The Bajau people are indigenous to today's Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. They have lived in this part of the world for thousands of years. For most of that time they have been a nomadic people, living partly on land but mainly out on the open sea. Many Bajau still practice this lifestyle.
It is only in the last two hundred years that the Bajau have begun to give up their "sea gypsy" way of life and live entirely on land. Most that have, have settled on the island of Borneo in Sabah — the eastern state of peninsular Malaysia. It was here that I based myself in Kota Kinabalu for a few days while visiting surrounding Bajau communities — the "cowboys of the east" as they are often called.
Both Bajau modern life and ancient history are full of tradition, folklore and ritual. These celebrate their God-of-the-Sea, Omboh Dilaut, their self-claimed origin (including claim to a line of descendants directly back to the prophet Mohammed, since their conversion from Animism to Islam) and their elaborate, usually hand-made clothes.
I'd witnessed some of this tradition in my travels and had been deeply impressed by what I'd seen. But there was one destination left that I wanted to visit before I had to head south into Indonesia: the Sunday market, called Tamu Besar, in Kota Belud about fifty kilometers northeast of Kota Kinabalu. This market is quite famous and is one of the best places to see Bajau life.
I spent the whole morning — arriving very early — wandering around the market area (which is very big). The photo possibilities were almost endless and I must have gone through at least five rolls of film. At the time, I had no idea how I might edit the selection down to just a few. Editing those few to choose the final photo for this page was even harder. In the end I decided that this girl, who was selling goods in the market, very much captured a sense of modern-day Bajau with their strikingly colorful clothes.
The Bajau are featured in our documentary, Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia.
Indigenous Malaysian Market (short film on YouTube).
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