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Beautiful Bajau

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11 – 15 June

N4 38.941 E118 39.429 – Sibuan Island

Eight years ago, while on a mission to photograph people who lived with the sea for our WWF coffee table book Sulu Sulawesi Seas, we lived with the Bajau Laut for three straight nights in a little houseboat in Pulau Gaya. This experience is indelibly carved in our hearts, and we have the pictures to remind us. There were 15 sea gypsies of all ages, ranging from a grandmother to parents to teenagers to toddlers to a baby, in that 10 x 3 meter wooden boat, and we came in with a guide/translator, our massive camera gear, and sleeping mats that embarrassed us. We were tight as sardines in a can, but we left after tearful goodbyes. It was an incredibly wonderful experience, as they were the gentlest people, with the most beautiful faces.

Modern Bajau wedding inland SempornaModern Bajau wedding inland Semporna

With another chance to visit the Bajau again, we requested Nina Ho, our superbly efficient WWF host, if we could spend time with them in Malaysia, wherever they may be. Nina immediately said yes, and as a bonus, mentioned that we were all invited to a modern day Bajau wedding on our second night in Semporna!

2006 winner of Regatta Lepa dancing competition2006 winner of Regatta Lepa dancing competition

What a treat!!! It was a night of traditional dancing and singing, culminating in two women with full Bajau regalia dancing gracefully, with long silver fingers.

Special guests for a special weddingSpecial guests for a special wedding

Our past experience with Bajau was living with them on a houseboat, as true sea gypsies roaming Southeast Asia. They only used to touch land to get water and to bury their dead. A beautiful book of Bajau short stories, The Songs of Salanda, written by an anthropologist H. Arlo Nimmo, shows the romantic image of these people and the difficult but peaceful life they live.

Few remaining Bajau houseboats. Many have settled on solid groundFew remaining Bajau houseboats. Many have settled on solid ground

Now we noticed very few houseboats. Most Bajau we visited had houses on stilts and some with houses on land, but still, by the sea.

Bajau with houses on stilts in Pulau GayaBajau with houses on stilts in Pulau Gaya Bajau house on land in Sibuan IslandBajau house on land in Sibuan Island

We’d like this blog entry to serve as a mini-gallery of faces, which we hope will make you understand why we love photographing them.

Incredibly high swing that needs two people to push and pull to get to a desired screaming heightIncredibly high swing that needs two people to push and pull to get to a desired screaming height Canoes are like bicycles to every Bajau kid and adult.Canoes are like bicycles to every Bajau kid and adult. Enchanting fairy-like features like no otherEnchanting features like no other I'm totally mesmerized by their beauty Totally mesmerizing beauty The star of the shoot applying burak on her face The star of the shoot applying 'burak' on her face Diana. Like the princess that she isDiana. Like the princess that she is


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  • Andy

    Wow! My kids would absolutely love that swing!

  • http://www.marineencounters.com.au Linda

    Forget the kids, I would absolutely love that swing!! Amazing, enchanting beautiful images and wonderful commentary. What a team, you guys rock..we miss you but appreciate all you are doing. Come home when you finish! xox Linda

  • stedrayton

    Love the phrase: “Canoes are like bicycles to every Bajau kid”

  • Tessa

    Waow, I had been waiting for some more news and pictures and was so happy to discover today all the great new stuff you have put online. Thank you for sharing this marvelous trip and these amazing pictures with us, I love the little girl with the turtle body! Great!
    Continue sending us great news!

    • Peixuan Lee

      Dear Stella and Jurgen, we are all good in Sukau and we miss you! Looking forward to read your next entry!

  • #lyn

    …..wow i love the shots
    ,,,,,,,,it was totally mesmerizing…

  • http://bit.ly/bangkajourney leng leng

    daghang salamat for this entry and giving a true picture of bajaus. i am currently doing a community project of canoe building. got recommendations for contacts? please view first photos of my blog http://bit.ly/bangkajourney. looking forward, leng leng

  • OL


    Thank you for these photos, and describing your experience. Would you be able to tell me if it is safe to visit the Pulau Gaya stilt settlements here? I am a student looking to document bajau housing types and was wondering if these housing types still exist and if it is safe to venture here. thank you.

  • http://www.iraia.net/blog Jun Verzola

    Excellent pictures of an incredibly great people in their indigenous sea-land homes! Thanks for sharing these. Bajau are as native to Semporna as they are to Tawi-tawi. Now that there’s armed conflict, I worry about how they are faring. National boundaries are just an invisible and arbitrary line to them.