Bajau Laut: Gypsies of the sea

Bajau Laut: Gypsies of the sea

Glimpsing the lives of the Bajau people in Malaysia

Sunset over SempornaSunset over Semporna and stilt villagers return home for supper.I’m in the southeastern Borneo town of Semporna, the gateway to the paradise islands of Sipadan, Mabul and many others, all of which are great diving spots.

But I’m not here to swim in the crystal clear ocean. 

I’m here to visit the Bajau Laut settlement built on stilts over the Celebes Sea.

Bajau Laut girlA Bajau Laut girl stands at the entrance of her stilt home.Originally hailing from the southern Philippines, these seafaring gypsies have migrated south over the last few decades to the Malaysian state of Sabah and onto islands in Indonesia.

They make up around 13 percent of the total population in Sabah, and their numbers around the world are currently estimated at 400,000.

While their nomadic lifestyle has been curtailed, the Bajau Laut still choose to build homes over the water on stilts. 

Most stilt homes are handmade from tin and wood scavenged from shore. Waste disposal is always a problem and fires are a constant risk.

The stilt village I visit is a melting pot of migrants from other parts of Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. I even came across a little girl from North Korea, whose family had escaped via China and finally settled here. 

On the shores off Semporna, the first stilt homes are well designed and have all the usual modern conveniences. 

stilt house walkwayMany of the homes and wooden walkways are dilapidated as some residents cannot afford home improvements.

I strike up a conversation in broken English with a retired Malaysian army officer and he invites me into his home for a quick peek.

Aside from the beautiful ocean view on three sides, the home was decorated like any other Malaysian home.

bajau laut stilt houseGarbage washes in from the sea and some residents throw their trash into the water surrounding their homes as well.

But as I walk further out to sea, the quality of the homes declines. Decorative wooden homes are replaced by rotting wood huts with shabby tin roofs and some of the poorest residences don’t have doors.

While the water is clear, garbage piles up behind some of these poorer homes. 

Bajau Laut fishermenBajau Laut men are ferried to the shore. Due to the decline in fish stocks, many residents need to work in Semporna to support their families.It is widely believed that Bajau Laut children learn to swim before they can walk and they are great free divers.  

They have developed superb eyesight under water and are able to dive up to 20 meters without breathing apparatus allowing them to hunt and fish.

Men in paddle boats are busy hauling in fresh octopus, squid, fish and shellfish while longer motorized boats ferry labourers to and from the shore.kites in Bajau LautMr. Khalil shows off one of his kites. Kite flying is a common Bajau Laut childhood pastime.

Back on the stilt walkways fisherman fix their fishing nets, pearl divers take a siesta, grandmothers lay out seafood to dry, mothers watch their children roam the wooden planks that connect the stilt homes.

One of the local kids leads me to a kite maker, Mr. Khalil, who shows me some of his colorful Bajau Laut kites.Bajau Laut childrenBajau Laut children sell steamed conch at the side of the road.

Even if you’ve never come across the Bajau Laut before, you may have had the seafood they catch which is exported around the world.

As I leave the stilt village after sunset, my nose leads me to a hawker stall and I sit down to a sumptuous feast of seafood caught by the very people I met earlier in the day.chili sambalFresh caught prawns, squid and fish are grilled and served with chili sambal.

Fish, octopus and shellfish were grilled, fried, boiled and steamed. My favorite was the grilled prawns that were the size of my fist and dipped in chili sambal sauce.

It was truly a visit that stimulated all the senses.

getting there

From the Dragon Inn Floating Resort  (1 Jalan Custom, Bandar Semporna, , Sabah, Malaysia; +60 89 781 099; follow the shore until you reach the fruit, vegetable and seafood vendors in front of the stilt village. 

The best time to go is around sunrise when the Bajau Laut are starting their day or in the late afternoon when they are coming home from work.

Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang