The People of Sepeken – the Baju in the Kangean Archipelago, Indonesia


Sapeken is a tiny oval shaped island in the eastern Kangean Archipelago, north of Bali, east of Madura, in Indonesia.

The people of Kangean’s main island seem to be dominated by the Madurese, but with of Bugis (of “Boogey man” fame), Makasarese & Banjarese—all the seafaring peoples of east central Indonesia—mixed in, both in their family trees & in their language. 

So when when we strolled around Sapeken to ask people about their lives, I felt confident that we’d encounter mainly Madurese & Bugis.  But when I tried my rudimentary Madurese on them they pleasantly laughed & appreciated it, but then informed me that that was not exactly what Sapekenese speak. 

A very friendly, intelligent & helpful Haji unpacked the Sapekenese identity for us--& boy was I in for a surprise!

The Sapekenese are not primarily Madurese, nor Bugis, nor Makasarese, though these influences are there.  We learned they are Baju (BA-joo), & immediately my mouth dropped open.  In other places this ethnicity is called the Bajau (BA-jauw), but I never dreamed of encountering them in large numbers down here, just north of Bali.  They’re famous for living on floating fishing platforms in the seas SW of Mindanao, & off the NE points of Borneo & Sulawesi. Other groups often refer to them—usually disparagingly—as the Sea Gypsies.

“You guys are Baju, & you live way down here!” I exclaimed.  My new Haji acquaintance smiled & admitted, “Yes, everyone thinks we all live up between Indonesia & the Philippines.  But we’re here too, & we even control one other island south of here—over east of Bali.”

I did another photo walk with new appreciation—realizing that this is now the first time I’ve ever been among this ethnic group in Indonesia.

Yet, in some ways they’re like people everywhere.  The old sit & contemplate a life largely gone-by, as youth play nearby—anticipating a full life ahead of them.

And people find joy in some of life’s simple pleasures. 

An old haji down by the docks proudly shows off his innovative cigarette holder—made from mouse deer horn—

and nearly passes out with pleasure as he takes a drag . . .

on his aromatic clove cigarette.

We had another misconception about Sapeken exploded.  I’d been told it’s main economy was as a transshipping point for traditional sail boats.  We saw a few of these, but it became obvious that Sapeken lives off fishing & selling live & fresh fish to the tourist markets in Bali.  We learned that a good sized grouper, sent alive to Bali for live airfreighting onward to Hong Kong, will fetch the Sapeken seller US $55 per fish!


Brightly colored fishing boats crowd the docks.

And Sapeken fishermen proudly show off their catch . . .

perhaps the inspiration for their brightly colored boats. 

Muslims are famous for loving cats; the prophet reportedly was kind & sympathetic to cats.  So anywhere where there’s lots of Muslims, you’ll generally see lots of pet cats—especially in a fishing town.

And this is a life that is not about to disappear.  

Young as well as old engage in fishing.  Everyone here considers life on the water as so normal.  In fact, while down at the dock we actually witnessed a boat go down.  There was no more fuss on the crowded docks than when you & I see a squirrel jump & miss a limb.  The three passengers swam ashore—one in a white business shirt eagerly holding a file of important papers above his head.  I didn’t photograph this excitement.  Why?  Because I didn’t consider it normal & was afraid someone was about to drown, I was looking for a lifesaver to throw to them.  All the Sapeken locals just laughed as they watched from the pier.

 These people have been living in their kampungs on the water . . . 

 for a very long time.  Nothing looks set to change very rapidly on Sapeken.

Ever think what a week in Indonesia could do for your portfolio & photographic reputation?  Check out our Java-Bali Photo Tour with Matt Brandon of Buy your spot here at the one-time-only introductory price! Be sure to make the most of it by getting in on the Borobudur & Jogjakarta extension tour.