiri

To Kiri (โต๊ะคีรี) is the Urak Lawoi’s most respected and revered ancestor. He is believed to be the hero and the founding father in building the Urak Lawoi community on the island of Lanta, their first permanent settlement. His statue is housed in the shrine called rumah dato (รูมัฮ ดาโตะ) which can be found in every Urak Lawoi community.


Rumah dato (รูมัฮ ดาโตะ)

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The ceremony begins the day before the full moon, in the midafternoon. The to mor leads people to the shrine of To Kiri to honor their ancestors. Families bring offerings, including white and yellow sticky rice, three types of dessert, popped rice, nuts, betel leaves, and a candle while the descendants of To Kiri bring seven-colored sticky rice and both cooked and raw chicken. After the offerings are made, the community shares food and a performance of rammana (รำมะนา), large frame drum, accompanied singing is held for a total of seven songs as people dance around the shrine. This type of music is played to pay respect to the natural spirits and their ancestors who protected and passed on the knowledge of boat building and to ask for good wishes, as well as forgiveness if the later generations have done something disrespectful.


Day 2: The Boat Building

On the second day, the Urak Lawoi men search for a tall tree to be used as a ceremonial pole and the boat frame. The spiritual leader seeks the spirit of nature’s permission to cut the tree using a mixture of water, pounded rice, and turmeric. The pole is decorated and erected on the beach. Then, the men will be divided into two main groups: the first group will go out to find and cut the wood of the zalacca palm and blackboard tree. The wood will be paraded around the shrine of To Kiri before being brought back to build the ceremonial miniature boat. The latter group will cut the wood to build the boat’s masts and keel. Apart from the boat itself, various wooden figures representing the community members who would carry away their bad luck and the figures of animals they have eaten are carved and put into the boat. This is to symbolize the return of the spirits to nature and to ask for forgiveness and to atone for their sins.


The Boat Building

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While the men are building the boat, another musical performance called rong ngeng (รองเง็ง) performed by both adults and children alike begins. This type of local music and dance is the fusion of both Western and Eastern styles, combining Western footwork with Eastern hand movements together. The main musical instruments include the rammana drum and gong, along with the Western violin. The melodies draw from a mix of European folk songs, local tunes, and Muslim lullabies. The first song is always about the request for protection from the spirits and other songs are about sea travel and life in general.


In the evening, after the boat is fully assembled, it will be decorated with colorful flowers or fabric and the whole community will happily dance around the boat with rammana music in the background. They will also form a joyful procession to carry the boat to where the ceremonial pole is located.


Day 3: The Boat Floating  

At around midnight when the sea water rises to the highest point, the people will gather again to perform a water-splashing ritual or “Leh Ba Leh” (เลฮฺบาเลฮฺ). After some rest, the Urak Lawoi come together to the beach around 4 to 5 a.m. to prepare for the boat floating ritual. They will light candles – one for each family – and pray. Offerings and personal items, including sweets, dried foods, water, cut nails, and hair, are placed in the boat to represent bad luck that would depart with the boat. While the to mor is chanting, the people wave popped rice over their bodies as the popped rice signifies purity and can be used to absorb evil things. They then throw the rice into the boat, signifying the act of casting bad things away from their lives and their community. Traditionally, after the rituals are done, strong men carry the boat as deep as they can into the sea and let it flow away with the currents to its destination – the Genung Jerai. However, nowadays they may put the ceremonial boat into ruea hua tong and sail far away from the shore before letting the miniature boat drift away to prevent it from returning to shore, which will indicate that misfortune will happen to the community.


The Boat Floating

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After the boat floating ritual, a group of men gather to make seven wooden crosses from peeled wood and decorate them with shredded papyrus leaves and flowers at the top and arms of the cross, symbolizing hands that block or chase away misfortune from the community. Seven is considered a sacred number for the Urak Lawoi. In the late morning, some men and women will parade these crosses to the beach. The crosses will then be planted in the same area where the boat was previously located and the Urak Lawoi people will dance along to the rong ngeng and rammana music until night falls. In the evening, they will place buckets of water near the crosses and the spiritual leader will drip candle wax into the water and read the fortune of the community from the shape of the wax. The water will also turn into holy water which will be used for them to cleanse their body and wash away any bad luck and poor health the next morning.  This indicates the end of the ceremony, and the crowd will disperse and bring crosses to plant around the village or on different beaches of the island.


The Values of the Boat Floating Ceremony

The boat floating ceremony of the Urak Lawoi is a vibrant portrayal of their spiritual beliefs and cultural values. The event’s symbolism and rituals vividly highlight the Urak Lawoi’s reverence for their ancestors. The act of paying homage to To Kiri and other loved ones who have passed away shows deep respect and a desire to maintain a strong spiritual connection with their ancestors. Moreover, the belief in Genung Jerai as their sacred place and the importance they still put on boats despite some changes in their way of life after permanent settlement and changing times suggest that the Urak Lawoi cherish their identity, roots, and cultural values.


Apart from spiritual and cultural values, the aspect of community building is worth noting. Since this event is significant, the whole community comes together, temporarily leaving behind their daily activities to participate in the rituals. However, they do not just casually participate in the event but lend their hands to make the ceremony flawlessly complete. Even before the first day of the event, they gather to prepare the venue, fix or build a temporary pavilion to facilitate participants, and fix musical instruments. During the ceremony, some men go out to cut the wood and build the ceremonial boat, while others perform rammana and rong ngeng all night long. Women decorate the venue and prepare food both as refreshments for participants and as offerings. The shared activities, from building the boat to the communal dances and musical performances, not only reflect cultural solidarity but also help reinforce bonds within the community. These practices promote mutual support and ensure that cultural values and traditions are passed on to younger generations.




The Urak Lawoi’s boat floating ceremony also indicates the broader cultural inclusivity in Thailand where there are diverse ethnic groups and cultures, each having its unique traditions and rituals. The acceptance and celebration of the Urak Lawoi’s customs, along with those of other communities, emphasizes Thailand’s openness and its ability to embrace and respect cultural diversity. Here, traditional beliefs and practices can be preserved and respected, and people from different cultures can live together harmoniously.



The boat floating or Loy Ruea ceremony of the Urak Lawoi is the fascinating reflection of their enduring beliefs, respect for ancestors, and their community bonds. Through the intricate rituals and shared activities, this event does not only highlight the cultural values and the value of community building, but also Thailand’s cultural inclusivity, where diverse traditions are celebrated and respected. By witnessing the ceremony, visitors can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Urak Lawoi’s cultural heritage and the broader inclusive values of Thailand. This will enrich their experience and promote mutual respect among those who are in Thailand.


The story of the “Urak Lawoi’s Boat Floating Ceremony” is another intriguing part of Thai culture. This local event underscores the value placed on respect towards ancestors, nature, harmony within the community, as well as different cultures within the Thai society. Join us in exploring more stories of Thailand and the Thai people, as we take you on a journey to discover Thainess.




Author: Thanachporn Varapongsittikul

Editor: Tayud Mongkolrat

31 May 2024