The Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' or 'Sea Nomads' of Sulawesi live in stilted houses in Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo-1-65

Waterworld – The Bajo (Bajau), ‘Sea Gypsies’ of Pulau Hoga

Stirring our sun-baked, half-asleep bodies off the upper deck of the boat after the two-hour journey to visit the stilted village of the Bajo, or Bajau ‘Sea Gypsies’ of Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi, Indonesia the group quickly shrugged off our lazy stupor.

The stilted village, home to the Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' in Pulau Hoga in Wakatobi, Sulawesi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain-mallory_indo1492

Arriving at the village on stilts

We’d set off early in cloudy conditions, but the sun had gradually burned brighter, finally overcoming any clouds by mid-morning, lulling the group into a relaxed communal doze. As the village propped up above the lagoon came into view any sleepiness disappeared, minds began to function and smiles replaced sleepy expressions.

“Greet the people you meet with open eyes, an open mind and open heart and you will be welcomed with open arms”

The township was larger than anticipated, probably more than a hundred homes on stilts, standing several feet above the clear water of the lagoon. As we stepped off the boat we were greeted by a group of giggling children, happy to pose and push each other playfully, jostling for centre stage. This greeting would set the tone for the remainder of the visit.

Learn more about the Bajo: The Bajo; ‘Sea Gypsies’, a Portrait

The children of the Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' in Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel Iain-mallory_indo1509

Our youthful reception committee

A Cultural Portrait of the Bajau, ‘Sea Gypsies’

It was difficult to walk several paces without getting distracted, everywhere we looked there appeared to be something of interest.

Men fixed their fishing nets on the porches of their wooden homes, children played on the raised walkways or waded in the shallow water of the lagoon, some possibly completing chores, most just playing.

See more cultural photography here: Portraits of Culture – Peoples of Destination

White-faced women wearing a heavy, natural sunscreen carried children in cradles on their backs or slung over their shoulders, grinning self-consciously when asked for a picture. An old lady, punting an open canoe came into view, making her way slowly through the ‘canal-like’ streets of the village on her way out to the open water beyond the ramshackle houses.

A young Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' girl in the stilted village near Pulau Hoga in Wakatobi, Sulawesi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo5683

Sama Bajau girl

Some families appear to sit around outside their homes, seemingly without a need to do much of anything, while another family is sheltering beneath the floor, grilling fish for lunch and enjoying each other’s company.

A cool legend surrounds the Bajo people, it goes like this; they were originally a land dwelling people from Johor, Malaysia. Their distraught king, having lost his daughter, possibly washed out to sea, sent his people out searching for the princess. After sometime, a group of Bajo found the princess in Sulawesi, but she refused to return, so they decided to remain with her, giving up their nomadic existence forever.

The village is built around several, central water filled ‘squares’ surrounded by the raised wooden walkways, but there are plenty of ‘side streets’. Off shoots from the main walkways, further distractions which just cry out to be explored. Maybe it’s because they’re away from the usual areas which visitors frequent that there always seemed to be more of interest along these.

Young Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' in Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo5714

Born of the water

Small children peer shyly, but curiously from behind open door frames, encouraged by their laughing mothers to come out and get a better view of the strange people waving cameras around.

A young boy sits morosely on the steps leading to his home, stubbornly refusing to smile, a frigate like seabird curled up asleep behind him; pet or food source, it’s unclear.

“I’m mesmerised by each and every encounter with one of these beautiful people”

Young mothers play with tiny infants under the rafters of wooden shacks on stilts, they marry early here, both male and female can often be wed before reaching their teenage years.

All the while there is a gentle, almost soothing, rhythmic sound of the crystal clear water lapping at the thousands of poles which support the village. In contrast there are occasional piles of garbage are centrally collected, waiting for further collection and disposal.

Asking an older man mending his nets, for a picture, he pauses, providing an almost toothless grin before holding up some dried fish which decorate his porch.

A Bajo, 'Sea Gypsy' fisherman in Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo1538

A Bajo fisherman

Surviving in a Modern World

Almost everybody seems happy to see us, and to pose for pictures. It doesn’t feel contrived in anyway, we appear to be being invited to glimpse a small insight into the Bajo ocean dwelling people, their lives and culture. Although it seems likely that as these are organised excursions which are run on an irregular, ‘on demand’ basis, the people do receive some payment for their patience and tolerance of outside visitors.

This was borne out slightly when, my guide normally close by my side wandered away for a few moments, the father of the family I’d just been photographing began speaking quietly. Obviously asking for something, the rubbing of his fingers together making the meaning clear, he was asking for money. The fact he waited until the guide was out of the way suggests it’s not condoned by the tour operator.

Read about Rwandan culture here: Rwanda, Beyond Kigali – A Cultural Portrait

A Bajo mother and child in Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi, in Sulawesi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo1612

Bajo mother and child

Before leaving I witnessed a group of people returning from the quay loaded down with a variety of items which appeared as if from a substantial shopping expedition. This is possibly how they are paid, the operator bringing items from the mainland which they would otherwise struggle to obtain.

The Bajo, or more correctly Bajau or even Sama Bajau were originally ‘sea gypsies’, nomads which have lived off the ocean for centuries. Roaming the ocean around Sulawesi in hand crafted wooden boats called lepa, following the fish shoals and movements of sea cucumbers. They are now largely static, living in stilted villages such as this one in Hoga Pulau, Wakatobi. Over fishing has seen a dramatic reduction in fish stocks, and the Bajo aren’t entirely blameless.

“cyanide fishing and reef bombing with dynamite was once a common practice among the Bajo”

Living off the ocean is becoming increasingly difficult for the Bajo ‘sea gypsies’, but there is hope; education. A decade ago, schooling would have been considered a waste, but now an education, understanding how the ocean maybe ‘farmed’ to provide a sustainable livelihood is making more sense.

A Bajo woman in Pulau Hoga in Wakatobi in the Indonesian Sulawesi on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo5706

Time on her hands

A Brighter Future?

Projects which teach the Bajo young about ecosystems, fish farming, aquaculture and seaweed cultivation along with basic computer literacy are being taught in the hope the next generation of fishermen will fish smarter.

Time will tell, but I do hope it proves fruitful, it would be a crying shame if a fascinating and unique culture like the Bajo slowly dwindled away, disappearing with barely a whimper.

A Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' family cooking lunch of grilled fish under the stilted houses of their Pulau Hoga village in Wakatobi, Sulawesi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo1586

Cooking under the floorboards

From the short encounter we had with the Bajo, ‘Sea Gypsies’, they appear a cheerful and hospitable people, meeting the challenges of a modern world head on. Their ramshackle, stilted homes may seem humble, but then they are situated in a stunning location, the beautiful, clear waters of a Wakatobi lagoon.

Would you swap places with them?

The Bajo, 'Sea Gypsies' or 'Sea Nomads' of Sulawesi live in stilted houses in Pulau Hoga, Wakatobi in Indonesia on Mallory on Travel adventure travel, photography, travel iain-mallory_indo-1-65

Home, sweet home

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Comments 3

  1. Ravi Roshan Jaiswal

    Hello Lain,
    Nice to meet you 🙂

    Unbelievable post indeed. Thanks for introducing Indonesia’s cool and amazing place with us. I love visiting such wonderful places and I got impressed to see such awesome captured photos of this place which is enough to show me the beauty and popularity of this place. I recommend this place to everyone must visit.

    Thanks a lot for telling us about Bejo people they really so cute. Their lifestyle is awesome and I got amazed to see their home which is above the water and beautifully hanged through the wooden sticks. The pictures which have captured there, is awesome and it defines their wonderful life in beautiful place.

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us, Lain.
    Keep sharing about such amazing places more with us.
    – Ravi.

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain Mallory

      Hi Ravi, nice to meet you too, thank you for taking the time to write a comment.

      The beauty of travelling is meeting new people, experiencing new cultures and unique encounters. The Bako are a special people, truly a unique culture, it was a privilege to spend sometime in their company.

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it.

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