Visiting the Bajau sea gypsies in a remote Sulawesian archipelago
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.
Location: the central part of Indonesia, during 2 weeks
IWe'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.
Located en the Tomini Bay in Sulawesi
The Togian islands are hard to reach. We traveled overland from the Tomohon Highlands to Gorantalo for 14 hours. And then we boarded the M/S Puspita for the 15-hour trip to Wakai in the Togian Islands. We slept in the lower deck together with the locals. Around midnight we started the journey towards Wakai. We were packed like sardines in a tin and it was a really windy night.
We found our spot in the lower deck and tried to get some sleep. Saltwater was momentarily squirted into our faces through the small porthole – without any closing device. Later in the morning we finally managed to get some sleep, partly because most of the crew went upstairs on the deck to cook.
In Walea Kodi Island the small fishing village of Dolong was our first stop. It was raining all the time, so we spent some time reading and exploring the stilt village. The snorkeling offshore was very good.
Malenge Island was remote and secluded. Not many people go here. The big attraction on the island is the tarsier – the world smallest primate. We also saw the tarsier in Bohol in the Philippines and another trip in the SEA region. Malenge has many charmin fishing villages on stilts.
Batu Daka Island was the departure center for transport from and to the Togean Islands.This island is the largest in the Togeans. In Wakai, we did some basic shopping, e.g. noodles, cookies, water etc.
The island had a perfect beach with access to reasonable priced cottages. It also had superb snorkelling just off the coast.
Around Kadidiri Island are many Bajau sea gypsy stilt villages. Fishing huts could be seen everywhere in small bays scattered around the island.
The Bajau sea gypsies living in these primitive huts were either fishermen or pearl divers. One day we paid a visit to a small stilt village in Batua Daka island and bought 4 kilos of freshly trapped red lobsters – we only had to pay 250 Rupiah! The cook at our place boiled them for us before dinner. Delicious.
Returning in the late afternoon with the catch of the day.
The food was very basic yet yummy. There was no hot water. Pancakes were typically served for breakfast, fish for lunch and, surprise, fish for dinner. They occasionally served fish for breakfast as we went diving. “Fish-o-file” people will really love this place!
Diving in the Togeans was amazing. We did 8 dives in five different locations during our stay here. We did 2 dives in Taipi Wall approximately 300-400 meters off the coast of Taipi Island. The coral was quite good and in terms of fauna, there was lots of bump heads and dolphins. The most amazing, though, was the 100 meter/300 feet visibility. This is very rare in the SEA region.
This island is the second largest in archipelago. We stayed in the main settlement, Katupat Village, which had a small market and a couple of shops. Around the large island are magical beaches, e.g. Carina beach, and several Bajau sea gypsy villages.
This hilly island was placed just next to Katupat Village on Togean Island. A "ghost resort" was placed here. It had a view point offering great views of the Togian archipelago. Also, the snorkelling here was excellent.
The easiest way to jump around all the islands is jump aboard the ferry, to charter your own outrigger which is typically a small fishing outrigger boat, or alternatively to join diving trips to the more remote islands. We did all three things to visit 10+ islands during our two weeks here.
We hiked through the jungle for several hours in an attempt to cross the island and ended up on this beach. Fortunately, a local fisher helped us and sailed us back.
Una Una has remote volcanic beaches and superb deep-diving. The island was hard to reach as it is more than 30 km away from the nearest island in the archipelago. No public transport leaves for the island and there was nowhere to stay. The purpose for our trip there was to do two dives off the coast of Una Una. Besides paying for the dives we had to pay 600 Rupiah for extra fuel expenses, which is quite expensive in these parts.