Regatta Lepa – a boating festival Sabah style

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.

Cultural performances with electric costumes on the town field.

Cultural performances with electric costumes on the town field. Pic: Joanne Lane.

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.

Hotly contested boating events during the festival.

Hotly contested boating events during the festival. Pic: Joanne Lane.

After this the regatta of the boats began with a colourful stream of lepa boats decked out in flags and even dancing women in traditional dress. They smiled, swayed, and moved impossibly long finger-nailed hands around while men behind them beat on gongs, drums and other local instruments.

When this was over there were numerous speeches and prayers and the crowd moved off back into the streets. I turned my attention then to the market stalls nearest the hotel. It was good to see some of these encouraging coral conservation and better fishing practices as the region is indeed known for its underwater life and dynamite fishing has been a problem in the past.

The colourful parade of lepa boats complete with dancing women.

The colourful parade of lepa boats complete with dancing women. Pic: Joanne Lane.

The WWF was running a children’s drawing competition of the local flora and fauna under and above the sea, there were sustainable farming/agricultural exhibits and some men displaying the famed woodwork skills of lepa boats. One was particularly pleased when I commented on how good they were.
Local tourism ventures had also put together some free tours in the area including the town, local trekking and mangrove trips. You simply signed up if they still had space and then met at an appointed time to be taken on the trip. Unfortunately by the time I came across their information I’d missed the last tour.

In the afternoon and evening the action moved to the town field again with a lantern parade threading through town from the harbour with boats lit with fairy lights.

This was followed by a variety of speeches, some of which were translated in English. One, by a governor or local minister, was particularly good espousing the racial harmony and diversity of multicultural Malaysia and really roused the crowd with cheers.

This was followed by various cultural performances including women in the most incredible costumes and very dramatic fireworks late in the evening that boomed over town in an incredible display of colour.

On the final morning Semporna seemed to be returning to its normally quiet routine with the boats, parades, lanterns, music and dance of the annual regatta already over. In all it was a fantastic way to see a bit of local culture.

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