The Sama Bajau, also known as the Samah or Samah Men, are an ethnic group found throughout Southeast Asia. This group of people is often referred to as the “sea gypsies” because many of them lead a semi-nomadic life, traveling from place to place in boats and making their home on land for only brief periods of time.

Apart from being known as sea gypsies, they are also commonly referred to as “blue water” or “blue boat” Bugis because of the blue tattoo that appears across much of their bodies. The origin and history of this tattoo remains somewhat unclear, although it is thought to have developed during the 19th century due to its similarity with European sailors’ tattoos.

If you would like to learn more about these interesting people and their unique culture, read on for 10 fascinating facts about the Sama Bajau!

The origins of the Sama Bajau are not well known.

The origins of the Sama Bajau people are not well-known due to the nature of their culture, which has primarily been passed down orally from one generation to the next. Anthropologists have found that much of their culture is linked to the sea and is therefore quite transient. As a result, very few them have any memory of their pre-colonial past, and very few aspects of Sama Bajau culture have been written down. Despite the fact that their origins are largely unknown, it is clear that the they have been present in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. The first record of the Sama Bajau is from a Dutch East Indian company report from 1630, in which they are described as “inhabitants of the sea”.

Children inherit their parents’ occupations.

The Sama Bajau practice significant social mobility, meaning that children inherit their parents’ occupations and are not expected to follow in their footsteps. This is an unusual characteristic that is not often associated with seafaring cultures. While children of traders might inherit their parents’ merchant skills, a child of a fisherman could also become a merchant because, under Sama Bajau social norms, that child would be expected to become a merchant, not a fisherman. Social mobility among them is not entirely free, however. Along with inheritance of occupation, their children also inherit their parents’ debts. This means that, if a parent owes money, their child is also responsible for repaying that debt.

Where do Bajau live?

The Sama Bajau are a group of people who live in the sea, but they don’t have any land. This why they are referred to as “sea gypsies.”
They live on their boats and go from one place to another with the help of their sails. They use spears, hooks and nets for fishing. They also hunt for fish and other sea animals in the water.
Their boats are made from wood, which can be found near rivers or on beaches. It is a skill that has been passed down through generations. The boats are built to be light enough so that they can sail in shallow waters or be carried over land if necessary.

The Ability to hold their breath

The Bajau people are known for their ability to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time. It is a skill that they have been practicing for centuries and it is the reason why they are able to dive deep into the sea in search of food.
The Bajau people can stay underwater without coming up to the surface for over 3-5 minutes. This is because they have a special type of spleen that stores oxygenated blood and releases it when needed so that they can breathe underwater.

The religion of Sama Bajau

Religion can vary among Sama-Bajau subgroups; from strict adherence to Sunni Islam to animistic beliefs in spirits and ancestor worship. There is a small minority of Catholics and Protestants, particularly from Davao del Sur in the Philippines.

Among the coastal Sama-Bajau of Malaysia, being pious and learned is an important source of personal status. Some of the Sama-Bajau must rely on shore-based communities, such as those of the more Islamicised or Malay peoples, for mosques. Some Ubian Bajau are much less committed to orthodox Islam than their more nomadic cousins. They adhere to a folk Islamic belief system that venerates local sea spirits known as Djinns in Islamic terminology. While some Sama-Bajau groups continue to be animistic, most are now Muslim. The Sama-Bajau believe that Umboh Tuhan (Umboh Dilaut, the “Lord of the Sea”) and Dayang Dayang Mangilai (“Lady of the Forest”) are the supreme deities. Umboh Tuhan, the creator deity, is thought to have created humans equal to animals and plants. In animistic religions like theirs, physical and spiritual realms coexist.

Women sold into marriages.

While many of the Sama Bajau follow a matrilineal system in which the family and inheritance pass down through the mother’s side, their women are often sold into marriage as wives to men from other cultures. Sama Bajau women are often sold into marriage by their parents, and the money from the marriage is often used to pay off the family’s debts. The women are often sold into marriage to Chinese men from the mainland who are working in the region. According to some estimates, as many as two-thirds of the Sama Bajau women in the Philippines have been sold into marriage.

The Sama Bajau speak Samah, which is a variant of the Bugis language.

The people of sea speak Samah, a dialect of the Bugis language that is spoken by several ethnic groups living in Maritime Southeast Asia. The Bugis language is spoken across a large geographic area and is closely linked to trade and economic activity. Many of the words and terms used in the Samah language are common across Southeast Asia, although many of them have distinct variations. The Sama Bajau language is written in the Latin script, although the script is modified to include the unique sounds and words found in the Samah language. The Samah language is written primarily in the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Thailand.

The unique tattooing tradition.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Sama Bajau people is their semi-permanent decorative tattoos, which are a staple of their culture. The tattoos are applied during a special ceremony when a person is about 10 years old and are expected to remain on a person’s body for the rest of their life. Their tattoos are combination of the anchor and the fish. The anchor represents a safe voyage, while the fish is a symbol of good luck. The Sama Bajau also have smaller, decorative tattoos on their hands and feet.

The Sama Bajau are currently under threat from development and tourism.

The Sama Bajau culture is currently under threat from both development and tourism. Historically, the Sama Bajau have led a semi-nomadic lifestyle that has allowed them to lead a self-sustaining lifestyle on the high seas, beyond the reach of most governing and economic organizations. However, there has been an increase in the level of tourism in Southeast Asia in recent decades, leading to an increase in the number of visitors to coastal areas where the Sama Bajau live. This has led to an increase in the level of economic activity and has resulted in an increased level of contact between the Sama Bajau people and tourists. There has also been an increase in the level of development in the region, particularly in the form of offshore gas and oil exploration. This has resulted in an increased level of economic activity and has also seen the Sama Bajau people come into contact with government organizations like the coast guard and marine police.


The Sama Bajau are a fascinating ethnic group of people who are heavily tied to the sea. While much of their culture has been passed down orally from one generation to the next, there is currently an effort underway to document much of their language and culture in writing. This way, the Sama Bajau culture will be documented for future generations, even though some of it might be lost due to the transient nature of the sea gypsies’ way of life.


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