The top attractions to visit in Pulau Mabul
Bajau Laut: The Sea Gypsies of Sabah

Before 1980, Pulau Mabul and its surrounding islands were untouched and unaffected by the outside world. All that has changed when the development for eco-tourism started taking place.

The islands were once inhabited solely by the small, dispersed Bajau and Suluk families - also known as the Sea Gypsies. These ethnic groups are “stateless” people - moving from islands to islands between Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines (and they still do today) as they are not afforded a citizenship status by any of the countries. Due to this, they reside freely but only on the waters of the Celebes Sea and Sulu Sea either on boats or houses skillfully built on stilts.

As their welfare is not being taken care of by any party, they continue to live unmoored and adrift with zero access to formal education and without a national identity or even birth certificates. The Sea Gypsies are just a very small fraction of the estimated 12 million stateless people around the world today.

Read also: 10 Best Things To Do In Mabul Island

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The Bajau Laut lives on the waters of the Celebes Sea and Sulu Sea either on boats or houses skillfully built on stilts.
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The Bajau Laut lives on the waters of the Celebes Sea and Sulu Sea either on boats or houses skillfully built on stilts.


Bajau Laut: The Sea Gypsies of Sabah

The Bajau Laut tribes of Sabah are fondly called the Sea Gypsies thanks to their nomadic and seafaring lifestyle. They are one of the few communities on earth with a profound bond with the ocean, spending almost their entire lives at sea and rarely setting foot on land. They have roamed the Coral Triangle for decades, constantly moving about the waters of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia where resources are rich and plenty.

Lucky visitors traveling to this part of the world may still see the Sea Gypsies living in wooden houseboats or stilt huts carefully built the coral reefs - making this an attraction not to be missed. Today, it is estimated that there are 3,000 Sea Gypsies left in Borneo.

Sea Gypsies are exceptional divers. They have mastered free diving in order to make a living out of hunting for sea cucumbers, lobsters and other marine life that can be sold to the locals as food. They are capable of  holding their breath and free diving to depths of over 20 meters without assistance. The ocean bears their resources, and they have been making a living out of it for centuries.

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Beautiful crabs caught by the fisherman


The Transition: Bajau Laut to Bajau Darat

Due to development, many Sea Gypsies have now made the Semporna islands of Sabah their home, namely Mabul, Sibuan, Mantabuan, Selakan, Omadal, Bohey Dulang and Maiga. Those who have made this permanent transition have evolved to become the Bajau Darat.

Several small-scale areas on selected Malaysian islands have been allocated for native settlement with the help from local NGOs and affluent communities. Pulau Mabul, in particular, has two main villages including Kampung Mabul and Kampung Musu that were handed out for the occupation of the nomadic tribes from the nearby island clusters including Bajau Laut and the Suluk Muslims.

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An elderly woman of the Bajau Laut tribe at Pulau Mabul, Sabah

Semporna islands such as Pulau Mabul may have gained popularity as a gateway for world-class diving, but the top attraction here remains to be the beautiful, mysterious and dexterous Bajau Laut or Sea Gypsies. Always pay your respect to the indigenous people when you step on their soil.

How to Go to Mabul Island from Kuala Lumpur?

From Kuala Lumpur (or anywhere you are from), take a flight to the Tawau Airport (TWU). Almost every resort on Pulau Mabul offers a free transfer from Tawau to Semporna (which is located about an hour and a half away or approximately 90 kilometres) where you will then hop onto the resort speed boat in order to arrive at Pulau Mabul.
  1. From Kuala Lumpur, take a flight to the Tawau Airport.
  2. From Tawau, find your way to Semporna by hiring a private transfer, taking a mini bus or taking the free transfer provided by your resort.
  3. Once you have arrived at the Semporna Jetty, take the speed boat (provided by your resort) or a ferry to get to Pulau Mabul.

Remember to call your resort prior to your arrival in Sabah to arrange the pickup time!

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