Once a year, a small town in Southeastern Sabah celebrates their biggest festival. Once a year, this coastal town gets swarmed by visitors that come in droves from the sea. Once a year, the waters around this seaside town gets filled with sails of a myriad of colors. Once a year, the town of Semporna celebrates the Regatta Lepa. And what a celebration it is.
The Regatta Lepa Festival by the Bajau Laut
The Regatta Lepa is an annual festival celebrated by the Bajau Laut; and for the past 25 years, has become an fun-filled affair in the town of Semporna. The Bajau Laut are an ethnic community found off the coast of Semporna, also known as the sea gypsies for their seafaring and nomadic way of life. Sailing for generations in the Celebes Sea between the countries of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia — they live (and move around) on wooden houseboats; and more recently, huts built on stilts in the sea. Their livelihood depends on the ocean’s resources.
The Regatta Lepa pays homage to the Bajau Laut’s houseboats, known as lepa. These traditional single-mast boats are built by skilled boat-makers around the small islands off the Semporna coast, and made with local hard timber. Once a year during the Regatta Lepa festival, these lepa boats are decorated in many colors and designs; and sail into the harbor of Semporna to vie for the title of the “Most Beautiful Lepa”. The festival is usually held on the third week of April and celebrated for a week in Semporna, culminating in a weekend of cultural performances and ceremonies.
My Visit to Semporna
To me, Semporna will always be the coastal town that is the start-off point to Malaysia’s most famous dive spot, Sipadan Island. And here’s a fun fact of the town — it was named “Tong Talun” back when it was founded in the late 19th century, which means “at the end of the forest” in the Bajau language; but throughout the years the named changed to Semporna, which means “a peaceful place”. As a Malaysian, I am ashamed to say that I have never heard of the Regatta Lepa Festival in Semporna until I was invited to attend by the Malaysia Tourism Board. And once I found out more about it, I was extremely excited to finally be able to witness a local ethnic community festival!
From Kuala Lumpur, we flew into the town of Tawau (the nearest airport), and took a 45-minute van ride to Semporna. Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia has several domestic flights from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau weekly; and there are flights from the Sabahan capital of Kota Kinabalu too. During my weekend in Semporna, I stayed at the town’s harbor-front hotel, the Seafest Hotel.
The Sangom Maglami-Lami
We arrived on a Friday, just in time to experience the height of the Regatta Lepa festivities. Colorful lepa boats were already docked at the town’s harbor and there were market stalls set up all around — the entire Semporna just had a lively and merry atmosphere. It was extremely jam-packed with locals, visitors from the sea, and tourists; all ready to join in this year’s silver jubilee Regatta Lepa.
That evening, the festival was launched with the Sangom Maglami-Lami celebration at the Regatta Lepa Square. Attended by the local dignitaries and VVIPs, the square was packed to the brim. We arrived just at the start of the official speech by the Chief Minister of Sabah; and had to squeeze through the sea of people to get a good view of the center stage. The night was then filled with traditional Bajau song and dance; and a Lepa Queen Pageant competition. The pageant even had a folk dance-off between the contestants with their beautifully adorned traditional costumes! Not one for extreme crowds, I didn’t stay for too long.
On the Day of the Regatta Lepa
The next day, we woke up really early to attend the Regatta Lepa Parade. Everyone gathered at the Regatta Lepa Square, and we made sure we arrived early enough to get front row seats to watch all the activities that day. We were seated next to the Polis Band that began the day’s festivities by playing the national and Sabah state anthem. And then we were entertained by performances by the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia, as well as ESSCOM (Eastern Sabah Security Command). They went all out with burning boats, helicopter rescues, speed boats with pirates, and even smoke and gunfire effects.
After the performance, it was time for the Sea Games Competition that saw teams from the many Bajau Laut communities off the coast of Semporna vying to become champions in single, doubles, and team boat races. They even had a boat tug-of-war! The day’s festivities ended with the final Lepa Parade that saw all the colorful traditional lepa boats float into the harbor in all their vibrant, and flashy, and gaudy beauty. It really was a spectacle, and one that I am so glad to have witnessed.
While attending the Regatta Lepa Festival in Semporna, the Tourism Malaysia Board also organised several side trips for us to understand the town and its attractions a little more. It was my first time to this side of Sabah, and I was all ready to explore!
The Jetties of Semporna
I think one of the very first things I noticed when I arrived in Semporna was the local jetty that was crowded with transport boats filled with people from nearby islands, fishing boats coming in with the day’s catch, and families just sitting around and passing the day chilling by the sea. It really isn’t the cleanest of places and definitely not a visitor jetty (there’s another one nearby that transports tourists); and when we asked for the name of the jetty, we were told that it doesn’t have one. Still, it was interesting standing by and watching the locals go about their daily routine.
Dragon Inn Floating Complex
Just next to this local jetty, and jutting out into the sea is an entire wooden complex standing on stilts over the water — the Dragon Inn. It comprises of small little huts and a long walkway, and is a floating hotel with several restaurants within its structure. We visited Dragon Inn for dinner, and enjoyed a seafood meal at the Bandar Mutiara Restaurant. Walking along the wooden pathway to our restaurant; we passed small shops and souvenir stalls, and once again, lots and lots of locals just sitting around the area.
Tun Sakaran Museum
We visited the Tun Sakaran Museum right after the Regatta Lepa Parade to learn more about the Bajau Laut people. I wouldn’t say the exhibits at the museum are thorough enough; but we were fortunate to be guided by the museum curator, who gave us a little more in-depth insights into this community. The top floor of the museum is dedicated to the local ethnic groups; and the bottom floor is a gallery that showcases the life and times of the museum’s namesake, Tun Sakaran, who was the former 8th Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sabah (Head of State).
Bohey Dulang Island
I was looking forward to visit Bohey Dulang Island — as I’ve heard of the views at the top of this mountainous island formed by an ancient volcano. So off we went on a 40-minute boat ride to the island, located inside the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. It was relatively empty when we arrived that afternoon (it’s usually only crowded in the morning when the tour boats come in). However, we were not allowed to hike up to the top of the island that day, as it rained in the morning so the paths were slippery and too dangerous to climb. I was so disappointed to miss my view of Bohey Dulang’s gorgeous aqua-colored coral-filled lagoon! So sad!
Tun Sakaran Marine Park
To make up for the ample time we had by not climbing to the top of Bohey Dulang; we got to visit a couple more islands around the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. We made a quick stop at the Bajau Laut settlement just off the coast of Bodgaya Island. As our speedboat slowly made its way into the village on stilts over the sea, we could make out small wooden boats filled with children floating towards us. They started asking for money and gifts in their native tongue; and a little girl even signalled to me to give her my earrings! We were advised beforehand not to give them anything, so as to not make it a habit. As soon as they realised they weren’t going to get anything from us, they slowly drifted away.
We also visited Sibuan Island — a seemingly untouched island filled with tall coconut trees, except perhaps for a few Bajau Laut families. The island is said to be one of the most beautiful ones on the Celebes Sea, and I have to agree. The sand is white, the waters are a crystal clear turquoise blue; and then there was a small army barrack next to a hut with a group of small children learning how to draw. What a sight!
We visited Bukit Tengkorak in the afternoon, our last local attraction stop before leaving Semporna. Located about 10km south of Semporna, Bukit Tengkorak (which translates to Skull Hill) is an archeological heritage site with findings dating back to the Neolithic period. It is said to be the largest pottery making factory in Southeast Asia during that time. After visiting the introductory museum at the foot of the hill, we attempted the climb up this 152m hill. It wasn’t a difficult climb, but the heat and humidity made it really exhaunting — especially since we had to hike up more than 500 wooden steps and rocky terrain, and walk through high grassy never-ending fields. I guess it was all worth it though, because the view from the top was absolutely amazing. I was rewarded with a sweeping panorama of the nearby hills and valleys, as well as faraway islands and the gorgeous sea. I conquered Bukit Tengkorak!
Restoran Warisan at Kampung Tampi Tampi
Before heading to Bukit Tengkorak, we dropped by Kampung Tampi Tampi’s Restaurant Warisan for a quick lunch. I think this place deserves a mention because I really liked the village feel of this wooden restaurant that is attached to a homestay with chalets on stilts. We spotted families and groups of friends chilling by the wooden platforms, having a picnic, and jumping into the sea. There’s also a dive center right next to the homestay. Seems like a good spot for an authentic local kampung holiday.
My Experience in Semporna and the Regatta Lepa Festival
I had a wonderful time in Semporna. I always thought of this small town as just a gateway to diving in Sipadan, and not worth a stop so I was a little little skeptical of what I would find here. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. I absolutely enjoyed my hike up Bukit Tengkorak and the amazing view that I found up there; and the islands, oh the islands! I really don’t need to head too far away from home to see beautiful islands — and this makes me want to dive in this part of the world even more because there are just so many other islands (and an underwater heaven) I have yet to discover.
Most importantly though, the Regatta Lepa. It was truly an eye-opening experience witnessing a festival so significant to the Bajau Laut community in Sabah. That parade of colorful boats is one that I have never seen (or heard of) before; and neither have I seen a crowd so huge that they could block up an entire road (and our car was stuck in a sea of people for a complete hour). I guess that just shows how huge the Regatta Lepa is.
*She Walks the World was invited to attend the Regatta Lepa as part of a media trip to Semporna and Tawau with Tourism Malaysia. And as always, all opinions stated here are my own.