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.
It starts with one boat…
Soon more start arriving…
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.
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 daughter from each family performs a traditional Bajau welcome dance as part of the celebrations.
And The Winners Are…
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.
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 😉