The Bajau Laut are a group of Sea Gypsies living off the coast of Sabah, East Malaysia. They live exclusively on the sea and their origin stories range from the descendants of royal guards who lost a princess and feared returning to land, to a people who were accidentally towed into the sea by a giant stingray. I first visited the Bajau Laut in April of 2016 and learned about their semi-nomadic and stateless life.
The Bajau Laut live exclusively on the sea but the population is dwindling due to modernization, cultural assimilation, and some hotly debated resettlement programs. Many who have moved inland still only ghost the shadows of the coast, and do not go too far from the sea.
The Bajau Laut are generally a sweet and cheerful population, whose main source of food and income is fishing. Even the youngest children participate in fishing and chores.
A Bajau Laut woman fixes a fishing net.
Visitors are a good excuse to play, further emphasizing the cheerful and hospitable nature of the Bajau Laut. Many Sea Gypsies are impoverished, illiterate, and uneducated. Children can attend school in Malaysia, but must live inland in dormitories away from their families or with extended family.
A girl plays on the anchor line below her family’s houseboat.
©2018 Kate Pientka Photography