“From my grandfather to my grandchildren, we all live on the boat. We don’t have gods, so my grandfather is like a god to me. He said I cannot stay on land. It’s like a curse from him,” says Bungsali, an older man who does not know his exact age.
Bungsali is one of the Bajau Laut, also known as sea gypsies – an indigenous ethnic group who have a seaborne lifestyle. They originally come from the Philippines’ Sulu Archipelago, coastal areas of Mindanao and northern Borneo. But they roam freely throughout the so-called “Coral Triangle” between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, living on their boats. The ocean is their home, their main source of food and income and, for the children, their playground.
In Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state, the Bajau are believed to be the second-largest ethnic group. However, their exact numbers are unknown.
But fewer and fewer Bajau Laut still practise a boat-based lifestyle. Many have moved to live in small stilt houses built on coral reefs or on small islands. One hundred years ago, the waters off Malaysia’s Semporna district were full of gypsy boats. But now, only a few remain. In the near future, there might not be any Bajau Laut left living on the boats, only legends and stories will be all that remain.