When you cruise Indonesian islands like Togean, Banggai, the Lesser Sunda Islands or around the Banda Sea, you may encounter the Bajau Laut Sea Gypsies. The tribe mainly lives a bit off the southwestern coast of the Philippines and in other areas that surround the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The Bajau Laut people are believed to be descendants of the Austronesian peoples who migrated from what is now Taiwan and the Philippines to the Southeast Asian region over 4,000 years ago. They are one of the oldest and most distinct ethnic groups in the region.
The tribe is deeply connected to the ocean, but their natural way of living is under threat by modern society. The tribe is one of the last nomadic sea gypsies and has lived on the ocean for centuries. The Indonesian Sea Nomads lived on longboats, known as lepa lepa, for several months in ancient times. Although some members of the Bajau tribe still preserve this nomadic sea fare life, many of them now live in government-founded pile dwellings on the water. Exploring remoter regions of Indonesia on a private boat charter will give you the chance to discover the last Sea Gypsies in real life.
At first, you might not notice their inexplicable abilities. But when you see them diving and catching fish, you surely will be astounded. Did you know that the sea gypsies can just consume a fraction of oxygen as compared to normal humans? Their bodies have adapted to the marine environment! New studies indicate that our hands wrinkle in water as a result of a reflex to increase our grip on underwater objects. In addition to their highly adapted dive reflexes, sea gypsies can see clearly underwater – without wearing any goggles. They are truly aquatic human beings!
Isolated and small sea gypsy families have thrived for several centuries by maintaining a perfect equilibrium with the ocean. They just take what they require. However, modern society threatens to disconnect this bond. Unfortunately, the Indonesian Sea Gypsies are encouraged to use unsustainable fishing methods such as dynamite fishing. Even with modernization and its influence, the tribe holds on to its ancient traditions. Although the Bajau tribe follows the religion of Sunni Muslims, most of them still trust the sea’s spirit world, which they mollify through offerings and rituals.
Being a sea wanderer doesn’t mean you cannot appreciate art. In fact, the Bajau Laut community has its own traditional arts that are deeply embedded in its culture and are highly regarded in Indonesian society. Among their cherished cultural practices are the Bajau dances. The term igal (dance) is associated with sacred ritual practices or secular performances. These dances are typically performed during weddings and annual celebrations such as the three-day rice ritual.
Furthermore, they pass down traditional songs from generation to generation. The traditional songs encapsulate significant cultural values and show their deep love for the ocean, the environment and ancient spirits. Despite their seaborne lifestyle, the Bajau people also take pleasure in playing musical instruments like the “palau” (a wind instrument) and the “gabbang” (bamboo xylophone).
The Bajau Laut tribe is one of the last nomadic sea tribes in Indonesia. Their life is changing now, with the developments of the modern world, including economic pressure. Government and aid organizations pressure the community to follow education standards for their kids and move to permanent settlements.
However, the deep connection to the ocean is still very vivid today! See this documentary for more insight into the world of the Bajau or contact Barefoot Yachts to cruise on a liveaboard through Indonesian islands and experience them first hand.