Visiting the Bajau sea gypsies in a remote Sulawesian archipelago
> 2 weeks of island hopping across several of the Togian Islands in Indonesia <
In Europe, we have the gypsies of Romania – a group of people and wanderers with a nomadic habit of life. It is however not only a European "phenomenon". Southeast Asia has many groups of sea gypsies, a collective name for several indigenous ethnic groups residing in Myanmar, Thailand, Southern China, Philippines, Sabah, eastern Malaysia, and Indonesia. Of these, the most famous are the Moken of Myanmar, the Tanka of Southern China, the Urak Lawoi of Thailand, and the Bajau of the Philippines plus Central parts of Indonesia.
Reading about them during the cold and windy months in Denmark, we were intrigued about their existence in modern day life. The concept of people living in stilt houses built over the sea gave us mental images of the movie "Water World", which starred Kevin Costner. In this movie, the seas have risen and all of humanity are nomads living on and off the ocean.
We've found that one of the best places to meet real sea gypsies is in the remote Togian Islands in Sulawesi, Indonesia; an archipelago of 56 pristine coral and volcanic islands and islets located in the Gulf of Tomini in Central Sulawesi. We spent two weeks of island hopping from one forested golden-beach to the next across more than 10 of the islands in the Togian archipelago, visiting the Bajau sea gypsies along the way. We had to travel for several days to reach this far-flung, unknown place. In return, we were stuck here for two weeks far away from almost everything. Most islands had only one or two family-run guesthouses that could accommodate just a few people. Actually, we could easily have spent more time here had our VISA allowed us to do so.
The highlight of the Togian’s was the surrounding coral reef, which support a rich, diverse marine life. The Bajau sea gypsies were easy to meet. We experienced at first-hand how their knowledge of the sea enabled them to live off its organisms by using simple and primitive tools such as nets and spears, which they used to forage for food. What wasn’t consumed short-term was dried atop their boats or stilt houses, and then used for trade at local island markets. Many of the Bajaus are still nomadic people roaming the seas most of their lives in small hand-crafted wooden boats, some of which not only serve as transportation but also kitchen, bedroom and living area. Their life is simply build on the premises of the ocean.