LIFE

Malaysia’s Incredible “Sea Gypsy” Refugees

The Bajau people’s watery lifestyle looks super-chilled. The reality is quite different.

Humanity has managed to carve out some pretty amazing ways to live over the last few hundred thousand years or so. Although Western civilisation is slowly homogenising into a samey mush of technology driven capitalism, there are still some pockets of humanity where the hands of time are moving at a slower pace.

Still today, hidden on remote islands or in dense jungles, there are groups who are almost totally untouched by modern culture. Others still have retained strange rituals like the moulding of children’s heads into cone shapes or chopping off and shrinking the heads of their enemies. One group who are struggling to hold onto their original way of life are the Bajau of South-East Asia.

Images VIA

The Bajau people come from the Philippines where they fish for a living and drift from place to place, setting up short-term homes on stilts, suspended above the ocean. Bajau folks are also referred to as “sea gypsies” and “sea nomads”, they are as comfortable in the sea as they are on land. The photo below shows a little Bajau boy called Enal playing with his “pet” shark:

Bajau people of Malaysia - Enal Pet Shark

The Bajau people, at first glance, seem to have a pretty much perfect life-style. They live in tropical climbs, virtually never have to bother walking on dry land and eat whatever they catch. The truth is, as ever, a lot more complicated, but it’s difficult to look at these pictures and not feel just a tiny touch of jealousy.

The Bajau are a relatively large ethnic group in the Philippines but they’ve had a rough time of it. These semi-nomadic sea-dwellers have a track record of being picked on by the bigger boys. Being generally poor and uneducated, and having old-fashioned beliefs and practices, they have been looked down upon by neighbouring people.

Bajau people of Malaysia - Bajau 2

Increasingly the Bajau have become victims of theft, kidnapping and violence. The Muslim Philippine population look down on them as dirty Pagans because of their old-school religious beliefs; At the same time, Christian Filipinos look down on them as beggars and thieves for the same reasons.

Large numbers of Bajau families have either been ousted or fled the Philippines to protect their families and find a quieter life. Many of these expat groups have headed to nearby Malaysia. Because these immigrants are illegal they’re often not allowed to settle on Malaysian soil, but that suits them down to the ground. They stick just off shore.

Bajau people of Malaysia - Bajau Children Boat#

These real-life ‘Water World‘ residents only come onto shore to sell their wares to local villagers, other than that they spend their life on the open waves. The Bajau people are renowned for being friendly, open-minded and welcoming.

The main problems they face are a lack of education and pretty much zero cash; a child born into a Malaysian Bajau home has no chance to better him or herself. It looks pretty idyllic to an outsider looking in, but I bet it’s a lot less fun when the rainy season hits.

Take a look at some amazing photographs of the Bajau way of life over the next few slide. I reckon I’d like to give it a try for a week or six:

(Click on the arrows to navigate the slider and check out the rest of the images)

Bajau people of Malaysia - Bajau Little Girl]

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