Every April the town of Semporna on Sabah’s east coast hosts one of Malaysia’s most vibrant festivals: Regatta Lepa. The event celebrates the traditional culture of the Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau), most notably their wooden sailing boats, which are known as lepa.
Some 300 boats gathered in Semporna’s harbour for the 20th annual Regatta Lepa, which was held on the last weekend of April (2013). Blessed with blue skies, the festival lived up to its billing as a true feast for the eyes.
For hundreds of years the Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau) lived a nomadic existence in the waters between the southern Philippines and eastern Borneo. They made landfall only occasionally, spending the rest of their time in their floating homes. Although most Bajau Laut now live in stilt houses rather than boats, their link to the sea is still strong.
The traditional lepa is a single-masted sailing boat, with two outriggers. It is usually made out of red seraya wood, and covered in elaborate carvings. For the festival, the boats are covered with colourful sails and pennants.
It is not just the boats which are decked out in all their finery though, those on board are too. Each lepa represents a family or small community, with considerable prestige resting on how splendid everything (and everyone) looks.
Girls perform a graceful dance known as igal-igal, accompanied by percussion instruments, such as gongs and drums. Their fingers have long false nails, which help accentuate their flowing arm movements.
Regatta Lepa is not just about the grand boats however. A majority of the vessels taking part are far more modest (and modern). But their owners still do everything they can to make them as attractive as possible.
After gathering at the harbour, the regatta culminates in a parade, with pride of place given to the heritage boats. On the rare occasions when the public address system is quiet, you can appreciate the music coming from the lepa.
At the end of the parade, the audience has a chance to appreciate the intricate carvings and other decoration of the boats at close hand. The judges also announce the winner of the “most beautiful lepa” competition.
Security was very tight for this year’s festival, following the incursion into eastern Sabah in February by more than two hundred followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu. Much of what is now Sabah was once part of the Sulu Sultanate. The incursion ended after bloody clashes between the Sulu fighters and the Malaysian armed forces in March.
The incursion prompted fears that the festival would have to be postponed or cancelled. But it eventually went ahead, albeit with much smaller crowds than normal, especially in terms of West Malaysians and foreign tourists.
Not all the attractions associated with Regatta Lepa are seaborne. There’s also a lively street market, with stalls offering everything from tasty snacks to cheap shoes.
Also popular come evening time is the entertainment at the town’s sports stadium, which includes music and a beauty contest.