Most people go to Semporna in far southeastern Sabah for the world class diving sites that lie just off the coast – Sipadan immediately springs to mind for many. But for me, it was a small notation in Lonely Planet that got me hooked: “This mainly Bajau town really comes alive at the end of March when a colourful regatta takes place, but normally it’s quiet.”
A regatta in Sabah? A Borneo festival with traditional, single-mast sailing boats? I was in.
I arrived in Semporna a few days before festivities for the Regatta Lepa got underway when tents and stalls were just being set up. The 2012 event was Sabah Tourism’s 19th annual version of the colourful local festivity and it promised an intimate view into some of the traditions of the region.
Semporna itself seemed a pretty little place with stilt houses sprawled across the bay, which in turn was filled with boating activity, markets and trade. It looked promising already but I headed over to Mabul Island first for the customary diving experience and then returned to the mainland several days later.
By the time I returned on the Friday evening, the festivities had begun. In what had been empty streets when I first arrived, were numerous stalls piled high with all manner of goods – scarves (for Muslim women), kids’ toys, clothing, hats, jewellery, local food and drinks.
There were so many of these stalls they literally clogged the streets – many of which were closed to traffic. Wandering further afield into what might have actually been permanent market areas, I also came across numerous stalls grilling up various types of seafood.
There were also some cultural events taking place on the town field with dancing in traditional dress, music and singing. And there were some traditional wooden hulled lepa boats already sailing around, decorated and ready for the boat parades of the morrow. These single-mast sailing boats of the Bajaus of Semporna give the festival its name and it was exciting to see them finally.
However I’d really come for the excitement of the boating events on the Saturday and it was worth waiting for. These were held on the waters in front of the Seascape Hotel so I trudged down there to join an enormous crowd heckling for key viewing spots on the river. A word of advice for future festival goers – get here early for the best views.
There were single kayak or group canoe events, an event in which competitors had to climb a pole and try to push each other off, and even a tug of war competition in which boat competitors could use their legs only to row. It was noisy, raucous and thoroughly enjoyable with teams getting resounding cheers when they returned to the docks.
Continue reading (incl. Pics) at: Regatta Lepa – a boating festival Sabah style