Explore Malaysia’s Sea Gypsies – No Land’s Man


Tales from Malaysia continue with an exciting encounter with a tribe that belongs to no land

Words Yvonne Jacob

                                                                La dolce far niente
It simply translates to – the sweetness of doing nothing, a phrase that was introduced to me by Eat Pray Love. The Italians surely have cracked the code to taking pleasure in doing nothing and enjoying it but there exists a tribe in Malaysia, that has been around for generations and they are a living example of this very phrase. The only difference is, it’s not a saying they live by, it’s their lifestyle.

Who are Malaysia’s sea gypsies?


The sea gypsies, locally called Bajau Laut, or sea nomads, are a semi-nomadic group who live in the Pacific Ocean region. They are a stateless lot. They do not belong to Malaysia or any place else. Neither do they speak a language that can be recognised by the locals of Borneo. They live off wooden boathouses or huts built on top of coral reefs and keep moving as per their needs. Their movement cannot be tracked as sometimes they stay in a particular area for months but move within weeks when they don’t find resources to survive. They are masters of the sea who have roamed the waters of the Coral Triangle between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia for ages. Most of them have taken refuge around Tatagan Island and Semporna from the Philippines because of the ongoing conflict and threat from pirates.

Face to face with Malaysia’s sea gypsies


After an hour of sailing towards the horizon where the sky blended into the water, our minds started playing tricks on us and we could no longer tell if we were floating in the blue sky or in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It was definitely a trip like no other I’ll say. Then suddenly it appeared out of nowhere, like a mirage. A lonely rickety wooden fence in the distance, we had arrived at the village of the Bajau Laut.

At first, there was just a lone boat that was heading towards us. A boy around the age of 13 came to us and stretched his hand out. We had no idea about what he was saying but it was evident that he was asking for a gift and we handed him a pack of biscuits and toothbrushes.


We heard voices from a distance and looked up to see a number of boats making their way to us swiftly and all of a sudden our jetty was surrounded by them. Their faces covered with a pale yellow paste (natural sun block made of rice paste), the women had flowers in their hair and the kids held on to our jetty, climbing along the sides, asking for more gifts. Some of the kids were on boats that they made by tying together empty plastic bottles, while one navigated, the other paddled his feet and pushed this plastic raft forward. Some even posed for pictures and flashed the prettiest smiles. One of the people I was travelling with was surprised by the fact that the sea gypsies had perfect teeth and said, “I think I should keep these toothbrushes and use them myself.

The way of life for Malaysia’s sea gypies


The Bajau Laut follow the footsteps of their ancestors and depend on the sea as their resource for a living fishing, collecting clams and mussels, and even pearl farming in remote islands. They also happen to be exceptional free divers. Many of them have mastered the art of diving into depths of up to 20 metres or more while holding their breath for upwards of five minutes at a time to hunt fish, lobsters, sea urchins and other marine life. The younger ones learn to hunt for fish from a rather young age and are seen bringing back clams and a variety of other shellfish.

The once illiterate and socially reclusive sea nomads are now accustomed to tourists and they even converse just enough to bargain and sell their catch. They are used to living in the open sea and rarely set foot on land unless they have to sell their catch, collect fresh drinking water or wood. If they spend a long period of time on land, they feel 'landsick'. You can spot a dozen lepa boats coming home in the evening with their day’s catch.


However, their dilemma hasn’t changed as they have always been, and continue to be, stateless people who choose to stick to their culture and to the sea. The Sabah government has taken a lot of efforts to look into their citizenship status but most Bajau Laut children do not possess birth certificates for them to have national identity cards. The state government has also stopped all tourist visits to Tatagan Island sea gypsies as they were starting to get dependent on tourists as it was disrupting their lifestyle.


A regular day in the life of a Bajau Laut is the equivalent of your four-day dream vacation and of course, more than half of your savings as well. They hunt for fish and spend their day swimming or simply soaking in the sun and they do this every day. That’s the thing about them, everyday they dive into the sea or set out to hunt is like it’s the first time, it’s the same level of happiness and it doesn’t seem to get old or monotonous. Maybe that’s the secret of la dolce far niente, the joy of doing nothing at all.