Tradition & Culture of Sangka-U Museum

Charming, informative and free

What we say: 3.5 stars

Sitting largely neglected atop a hill overlooking the sea, the Tradition & Culture of Sangka-U Museum offers a glimpse into Urak Lawoi ways of life from the perspective of the people themselves. You’ll find far more information on these traditionally nomadic sea dwellers than at any of Thailand’s well-funded museums.

Heading into Sang Kha-U village.

Heading into Sang Kha-U village.

What sets this museum apart from others is how it was created entirely by the local Urak Lawoi people of Sang Kha-U village in Ko Lanta’s southeastern corner. Hand-written by local high school students, the charming information boards are more smoothly written and grammatically sound than some of the government-sponsored signs found at many of Thailand’s most important historical sites!

The signs relate stories and information that could only come from the villagers themselves. One tells of how land on Lanta that had long been settled by the sea dwellers was “purchased” by Indian and Chinese traders in exchange for a few bags of rice. It’s one of countless examples of outsiders taking advantage of the Urak Lawoi people’s belief that land and sea cannot have an “owner” other than the spirits that lie beneath them.

The museum was created to help preserve this ancient culture that’s increasingly being incorporated into Thai society due to incidental factors like TV and the economy, but also specific laws such as a ban on local dialects in schools. Ignoring the fact that the indigenous sea dwellers have a distinct culture and language that derives from Malay, not Thai, the Thai government refers to the Urak Lawoi (and cousin groups like the Moken) as Thai Mai, or “New Thai”.

Hung neglected and open to the elements, paintings by a local artist are exquisite and compelling.

Hung neglected and open to the elements, paintings by a local artist are exquisite and compelling.

Other displays discuss the miniature boat-floating festival of Loi Rua and related animist beliefs, and how the term Chao Lae is the Thai equivalent of Urak Lawoi, both translating as “sea people”. Exceptionally beautiful paintings depict Urak Lawoi people performing traditional song and dance.

The open-air museum is rather unkempt, with what appears to have been some very nice bathroom facilities having gone derelict. Admission is free and there’s not even a donation box, but you might offer something to the resident spirit shrine. By the looks of it, he has a thing for red Fanta soda. Immediately across from the museum are white concrete “tsunami houses” built by a charity after many villagers lost their homes in the 2004 tsunami.

Unlike some “sea gypsy” villages that have been set up for tourism, the people of Sang Kha-U seem content to go about their lives with as little disturbance from outsiders as possible. This is probably why the museum was placed high up on the hill rather than in the village. If you go into the village itself, please respect the fact that the Urak Lawoi are people, not tourist attractions.

Travel info: The museum is located right off the main east-coast road atop a hill that looks down on Sang Kha-U village itself. It’s easy to miss; look for a white archway with the museum’s name in English and a set of concrete stairs leading up to the museum.

More details
Hill above Sang Kha-U village
How to get there: The museum is located right off the main east-coast road atop a hill that looks down on Sang Kha-U village itself. It’s easy to miss; look for a white archway with the museum’s name in English and a set of concrete stairs leading up to the museum.
Last updated: 8th June, 2014

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Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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