The little coastal town of Semporna is an obscure destination in the great land of Sabah, and its many surrounding islands are home to Sea Gypsies known regionally as the nomadic Bajau. We managed to visit this hidden gem of an area on its most bustling day: the Regatta Lepa in the month of April, when the Bajau congregate for their biggest cultural festival through the display of traditional boats that often double as their homes.
Travelling into the port of Semporna, where most of its more modern buildings stood, was a journey in itself. Just under a (bumpy!) hour’s drive from the airport in Tawau, the sights along the way were filled with wooden houses on stilts–an oddity for they were nowhere near watery ground. The local tour guide explained that this architectural strangeness came from habit despite the inhabitants living out a landlocked life.
A usually sleepy town, Semporna was filled with life since the beginning of the week in preparation for the region’s biggest cultural celebration. Our weekend arrival put us right smack dab in the middle of the revelry, just a day before the official celebration commenced. Many temporary stalls formed a bazaar along the harbour, selling many street food favourites like cucur (deep fried sardine dough balls), pre-packed Malay-style spiced chicken rice, and local drinks like iced milk tea and rose milk known as bandung. On regular days, the square would be a business locale of fishermen carting around tubs of extremely fresh catches of prawns, crabs, and lobsters in an uninterrupted daily routine.
We were treated to a wonderful sight of locals in their many boats travelling to and from the nearby piers and islands, either on daily business or leisure trips. The tour guide noted that the part of the jetty we had lunch at was mostly for the locals, and that a tourist-centric jetty was on the further side of the town.
Our first tour stop was the fantastic Bohey Dulang Island, one of Tun Sakaran Marine Park’s most stunning formations. The mountainous island was the result of volcanic activity, and popular for offering a breathtaking view at the peak of its hiking trail. Unfortunately, we arrived on an overcast day which, while good for the 40-minute boat ride that took us to the island, rendered the trail unclimbable due to wet weather conditions earlier in the day. Nevertheless, the little exploration of the island’s tiny giant clam rehabilitation centre, and the sights of crystal clear waters filled with an abundance of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and multitudes of coral fish around the wooden walkway made up for it. It is exciting to know that Semporna waters actually have all seven species of giant clam found in the world, and that dolphins could be seen in the bay during certain seasons.
The boating tour, run by divemaster Alexander Ho of Semporna Scuba then took us to the nearby Bodgaya Island, where a group of aboriginal Bajau people maintain their sea-dwelling settlements. The wooden houses on stilts, sturdy and still above water, looked as if they were plucked out from an old storybook. Children in boats fashioned out from whole logs of strong wood, paddled over to us excitedly expecting treats. As this settlement has had many tourists visiting, this familiarity was harmless even when we weren’t prepared to present anything. We weren’t encouraged to enforce this routine of giving gifts as this particular Bajau sect needed to preserve their independence.
The tour guide noted that while the Bajau had a nomadic history, the rising costs of boat parts and the tightening of international water borders had hampered this lifestyle rendering the Bajau to tether themselves to an island like this one, and rely on the barter system to keep themselves ‘afloat’. Many have become fishermen, and have deliberately altered their local language with the waterfront dialects. Most were also unfortunately deemed stateless due to being the offspring of mixed parentage of Bajau with Indonesians and Filipinos, having their assumed ‘citizenships’ held as long as they remained in Sabah waters.
We were then taken to a beautiful sandbank known as Sibuan Island, a picture-perfect stretch of white soft sand rich with ghost crabs and seashells. I was tempted to take one, but the divemaster kindly reminded me that I was on protected land, and removing even an abandoned seashell was not permitted as even the smallest act could disturb the thriving, untouched marine ecosystem. I was content with just taking a picture instead. This island is described to be the most beautiful in the Celebes Sea, and is populated by another small colony of Bajau with an army barrack placement to protect these clandestine waters.
Returning to the Semporna harbour was another fantastic experience as the boat took us to cruise among the Lepa boats from many other villages waiting in tide with the festival. From old, weather-worn boats to newer ones equipped with modern amenities like a motorised propellor, the unique designs of the sails (named sambulayang) and the families that dwelt in caravan-like ensembles welcomed us with smiles and waves.
The evening rang in the Sangom Maglami-Lami party, featuring the festival’s cultural performances. Sabahan traditions like the Igal-Igal dance and a local beauty pageant to crown the Lepa Queen entranced us. From their language to their dressings and even the rhythm of their music, the distinct culture of the Bajau made us realise just how different and distinct they are compared to the tribes of Peninsular Malaysia.
The next morning was an official affair, as many government-based presences were present to perform and officiate the regatta. Malaysia’s Fire and Rescue Department demonstrated how to handle boat fires, while the ESSCOM (Eastern Sabah Security Command) reenacted their experiences with hijackers, helicopter rescues, and jetfighter flyovers. The real festivities begun with the Sea Games Competition where teams from different villages vied in competitions such as boat racing and tug-of-war (in boats!). It was fascinating to note that these people of the sea had a unique way of rowing: tucking the oar behind one ankle and paddling with the aligned arm, while the other side of the body held onto the boat for stabilisation. The morning ended with the many beautiful Bajau Lepa boats we’d seen the evening before sail into the harbor, displaying their colours spectacularly.
The bigger boats helming the parade, adorned with more glittering decor and had locals performing in full festive garb, was also noted to be a festival special, utilised to signify grand ceremonies like weddings and other large-scale events.
With Semporna having so many natural attractions, we of course had to pay a visit to Bukit Tengkorak. But, it so happens that we had to leave for this hiking adventure right after our Regatta Lepa officiating ceremony, which meant I was headed to a 500-feet-high climb in sandals and a dress. Intimidating, but the climb was simply up a long series of staircases, and a relatively flat walk to the gorgeous peak overlooking the coastline. The hill itself had a fantastic history being a survivor of volcanic eruption, as well as being the biggest preserved pottery farm that dates back to the Neolithic age! Prehistoric traders as far as the Majapahit kingdom came to barter for the special volcanic clay products.
Prior to the hike, we squeezed in a short visit to the Tun Sakaran Museum, honoring the local man who made Semporna history by becoming a member of the Malaysian government. A selection of ancient native tools and religious artefacts were also on display.
Leaving Semporna for Tawau that night was an experience, to put it simply. Our van was at a standstill for an hour, as whole villages of people visiting the harbour for the Regatta made a sea of human traffic. Our driver expertly navigated a way as soon as the crowds permitted, and we were off, the Regatta Lepa a fond and solid memory of our trip.
The next and last day saw us going for yet another hike. Our meager, city-spoiled bodies were slightly jolted with the sudden influx of physical activity in real sunshine, but we were assured that this hike on the Tawau Hills Park wasn’t as uphill as the one at Bukit Tengkorak. What awaited was the fifth tallest tropical tree in the world. The Seraya Kuning Siput, standing at a whopping 88.4 meters, was a real giant in the rainforest of humongous fauna. We couldn’t even see its lowest branches! For the more adventurous, Tawau Hill Park has mountains that take three days to hike up to, and where many endemic wildlife such as the sun bear, pygmy elephant, and clouded leopard reside.
It is undeniable that much of Tawau and Semporna have been fiercely preserved with the exception of certain parts of the land gazetted for oil palm plantation to fund the state income. Trails designated as hiking paths were pristine, and the culture of its people undisturbed and celebrated. It was such a shame to leave the state, as I had fallen in love with the natural jungle, the open seas, and the people who inhabited them, something grossly devoid in the concrete city. For lovers of traditional culture, protected natural reserves, and a good communal experience, visiting Semporna during the Regatta Lepa would be a guaranteed unforgettable experience.
This article was first published in our magazine The Expat in June 2019.