Stunning Photos Document Malaysia’s ‘Sea Gypsies’ Who Spend Most of Their Lives on Water

Few people know of the “sea gypsies” who spend their lives on the water and inhabit the remote islands off the coast of Malaysia.

The Bajau people, otherwise known as sea gypsies, are native to these areas and have been minimally affected by the world’s rapid globalization. Their isolation has allowed them to continue living the traditional lifestyles that their ancestors led.

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French photographer Réhahn, who is based in Hoi An, central Vietnam, visited the Bajau people last year. Réhahn is known for his portraits of the local people he meets during his travels. His work documenting the “forgotten ones” gives the rest of us a rare glimpse inside the world of indigenous people.

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Far cut off from civilization, reaching the remote islands off the east coast of Malaysia is no easy task. Réhahn boarded a flight to the major city of Kuala Lumpur and hopped on a three-hour flight to Tawau. From there, he took an hour and a half bus ride to reach Semporna, one of the largest cities in Borneo.  

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Semporna is home to an important harbor, which tour agencies depart from to visit the famous dive sites in Malaysia. While there, Réhahn had difficulty finding people to take him to the remote islands of the Bajau people.

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The few tour agencies that were there only offered to take him to the popular resorts. He encountered language barriers as not many locals speak English and the ones who did demanded steep prices for the trip. 

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As he was about to give up hope, Réhahn  stumbled upon a man named Karim who was enthused by his eagerness to meet the local people. Karim agreed to take him on his boat to the island of Tabbalanos where he was greeted by small children when they docked on the beach.

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The Tabbalanos island had 11 visible bungalows above the water that were inhabited by the sea gypsies. The huts make up the floating villages that stand upon stilts and are built on the coral reefs.

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Nowadays, a number of the villagers have moved ashore on the small islands. However, a handful of them still remain in the bungalows.

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Karim informed the photographer that each of the family who live in the huts had about five children.

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Women give birth in the huts and most people spend their entire lives in the village they were born in.  

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Sea gypsies are known as “nomads of the seas”  because they spend a majority of their lives on small boats that sail day and night on the ocean currents. The Bajaus depend on fishing to sustain their livelihood and trade their caught fish with the mainland.

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Réhahn also visited the Omadal village on another island.

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The island was inhabited by 70 families who also lived in similar bungalows. These residences were connected by bridges that provided easy access between the huts.

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Life is structured around fishing and each individual has a role in the trade.

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Young children spend their time playing in the water or on their canoe boats learning how to dive and swim. By the time they turn eight, the children are busy hunting.

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The Bajau people spend a lot of time in the sun and use a paste called Borak to protect them from the sun rays. Their version of sunblock is made locally with turmeric.

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Skin is perceived as a symbol of beauty and women use the Borak paste on their faces liberally. Mothers also apply it on their children to protect their skin.

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The people have no knowledge of reading or writing. Age is also a strange concept to these people who are not sure of their ages, according to Réhahn. 

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Réhahn had a rare glimpse of the lives of the sea gypsies on the eight small islands that he visited including Mabul, Omadal, Sibuan, Maiga and Tagatan.

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His expedition in the Malaysian waters gave him “the feeling of peace and serenity that emerges from these places.” The Bajau people were in “their own little paradise.”                                

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