The sea in the east of Sabah, the Malaysian state on Borneo Island, is not only a scuba diving haven — where Sipadan Island, rated among the Top 5 of the world’s best diving destinations, is located — but also home to a unique tribe often referred to as the Sea Gypsies of Sabah.

They are the boat people of Sabah, the ocean equivalent to my ancestor, the nomadic tribe who once roamed the jungle of Borneo, hunting and gathering and cultivating.

Boat House Of Borneo Sea Gypsy
The Lepa boat, the home of the Sea Gypsies of Borneo

Until in recent times — as recent as in the 80s, that is — not many people outside Sabah knew of the boat people’s existence due to the tribe’s minimum contact with the outside world.

I for instance, had heard first about the Hong Kong boat people than the boat people in my own homestate.

Borneo Sea Gypsy Children[Picture, left: "Hey, it's a tissue paper..." Some of the children of the Sea Bajau now living on land after abandoning their sea-faring life]

You can call them by various names — the Sea Bajau, Pala’uh or Sama Dilaut — and still, you would find it hard not to think about the life you could have lived had you were born a boat people.

For centuries, this unique community of the sea had been living oblivious to the world — and the world oblivious to them — in their triangle universe of seas off the east coast of Sabah and the southern Philippines and Indonesia’s northern Sulawesi.

Borneo Sea Gypsy Location
Here’s where you can find the Sea Gypsies of Borneo. [Note: this is based on a Sabah map available on the Internet, of which I had no idea who originated it]

It was only about 15 years ago that the tribe’s cultural tradition began to take centrestage amidst Sabah’s rich cultural heritage through the staging of the annual Lepa Regatta, which showcases the life, culture and arts of the hunters and gatherers of the sea.

Here are 10 interesting facts about the Sea Gypsies of Borneo:

1. They live on boats in their entire life and would only set foot on land to obtain supplies such as herbs, wood and fresh water.

2. They also set their feet on land when they bury the dead.

3. Their boat is known as Lepa, a single-masted wooden boat measuring 2m x 6m on the average. Some are smaller and others are bigger.

4. During a celebration, such as during a wedding, dozens of the Lepa boats would moor close to one another where traditional music and dances would be performed.

The merry-making on the flotilla of the small boats can be a spectacular view for those who are foreign to the culture.

5. The Lepa boat is also their means of transportation from one island to another — from Sabah to the Philippines to north Sulawesi.

6. Most of the them would never go to school.

7. Over the centuries, a section of the community decided to move from their floating world to the terra firma. However, while many had remained on land, many others had also returned to their former sea-faring life.

Makeshift House Of The Boat People Of Borneo
A makeshift house by the shore to take refuge from the stormy sea

8. Almost all boat people would experience dizziness when they were on land for extended period.

9. Boat people children can swim almost like a fish, having been living on sea all their life. The can also hold their breath for an extended period time, averaging three to five minutes.

10. They are not too concerned about money as they could always “harvest” from the sea for the food or other sea produce to barter with mainlanders for clothing, rice and so on.

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