Sea Gypsies in a Water World – The Bajau Laut Tribe

Sabah, Malaysia

I believe there still exists, out there in the Wild Blue Yonder tribes of Marine Nomads that live on the outer edges of Civilisation. Real life explorers of the Oceans that rely on its immense Natural Beauty. Through their unique lifestyle, you can uncover some outstanding facets of a rare piece of humanity. In the ‘Coral Triangle’ they cover an area of 6 million square kilometres of Ocean, stretching between Malaysia (Sabah), Indonesia and the Philippines. Within the richest marine environment and next to the best diving spots on Earth, you can find one of these Marine Tribes: the Bajau Laut, also known as “The Sea Gypsies”.
Borneo Map

Bajau Laut presence is marked between the water territories of Malaysia, Indonesia & the Philippines

They are boat-dwellers that spend their entire lives at sea, using small boats called ‘lepa-lepa’ – 5m long and 1.5m wide, which can safely hold a single family of up to 6 people. The back of the boat can be used for cooking, the middle for sleeping and the front for fishing. Using these houseboats, the Bajau Laut travel far distances in groups of families, while fishing and carrying out all daily rituals.

Aerial view of the Bajau stilt houses, Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Sabah, Malaysia

Bajau seaborne village, Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Sabah, Malaysia


Bajau community at Bodhgaya Island, Sabah, Malaysia


Bajau seaborne settlements at Bodhgaya Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Lepa-lepa boat, the front part of the boat is used for cooking

There are around 1 million Bajau people living in the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, the Celebes Sea in East Borneo (Sabah) and around the Eastern Indonesian islands.

Bajau seaborne settlement Bodhgaya Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Their name is derived from the Malay word “berjuah” meaning “the state of being away.” Befitting off their nomadic lifestyle, they have no society watermarks like Identity cards or Birth certificates, hence no Citizenship, trading all those usual societal pegs for an intimate and deep understanding of the Ocean.

Girls paddling around stilt houses, their face are dusted in ‘bedak sejuk’, a cooling powder made of rice and pandan leaves


Sea Gypsies women travel on a boat off the coast of Semporna in the state of Sabah on Borneo Island. The Bajau, (also written as Badjao, Badjaw or Badjau) are an indigenous ethnic group of Malaysia and the southern Philippines. Although native to the southern Philippines, due to escalated conflicts in the Sulu Archipelago in the southern part of the country, many of the Bajau had migrated to neighboring Malaysia over the course of 50 years.


As such, they go ashore rarely, mainly to trade live fish in return for fresh water or staples like rice, and in the search of wood, the main raw material for building boats and cooking. But it really isn’t for very long… In fact, sometimes, during that limited amount of time they spend inland on solid ground they often report a feeling of ‘land sick’.

How to Get There

Determined to witness these extraordinary communities myself, I left Kuala Lumpur, and headed for Tawau city, in the Far East of Sabah. After a 45min drive, I reached the town of Semporna in the East of Sabah, a well-known gateway to Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai islands, some of the best diving spots in the World.

“I have seen other places like Sipadan 45 years ago but now no more… Now we have found an untouched piece of art.” Jean Jacque Cousteau

Butterfly Fish at Sipadan Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Large Sea Turtles are some of the most frequent encounters in Sabah area

Sipadan was discovered and promoted by Jean Jacque Cousteau back in the 80’s and is one of the largest and most diverse marine bioregions in the world.

Sipadan is home to over 3000 marine species and corals and draws a large number of turtles as well having been a protected area since 2002. Only 120 divers are allowed to visit it on any given day and most dives here are drift dives. There are very strong currents in certain areas and an Advanced Open Water certification or a minimum of 20 logged dives is required to be able to explore its underwater paradise.

But Anyway..back to the Bajau: I took a boat ride from Semporna to an island nearby, just 20mins away, called ‘Bodgaya‘, and soon enough I spotted more and more stilt house communities spread around the islands of Mabul, Bohey Dulang, Sibuan & Mantabuan.
Bajau Practices

The Bajau master free diving skills, plunging to depths of 30 meters and more on a single breath, to hunt pelagic fish or search for pearls and sea cucumbers – a delicacy amongst the Bajau and a commodity they have been trading for hundreds of years. They also fish with nets and lines or spearfish with handmade spear guns fashioned from anything they find: boat timber, tire rubber, and scrap metal.




For them, the path to self-sufficiency begins at an early age… as children, the Bajau learn the vital skills of foraging in the shallows, spending several years on that, before they set foot on dry land.
Bajau Ways of Living

What they lack in range and accuracy, they make up more for in skill and sustain themselves solely on what the Ocean provides. But as The Seas are over-fished, it has become harder for the Bajau to continue their traditional living and nomadic life. As seen in recent years, some Bajaus have been forced to leave their long boat homes and move inland, or on stilt villages, nearer to the cities, having brought with them live fish trade.
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Bajau stilt houses on Mabul Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Mabul Island, Sabah, Malaysia

Despite centuries of nomadic life and maritime tradition, this generation of Bajau could easily be the last, as their struggle for survival and their way of life has been pushed nearer to extinction.

It’s a common story throughout the Coral Triangle, as almost everywhere in the Times Change, Life does too, for many…

Sun dried fish

Sea Gypsies children play in front of their home on Sibuan Island, near the coast of Semporna, Sabah

Those changing Times have turned some of the Bajau Laut people over the years into more conventional live fish traders, driven by profits rather than lifestyle… However, the essence of traditional fishing still lives on, far from the Coast, in the deep blue.

Bajau houses on Sibuan Island, Sabah, Malaysia


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Best Places in Malaysia

Bajau settlements on Sibuan Island, Sabah, Malaysia

The Fish Trade vs Conservation Efforts

With an estimated worth of US $1billion (according to research made by WWF) coming from the fishing industry of this part of the world, it’s a valuable market that stretches far and wide. The heaviest exports of Grouper and Napoleon wrasse are channelled from here all the way to Hong Kong market. So it’s understandable that the Bajau Laut community is caught in a battle between wildlife conservation groups employing the Bajau to aid in reef preservation and the commercial fishing industry.

Fresh Fish at the local street market in Semporna

However, things are beginning to change, with conservation charities such as WWF and Conservation International helping to create marine management programmes that encourage sustainability and enlarge no-fish zones…

Let’s Hope they can protect an area of 6 million square kilometres of ocean representing 76% of the world’s coral species, blue whales, dugongs, turtles, pygmy seahorses, and more than a million humans… Maybe the Bajau’s knowledge of the ocean and marine conservation strategies can help…only Time will tell.


In the meantime, if you’re in their part of the World, in Sabah, go visit the Bajau, and see the Sea, in a whole new way. It might turn out to be your best holiday in Malaysia.

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