Sama-Bajau – The Nomads Of The Sea Who Measure The Passage Of Time By The Rhythm Of The Tides

Tijana Radeska
Sama Bajau
Sama Bajau

Most of us love playing in the sea, it’s amazing and incredible.  I’ve got friends that surf and other that swim and dive, but I don’t think any of us can match up to the amazing people that spend their whole lives living on and in the water.

You don’t need mermaids or tales about imaginary aquatic life. The Bajau people made the most of what human can possibly endure on the open sea. The Bajau people are born at sea. They live there, play, build, cook, and explore the coral sea waters around the Philippines and the Indonesian islands. Due to their “aquatic” lifestyle, the Bajau, or Sama-Bajau have been called Sea-Gypsies and Sea-Nomads. These people build their houses on stilts or live in house boats, often miles distant from the land. So every single aspect of their lives is adapted to the water.


A typical Sama-Bajau settlement in the Philippines. Photo credit


Bokori, a Sama-Bajau village in southwest Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo credit


Sama-Bajau children in Basilan, Philippines. Photo credit

The Sea- Nomads seems like they have cut their connection with the land and have a very intimate relationship with the ocean. They even measure the passage of time by the rhythm of the tides instead with hours and minutes.


This Bajau style of life lasts for more than 200 years. Before they were only living on the shore in Malaysia’s eastern state, Sabah. But as they made their living from fishing, the Bajau people turned to a more nomadic style of life, on the sea, and later in the sea. They built villages in the sea. Not on an island. In the ocean.

A Sama-Bajau village in Omadal Island, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo credit


Regions inhabited by peoples usually known as “Sea Nomads”.
Green – Sama-Bajau
Orange – Orang Laut
Blue – Moken.  Photo credit


A Sama-Bajau flotilla in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo credit

There is an epic poem about the Maranao people, “Darangan” in which is recorded that there was a Maranao prince who married a Bajau princess. It is estimated that the event happened in 840 AD, and it is the oldest known record about the Sama-Bajau. They are indigenous to the Sulu archipelago and parts of Mindanao. However, the Sama-Bajau people are fragmented into highly diverse subgroups that live in the vast Southeast Asian oceans and are usually named after the island or the place they have lived before.

Indonesian Bajau people with captured sea turtle. Photo credit


Residents of a Bajau kampung in Afdeeling Ternate, Groote Oost, Dutch East Indies (present-day North Maluku, Indonesia) c. 1925. Photo credit

All of them live as close tribe communities that include six to twelve households in the tribal group. This is typical for all of the Bajau subgroups. Even though ethnically they all belong to the same group, all the sub-groups are very distant from each other having different languages, traditions, and culture. Some of the sub-groups can understand the language of another sub-group, but generally, they can all communicate in the native language Bahasa Bajau or Sinama.

Sama-Bajau woman anchoring a family boat (banglo) in Malaysia. Photo credit


Bajau families living in poverty often ask the passengers of the ferry boats coming from the Philippines to pay a small sum


A Sama-Bajau family on a “Vinta” boat. Photo credit

The Bajau are adapted to the sea life with generations, and it is in fact, a playground for their children. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they can stay underwater for a few minutes on a single breath. Bajau divers are able to dive 20 meters under the sea on a single breath. They are free divers in a search for food which is of bewildering variety. It is common for some of the Bajau to intentionally rupture their eardrums when they are young so that they would dive more easily. Since they are born in the sea, Bajau’s eyes are adapted to the water, and they have a better sight while they dive.

A Sama woman making a traditional mat in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo credit


Sama-Bajau woman and children from Omadal Island, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo credit

Another common thing for all the Bajau people is that they visit the land only to buy supplies such as fresh drinking water, firewood, fuel for their boats, and to trade their seafood for rice. There are some Islamic Bajau communities which have built mosques on stilts while others rely on the closest shore-built mosques.


However, most of the Bajau groups often let “spirit boats” to sail in the vast waters of the ocean to cast unwanted spirits away from their communities. Also, they regularly give gifts of gratitude to Omboh Dilaut – their God of the Sea.

Sama-Bajau woman from Maiga Island, Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia, with traditional sun protection called “burak”. Photo credit


A Bajau girl clad in her traditional dress. Photo credit 


An-Nur Mosque, the main mosque in the Bajau village of Tuaran, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo credit


The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. “Lepa” refers to the houseboat in the dialect of east coast Bajau. In this festival, Bajau people decorate their boats with colorful flags. Photo credit

Humans are really incredible creatures.

If you have any comments then please drop us a message on our Outdoor Revival facebook page

If you have a good story to tell or blog let us know about it on our FB page, we’re also happy for article or review submissions, we’d love to hear from you.

We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it.

Outdoor Revival – Reconnecting us all with the Outdoor


tijana-radeska is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival