Visiting the Indonesian Water Gypsies of the Bajo Tribe

On our second morning in Wakatobi we headed off on an early morning boat trip to try and spot some dolphins. Unfortunately we missed the dolphins as we weren’t early enough, but we did get a really beautiful trip out into the Indonesian sea as the trip continued on our way to see the original sea gypsies of Sulawesi… the Bajo tribe of Indonesia.

The Water Gypsies

sea gypsies of Sulawesi

Sulawesi sea gypsies

The Bajo Tribe

The Bajo (or Bajau Laut) Tribe have lived on the sea for over 400 years. They are nomadic ocean dwellers who originally lived on longboats known as lepa lepa out at sea (a few of which we saw on our 2 hour trip to their sea village!) and, more recently, they make their homes in stilt villages built on coral reefs a few kilometres from dry land! Some of the population have tried to base themselves closer to the land but with little success due to the strong pull of the ocean on their lives, and their susceptibility to disease!

Bajo Tribe

Bajo Tribe

Bajo Tribe Village

Bajo Tribe of Indonesia

I had read about these fascinating sea-faring people and as we got closer to their homes I wondered what to expect… I was excited for this opportunity to visit a village like no other but to be honest as soon as I landed and stepped onto the first wooden walkway I felt a bit awkward…

Here we were, a boatload of strangers coming to traipse through their daily lives and take photos of their children, cats, lunch, homes…. I wasn’t sure if we were welcome or not. (My friend Annika wrote more in depth about her own thoughts and feelings about this experience and it’s definitely worth a read –> Thoughts on meeting the Bajo people of Indonesia)

Bajo Tribe

Bajo Tribe Village

bajo tribe

I just decided to head out and be as unobtrusive and polite as possible. To be honest much of my energy in the first few minutes was spent watching where I was walking and negotiating the rather rickety wooden walkways which seemed to have more gaps than planks!

The Bajo are excellent fishermen relying on the sea for their very existence and evidence of their connection to the sea was all around. Instead of cars they have canoes, instead of streets they have canals.

The people themselves are brilliant free-divers and spear-gun fishermen, often diving up to 20ms deep and holding their breathe for up to 5 mins! Their fishing methods include walking on the ocean floor to hunt fish and octopi wearing goggles and no fins. In fact, fishing and diving is such a huge part of their lives that many Bajo children actually have their eardrums pierced when they are young so they will not burst later from water pressure while diving! Quite extreme!

Bajo Village

Bajo Tribe water village

Bajo Tribe Village

Bajo Tribe jetty

Home on Stilts

Bajo Tribe home

As I started to feel more confident about I decided to take photos of the place rather than the people… and it really was a unique place, albeit a bit rough around the edges and somewhat polluted.

I stumbled across various fishing huts with nets strung out to dry and fish being cured in the sun, a clothing shop with a mismatched array of clothes for sale, a clinic, a mosque and even a school filled with teenage girls keen for a giggle or a selfie!

Bajo Child

bajo tribe wakatobi islands

Women were about their work in every direction – washing dishes, making rice, feeding babies, bringing back the days catch in their canoes. Men were working hard to build a new walkway or foundations for another home and kids of all ages played under the shadowy cool of their raised cottages. I shuddered to think what it must be like teaching a child to walk with all the hazards right outside their front doors!

Eventually I found a few friendly faces who were more welcoming of my lens in their face and happy to pose for a pic or two. I was grateful. Just a small interaction of a smile can break the language barrier and bring people from opposite sides of the world together for a moment.


bajo village

Water Gypsies

people of the ocean

people of the ocean

people of the ocean indonesia

bajo people

people of the ocean

bajo tribe indonesia

Our hour in the Bajo village came to an end all too soon and we headed back to the boat, just in time to be privy to one last snapshot of life here…. a boat offloading supplies, including a box of live chickens that hastily got dragged down the jetty!

people of the ocean

bajo tribe indonesia

bajo tribe village

people of the ocean sunset

The 2 hour sunset boat ride back to our base gave me plenty of time to reflect on the day and figure out what my take away lesson from this unique experience was (because every experience does teach us something, right?)

And I think I realised that it was that the Bajo people, despite not having much material wealth, are a very rich community indeed. You see they have each other. They live in each others lives, daily. Living as I do in the suburbs, I don’t think I can tell you the last time I spoke to my neighbours. High walls and electric fences may protect us on one hand, but they also hinder us on another. These people have an amazing sense of community. Children have playmates at any time of the day, parents look out for each other’s children, friends prepare meals alongside each other. Yes, there are certainly hardships, poverty being the obvious one in this instance, but the Bajo people live in community and they could definitely show us Westerners a thing or two about that!


If you enjoyed this post about visiting the Water Gypsies of Indonesia please consider pinning it to Pinterest using the graphic below so you can find it again for when you plan your visit to Indonesia or so that others can find it and plan their own trip. Thanks so much!


bajo tribe indonesia



To get a different perspective of the Bajo Village and for more about our time in Wakatobi watch this fun video by Mike Dewey from Mike & Jay Explore who was part of the group I travelled with and has some great drone footage…


Read more about my #TripofWonders experience in Indonesia here:

Exploring Jakarta

A cruise through the Borneo jungle on a Klotok

Orangutan encounters in Borneo

The incredible islands of Wakatobi

The paradise of Hoga Island

Exploring the Komodo Islands

Experiencing the culture of Melo Village in Flores Island

A visit to Uluwatu Temple in Bali

A beautiful day spent at a Balinese home -cooking Balinese food and ploughing the rice paddies!


If you enjoyed this post please consider pinning it to Pinterest using the graphic below so you can find it again for when you plan your visit to Indonesia or so that others can find it and plan their own trip. Thanks so much!



Images: Kathryn Rossiter

Disclosure: 8.

My trip to Indonesia was on the invitation of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism as part of the Trip of Wonders. For more information on travelling to Indonesia please visit and follow @indtravel on Twitter or Instagram and search the hashtags #WonderfulIndonesia #TripofWonders for more incredible photos from our journey

Kathryn Rossiter

Kathryn is a South African lifestyle blogger and mom of 2 who has been blogging daily for over 9 years! She writes about travel, health, beauty, fashion, decor and family... but not food (unless it's food she's eaten made by someone else) as she is a hopeless cook. She only wakes up early for 2 things... a red-eye flight to somewhere exotic and early morning game drives. She has just finished an extensive home renovation and would prefer to never see another box again. She's never met a chocolate or glass of bubbles that she didn't like!


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