Bajau Laut – sea gypsies


The Bajau Laut, also spelled Badjao, Bajaw, Bajao, Bajo, Badjau, or Badjaw), and also known as Sama or Samal, are a Moro indigenous ethnic group of Maritime Southeast Asia. The Bajau live a seaborne lifestyle, and use small wooden sailing vessels such as the perahu and vinta.

The Bajau are traditionally from the many islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, as well as parts of the coastal areas of Mindanao and northern Borneo. In the last 50 years, many of the Filipino Bajau have migrated to neighbouring Malaysia and the northern islands of the Philippines, due to the conflict in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. As of 2007, they were the second-largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah, making up 13.4% of the total population. Groups of Bajau have also migrated to Sulawesi and North Kalimantan in Indonesia, although their exact population is unknown.

Bajau have sometimes been called the “Sea Gypsies”, a term that has also been used for non-related ethnic groups with similar traditional lifestyles, such as the Moken of the Burmese-Thai Mergui Archipelago and the Orang Laut of southeastern Sumatra and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. The modern outward spread of the Bajau from older inhabited areas seems to have been associated with the development of sea trade in sea cucumber (trepang).



Like the term Kadazan-dusun, Bajau is a collective term, used to describe several closely related indigenous groups. These Bajau groups also blend culturally with the Sama groups into what is most properly called the Sama–Bajau people. Historically the term “Sama” was used to describe the more land-oriented and settled Sama–Bajau groups, while “Bajau” was used to describe the more sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic groups. Even these distinctions are fading as the majority of Bajaus have long since abandoned boat living, most for Sama–style piling houses in the coastal shallows. Today, the greatest feature distinguishing the “Bajau” from the “Sama” is their poverty. The Sama–Bajau peoples speak some ten languages of the Sama–Bajau subgroup of the Western Malayo-Polynesian language family.


 Life Style 

While most Bajau have begun to live in houses built on stilts in shallow water, some Bajau are boat dwellers. Among the Bajau boat dwellers, local communities consist of scattered moorage groups made up of families whose members regularly return, between intervals of fishing, to a common anchorage site. Two to six families will group together in an alliance to regularly fish and anchor together, often sharing food, nets and gear and pooling labor. The marine life exploited by the Bajau fishermen is diverse, including over 200 species of fish. Fishing activity varies with the tides, monsoonal and local winds, currents, migrations of pelagic fish and the monthly lunar cycle. During moonless nights, fishing is often done with lanterns, using spears and hand lines. Today, fishing is primarily for market sale. Most fish are preserved by salting or drying. In some cases turtles are caught and kept under the house until an appropriate feasting time (such as the marriage of a son) – to the chagrin of marine conservationists. The boats that are used as family dwellings vary in size and construction. In Indonesia and Malaysia, boats average 10 meters in length and 2 meters in width. They are plank construction with solid keel and bow sections. All are equipped with a roofed living area made of poles and straw matting and a portable earthenware hearth, usually carried near the stern, used for preparing family meals. The boat-dwelling Bajau (in contrast to their neighbors) see themselves as non-aggressive people who prefer flight to physical confrontation. As a consequence, the politically dominant groups of the region have historically viewed the Bajau with disdain as timid, unreliable subjects.



The exact origin of the word “Bajau” is unclear. It is generally accepted that these groups of people can be termed Bajau, though they never call themselves Bajau. Instead, they call themselves with the names of their tribes, usually the place they live or place of origin. They accept the term Bajau because they realise that they share some vocabulary and general genetic characteristic.

British administrators in Sabah classified the Sama as “Bajau” and labelled them as such in their birth certificates. During their time in Malaysia, some have started labelling themselves as their ancestors called themselves, such as Simunul. For political reasons and to ensure easy access to the special privileges granted to ethnic Malays, many have started calling themselves Malay. This is especially true for recent Moro Filipino migrants.

For most of their history, the Bajau have been a nomadic, seafaring people, living off the sea by trading and subsistence fishing. The boat dwelling Bajau see themselves as non-aggressive people. They kept close to the shore by erecting houses on stilts, and traveled using lepa-lepa, handmade boats which many lived in. Although historically originating from the southern Philippine coasts, Sabahan Sama legend narrates that they are descended from members of the royal guard of the Johor Sultanate, after the fall of the Malacca Empire, who settled along the east coast of Borneo after being driven there by storms. Another version goes that a Johorean princess was washed away by a flood. In his grief her father ordered his subjects to sea to return only when they had found his daughter.


However, there are traces that Sama people came from Riau Archipelago especially Lingga Island more than 300 years ago. It is believed by some that the migration process of Samah to North West Borneo took place more than 100 years earlier, starting from trade with the Empire of Brunei (the Johorean princess who in the origin myth was a royal bride being sent to Sulu but was kidnapped by the Prince of Brunei). With the overthrow of the legitimate Sultan of Johor by Bugis conquerors, the Sama people fled to the western coast of North Borneo, where they felt safe to live under the protection of the Brunei Sultanate. That is why native Kadazan-Dusun call Sama people as “tuhun” or “tulun Sama (“people of Sama”) in their dialects, the form of recognition before the arrival of westerners. It was believed that Sama people are not from the royalty of the Sultanate, but loyal workers, craftsmen, boat builders and farmers that fled from cruelty of ethnic cleansing in chaotic Johor during aggression of the Bugis taking over the throne of Johor.

Today the number of Bajau who are born and live primarily at sea is diminishing, partially due to hotly debated government programs which have moved Bajau on to the mainland. Currently, there exists a huge settlement of Filipino Bajau in Pulau Gaya, off the Sabah coast. Many of them are illegal immigrants on the Malaysian island. With the island as a base, they frequently enter Sabah and find jobs as manual labourers.


Discrimination of Bajau (particularly from the dominant Tausūg people, who have historically viewed them as ‘inferior’, and less specifically from the majority Christian Filipinos) and the continuing violence in Muslim Mindanao, have driven many Bajau to begging, or to emigrate. They usually resettle in Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are less discriminated against.

A large part of Bajau history and tradition is captured in their folklore. One ancient story tells of a very large man, named Bajau himself. His people used to follow him into rivers because whenever he went there the river was so overflowed by his body mass that they could easily collect dead fish! They eventually came to call on his service just to help harvest fish.  Other tribes in the area soon learned of his reputation and, being envious of the advantage he bestowed on his people, plotted to kill him.  But their efforts came to no avail and he survived the poisoned arrows they fired at him. His epitaph today is a stone which he carried to his own burial place — a stone that no other man could lift. Some Bajau — and other local indigenous peoples — still fear his stone and his reputation to this day.


 Bajau Today

The Bajau, like any distinct group, have already lost some of their heritage as some of their stories were never re-told to the next generation. The Bajau are also beginning to lose something of their identity as they integrate with their adopted, land-based communities. Even the most traditional, seafaring Bajau are losing their boat-building craft as they replace their hand-made lipa-lipa boats with commercially built, mass-produced ones. On Sabah’s southeastern-most coast these lipa-lipa boats are a feature of the annual Semporna festival,  for which the boats are colorfully decorated and raced against each other in a celebration of Bajau culture. It is uncertain how long this festival might be able to continue.

Despite these changes, the richness of Bajau heritage is starting to be recognized as worthy of preservation. In addition to anthropological works (see Books/Articles below), organizations like the Sabah Bajau Arts and Cultural Association and the Centre for Borneo Studies sponsor various events that spotlight Bajau life.


What are Bajau people’s needs?

At this time, the Bajau need infrastructure development and renovations in the areas of health and education. Medical workers, facilities and services in their communities are very inadequate. In the area of education, partially due to their nomadic lifestyle, many Bajau people are illiterate.


Demographics and religion

The various Bajau sub-groups vary culturally, linguistically, and religiously. Religion can vary from a strict adherence to Sunni Islam, forms of folk Islam, to animistic beliefs in spirits and ancestor worship. There is a small minority of Catholics.


Commonly, many sub-groups of Badjao are named after the place or island they live-in for many years. Even though they are called Bajau, each sub-groups has their own unique language, cultures and tradition. However, certain sub-groups are able to understand the languages of other sub-groups. For example, some Bajau understand the Bajau Ubian language, and the Bajau Ubian and Simunul in Sabah are able to understand and speak the Tausug language called the Suluk language in Sabah. The general terms for the native languages of the Bajau is Вahasa Вajau or Sinama.

Lists of Bajau sub-groups:

  • 1.   Ubian – Originate from the island South Ubian in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines and make up the largest Bajau sub-group in Sabah. They reside in sizable minorities living around the towns of Kudat and Semporna in Sabah, Malaysia.

    2.       Bannaran – Another subgroup of Bajau originated from Bannaran Island in Tawi-Tawi. Mostly found in Kudat, Kunak, Semporna and Tawau.

    3.       Sama – Commonly known as Bajau Kota Belud, because most of them live in or near area of Kota Belud, Sabah. This is actually a misnomer as they can be found all over the west coast of the state, and not just in Kota Belud. They call themselves Sama, not Bajau and their neighbours, the Dusuns also call them Sama, not Bajau. British administrators originally defined them as Bajau.

    4.       Samah/Sama Sulawesi Selatan’ (Malaysia)

    5.       Colorful non-traditional designs on the vinta boats of the Samal people from Samal Island, Philippines. Traditionally, vintas feature distinctive vertical bands and triangles of bright colors

    6.       Simunul – Simunul people can be found at Kampung Bokara, Sandakan, Semporna and Lahad Datu Towns. Simunul is an island in Tawi-Tawi where many Sama Simunul are still found and are the majority there. They are known among the Bajau group for having fair skin.

    7.       Samal (Philippines, Malaysia) – A group native to the Philippines, a large number are now residing around the coasts of northern Sabah, though many have also migrated north to the seas around the Visayas and southern Luzon. The Samal are sometimes considered distinct from the other Bajau. They are the largest single group of Bajau.

    8.       Bajau Suluk – This sub-group, of mixed heritage Bajau and Tausug, live mostly in Kudat, and have origins in the Philippines, hence, although living among Malay peoples for a substantial part of their history, are also able to converse in the Tausug and Samal languages.

    9.       Tando’ Bas – This sub-group was rarely found in Sabah before the 1970s. They had recently migrated to Sabah from a place called Tando Bas in the Sulu Archipelago.

    10.   Ungus Matata – This sub-group was rarely found in Sabah before the 1970s. They had recently migrated to Sabah from a place called Ungus Matata in the Sulu Archipelago.

    11.   Tolen – This sub-group was found only at Bum-bum island, in Semporna, Sabah. No trace of them anywhere else even in the Sulu Archipelago.

    12.   Pala’u or Bajau Laut – The word Pala’u in Bajau means boat-dwelling, but is by many Bajau Laut considered derogatory, why they prefer the term Bajau Laut. This sub-group originally lived on boats all the time but almost all have taken to living on land in the Philippines. In Malaysia the boat-dwelling culture has been retained by some, but many others have built homes on land. 

    13.   Tabawan (Sulu, Malaysia) – This sub-group was rarely found in Sabah before the 1970s. They have recently migrated to Sabah from an island called Tabawan, Tawi-tawi, Philippines. They are now numerous in Sabah.

    14.   Banguingui or Balangingi Samal (Philippines, Malaysia) – Native to the Philippines, where the majority still live. This sub-group was rarely found in Sabah before the 1970s. Some have recently migrated to Sabah. The Balanguingui were once slavers and pirates during the 16th to 19th centuries, capturing people from other nearby ethnic groups and often integrating them into their own culture.

    15.   Sikubung – People from this sub-group were rare in Sabah before the 1970s. They have recently migrated to Sabah.

  • The obvious migration pattern after 1970 is the obvious fallout of the armed fighting between major Moro groups and Settler militia and Philippine Navy disrupting the traditional sea routes of the sea loving Badjau.



Claims to religious piety and learning are an important source of individual prestige among the coastal Bajau. Some of the Bajau lack mosques and must rely on the shore-based communities such as those of the more Islamized or Malay peoples. The Ubian Bajau, due to their nomadic marine lifestyle, are much less adherent to orthodox Islam, and practice more of a syncretic folk hybrid, revering local sea spirits, known in Islamic terminology as Jinn. Almost all Bajau today claim to be Sunni Muslim. They believe that among their people are direct descendants of the prophet Mohammed. Yet many — predominantly the seafaring, nomadic Bajau — retain spiritually based religious practices that pre-date any major religion. In their religion designated spirit mediums communicate with the spirit world in  ritual ceremonies of celebration, worship and exorcism — in which, for example, spirit boats are sailed into the open seas to cast the offending spirit away from their community. They also worship the God of the sea, Omboh Dilaut.



Many Bajaus of the east coast retain their seaborne lifestyle, together with remnants of traditional pre-Islamic beliefs. Traditional Bajau communities may have a dukun (i.e. a shaman) and may adhere to taboos concerning the treatment of the sea and other cultural aspects. An example of this is the offering of thanks to the Omboh Dilaut, the God of the Sea, whenever a particularly large catch is brought in. The east coast Sabah Bajau are also famous for the annual Semporna Regatta.


Among the boat-dwellers in particular, community spirit mediums are consulted at least once a year for a public séance and nightly trance dancing. In times of epidemics, the mediums are also called upon to remove illness causing spirits from the community. They do this by setting a “spirit boat” adrift in the open sea beyond the village or anchorage.

It has been suggested by some researchers that Bajau people’s visits to Arnhem Land gave rise to the accounts of the mysterious Baijini|Jinn people in the myths of Australia’s Yolngu Aboriginals.

Bajau fishermen make use of wooden sailing vessels known as perahu lambo for voyages as far as Timor and Arafura seas. The construction and launch of these craft are ritualized, and the vessels are believed to have a spirit (Sumanga’). Under a 1974 Memorandum of Understanding, “Indonesian traditional fishermen” are allowed to fish within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Australia, which includes traditional fishing grounds of Bajau fishers. However, illegal fishing encroachment of Corporate Sea Trawlers in these areas has led to concern about overfishing and destruction of Bajau vessels.

Bajaus are also noted for their exceptional abilities in free-diving, with physical adaptations that enable them to see better and dive longer underwater. Divers work long days with the “greatest daily apnea diving time reported in humans” of greater than 5 hours per day submerged. Some Bajau intentionally rupture their eardrums at an early age in order to facilitate diving and hunting at sea. Many older Bajau are therefore hard of hearing.

The West Coast Bajau are expert equestrians – this is their main claim to fame in Malaysia, where horse riding has never been widespread anywhere else. Bajau people are also well known for weaving and needlework skills.

Bajau have a unique type of dance called the Pangigal. It is common in wedding ceremonies for native communities throughout Malaysia and the Sulu Archipelago. This dance is most famously danced to the music Dayang-dayang. Numerous Music Videos of the Pangigal songs and dances have been produced in Malaysia and distributed throughout Sabah and in the Sulu Archipelago.


Notable Bajau

  • ·         Mat Salleh (Datu Muhammad Salleh) – Sabah warrior from Inanam during the British administration of North Borneo.

    ·         Tun Datu Mustapha (Tun Datu Mustapha bin Datu Harun) – First Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sabah and third Chief Minister of Sabah.

    ·         Tun Said Keruak (Tun Datu Mohamad Said Keruak) – Former Chief Minister of Sabah and Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sabah from Kota Belud.

    ·         Datuk Seri Panglima Salleh Said Keruak (Datu Mohd Salleh bin Tun Mohd Said Keruak) – Former Chief Minister of Sabah from Kota Belud.

    ·         Tun Sakaran Dandai – Former Chief Minister of Sabah and Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sabah from Semporna.

    ·         Tun Ahmadshah Abdullah – Ninth Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sabah from Inanam

    ·         Dato’ Mohd Nasir Tun Sakaran (Dato’ Mohd Nasir bin Tun Sakaran Dandai) – Sabah politician from Semporna.

    ·         Datuk Seri Hj Mohd Shafie Bin Apdal (Dato’ Seri Hj Mohd Shafie Bin Apdal) – Malaysian minister.

    ·         Osu Sukam (Datu Seri Panglima Osu bin Sukam) – Former Chief Minister of Sabah from Papar.

    ·         Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia – Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, Parliament of Malaysia

    ·         Askalani Abdul Rahim (Datuk Askalani Bin Abdul Rahim) – Former Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Semporna.

    ·         Adam AF2 (Aizam Mat Saman) – Malaysian singer and actor, grandson of Tun Ahmadshah Abdullah.

    ·         Norayu (Ayu) Damit – Malaysian singer and One in a Million (Season 2) champion.

    ·         Yanie (Siti Suriane Julkarim) – Malaysian singer in the popular TV shows of Mentor on TV3.

    ·         Wawa Zainal Abidin – Malaysian actress.

    ·         Matlan Marjan – Former Malaysian football player and the former Sabah FA captain

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4 responses to “Bajau Laut – sea gypsies

  1. As always, informative and fascinating, JS. I have learned so much about the part of the world you now call home. I’m wondering how you are feeling about the World Cup? Born and having lived in Germany for my first four years, it’s easy to determine my allegiances. 🙂 But I have good friends from Netherlands so I’ve been rooting for the “Orange” too. I owe you an overdue letter and am, again, embarrassed to have let so much time lapse since last writing. Soon, my friend. I trust and hope you are well and that your studies continue to progress!


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