Boats Boats Boats! The Regatta Lepa Festival in Sabah

Sometimes you discover awesome things by accident. That is the only way I learned of the Regatta Lepa festival of Semporna, a quiet dive town on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia. I had been scuba diving Sipadan and neighboring islands for a few days and decided to take a day off on dry land. Turns out that day was the start of what the locals call “Lepa-Lepa”, a cool and colorful festival that attracts Bajau fisherman from up and down the coast.

Local girls at the Regatta Lepa festivalin Semporna, Sabah

The Regatta Lepa Festival in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysian is a cool and colorful water festival

It starts with one boat…

Boats arriving for the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

Soon more start arriving…

Boats arriving for the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia
On Friday hundreds of colorfully decorated boats began arriving in Semporna for the Regatta Lepa festival weekend

  What Is The Regatta Lepa?

It’s like a boat beauty pageant. Lepa is local Bajau word for “boat” and repeating it twice makes it plural, essentially saying “many boats.” Every April hundreds of boats arrive bathed in a rainbow of colorful flags and streamers. The entire family is in attendance, most often playing gamelan music as they proudly pull into town. Although there are many performances and festivities over the entire weekend, the highlight is the most beautiful lepa contest.

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia The entire family gets involved


The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

Bajau people come from different tribes scattered around the coastal areas and islands of Borneo and southeastern Philippines. They have long been known for their sea-faring skills and free-diving abilities, and the lepa has traditionally played a very important role in daily life. After elaborately decorating both their boats and themselves in colorful attire, families travel to Semporna for the Regatta Lepa festival.

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

The Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah, East Malaysia

The daughter from each family performs a traditional Bajau welcome dance as part of the celebrations.

Bajau girl performing traditional dance at the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

Bajau girl performing traditional dance at the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

Bajau girl performing traditional dance at the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

Bajau girl performing traditional dance at the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

And The Winners Are…

Winners of the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah

Crowds taking photos with the winners of the Regatta Lepa festival in Semporna, Sabah Crowds taking photos with the winners of the Regatta Lepa festival

Derek Freal playing gamelan music aboard a boat at the Regatta Lepa festival in Sabah
One family invited me aboard their lepa to play gamelan music with them 🙂

But it isn’t all about boats. All three nights of the Regatta Lepa festival, from Friday to Sunday, downtown Semporna becomes a sprawling market full of food, clothing, souvenirs, electronics, toys and just about anything else you could ever want.

Crowds at the Semporna night market during Lepa-Lepa

The Lepa-Lepa festival after dark!

See The Lepa-Lepa For Yourself!

  The Regatta Lepa takes place every April in Semporna, a small city on the eastern coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is three days of fun and the biggest festival in the city. Combine it with some scuba diving before and after to make the most of your Sabah getaway.

Ever been to Semporna?

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

8 thoughts on “Boats Boats Boats! The Regatta Lepa Festival in Sabah”

    • Thanks, graduated top of my class for stick knocking. Just finished trekking in Nepal and you can bet I was putting my skills to use up there in the mountains 😉

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