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The Bajau

Introducing the Bajau

The Bajau people are the second largest indigenous group in Sabah, comprising 13% of the population. Originally seafarers, they now form two distinct groups, the East Coast Bajau and West Coast Bajau. The West Coast Bajau are settled in the area between Kota Kinabalu and Kota Belud, farming rice and rearing cattle, although there are a few Bajau water villages near along the nearby coast. Their horsemanship is legendary and on festive occasions both horses and riders are dressed in colourful costumes,  making them famous as the “Cowboys of Borneo”.

On the east coast, many Bajau still live from the sea, with fishing as the main activity. While most have settled on land or in water villages, some are still nomadic boat dwellers, living aboard their traditional boats, known as Lepa, an elegant design of ancient origins which is able to sail almost directly into the wind. A special Lepa regatta is contested every year at Semporna.

The Bajau, who are almost exclusively Muslim, are well known for their traditional dances, songs, percussion music, dyed mats and food covers, and wood carvings. The Bajau women of Kota Belud make embroidered panels to sew into their long black wrap-skirt. The Bajau women of Kota Belud weave the traditional headgear known as kain dastar which is worn by almost every indigenous group in Sabah.

Bajau Links

Peoples of the World – Bajau: A good brief description of Bajau lifestyle and culture.

Bajau Baja: An interesting web page on Bajau culture, costume and handicrafts.

My Sabah: A Sabahan photo-blogger has some great articles on Bajau culture.

Recommended Reading

The Bajau Laut by Clifford Sather. An excellent monograph on how Bajau communities are coping with cultural change. Available in good social science libraries.

The Cowboys of Borneo