Regatta Lepa Lepa in Semporna Sabah


Regatta Lepa Lepa Sabah

Regatta Lepa Lepa in Semporna, Sabah is one of the very unique festivals held on a yearly basis on the east coast of Sabah Borneo. For many years I have been wanting to visit this festival and finally with the help of Sabah Tourism, my wish came true this year in 2012. The following is my experience attending this traditional ethnic festival of the Bajau people of Sabah.

The Regatta Lepa has also been celebrated every year since 1994 to commemorate the Bajau tradition of building these splendid boats. The town of Semporna comes to life as the colorful sails take to the sea to compete for the prize of the most beautiful Lepa. Judging is also based on the decoration, local ethnic music and dances performed on board, sambulayang (sails) and tapis-tapis (small flags).

Regatta Lepa photoPerahu Lepa
Lepa boats decorated beautifully (click to enlarge)

The Regatta Lepa Lepa is held from the 20-22 April and totally transforms the town of Semporna to one huge carnival. The main streets by the jetties are off traffic and littered with stalls selling all kinds of merchandise, food, drink and souvenirs. If you are heading to any of the islands around the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, you will most likely get caught in the myriad of colors here. As the main event is held on the second day, it would be recommended that you attend this event to see the unique 'Lepas' or traditional Bajau boats parade along the sea before coming into the main judging area.

The highlight of this event are the main 'Lepas' that carry a full traditional musical troupe which highlights the Bajau dancer in the front that does the 'Mengiluk' dance. Each participating village will send their best decorated boat to be featured in this parade. The 'Lepa' actually translates as a single mast boat which was originally used as the main mode of transportation back in the day. These traditional 'Lepa' boats are made from 'ubar suluk' or red seraya wood and are intricately carved by master craftsmen which are fading as the years go by.
Village women in full traditional costume dance on the Lepa boats

As the attraction is on board the boats, I had to rent a boat to witness this up close. This was the only way I could get photos and see what they did along the journey to the main lagoon where they parade before the finals. Moving alongside of the Lepa boats in sea, I noticed many different styles, costumes and colors of the flags. The colors of the flags indicate the village the boat is from too.

Regatta Lepa Lepa 2015
Lepa boats sail towards the show area at the lagoon

Local fiber boat race at the main event area

Lepa Lepa Boat
Wooden carvings of traditional Lepa boats on sale

In the main event area on ground, there are numerous tents in the hundreds littered all over the main town and jetty area. You will find all kinds of stalls there selling all sorts of things. Food, clothes and accessories are the most common stalls while nearer towards the main event area, you will see traditional boat carvings, governmental bodies showcasing their products and even souvenir shops.

As this is the largest event held in Semporna, you can be assured that the entire population was out here to celebrate and enjoy the festival. People from as far as other towns in Sabah also made their way here for the Regatta. Note that if you plan to come next year, please book your hotel in advance as it will most definitely be full.

A small traditional Lepa boat being prepared for the show
Regetta Lepa Bajau Girl
A beautiful Bajau girl poses and smiles
Happy local spectators on boats

The last 'Maharaja' of wood carving with his troop on a Lepa boat

Free Semporna Tours at Regatta Lepa 2012

There was even a free tour service offered at Semporna town with some of Sabah's best tour guides giving these free guided tours during the Regatta Lepa. They had a booth just outside one of the main resorts where visitors simply had to register for the free tours around Semporna. 


Bajau girls who were in the beauty contest

Throughout the entire three days, there are activities being held from day to night. Concerts, fireworks, a beauty contest, karaoke, rowing competitions and many other activities can be found in Semporna

Finally on the second day, all the main Lepas make their way towards the showcase area in the afternoon where each of the boats are judged. The main traditional boats will circle around the lagoon area and the final process is when the boats park in front of the stage area. After that the winner is announced from a panel of judges.

If you require the contact person or more information, check out the Sabah Tourism website. For those who are planning on visiting Sabah in 2013 and want to experience this amazing festival, I would recommend you time your trip in April so that you can have the opportunity to experience the Regatta Lepa Lepa in Semporna Sabah.

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