Zeavola nestles amongst sea gypsy settlements. They are known as Chao Ley – water people or people of the sea. They have lived in this region as nomads for hundreds of years, although their precise history is still a little sketchy. They tend to live in small houseboats known as kabang or in metal-roofed homes. They were recognised as Thai citizens in the early 1960s when the late Queen Mother granted them five family names which afforded them identification cards and thus the ability to go to school. They all possess the same birthday on 1st January; a great way to extend the New Year celebrations for another 24 hours!
The majority of the Chao Ley are fishermen or work in coconut plantations and are well-organised by the gentlewomen of the family. The men frequently enjoy strong drinks made from fermented grain, and a short, sharp nudge from their beloved wives seems to get them back on track quickly. The women will fish in the reefs at sunset for shellfish, snails and abalone, an increasingly rare dish that has a similar flavour and texture to Parma ham.
The Chao Ley are animists. This religion, adopted by many indigenous people, is the belief that animals, plants, rocks, words and weather systems have their own spiritual heart that has links to the spirits of the sea, the island, and to that of their ancestors.
The Thai Government hopes that these communities integrate into society; they are friendly people, and the children are always thrilled to see foreigners. Zeavola guests are invited to help serve them lunch every Friday at the Laem Tong Primary school so that they can learn about their way of life, and vice versa. Sadly, sea gypsy numbers are dwindling. There is a collection box for the Chao Ley children in reception, while annually Zeavola pledge to collect THB 80,000 to assist with equipment for their education. If guests have a little space in their luggage, Zeavola encourages them to remember the kids love to receive pads of paper and colouring pencils.
International Children’s Day is celebrated on the second Saturday in January each year. This particular day shows the importance of caring for children that are the future of the country. Zeavola throws a full-blown carnival for the youngsters residing on the island. Local businesses and other hotels all take part to ensure a seemingly endless supply of educational supplies, toys and of course ice cream. Local dignitaries will also visit and offer speeches to encourage families. Apprenticeships are offered to older children, though they seem to prefer the non-restrictive nomadic lifestyle.