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"Once a year, a small town in South East Sabah celebrates their biggest festival. Once a year, this coastal town is overrun by visitors who flock from the sea. Once a year, the waters around this seaside town are filled with sails in a myriad of colors. Once a year, the town of Semporna celebrates the Regatta Lepa. And what a party it is."

Bajau Laut near Mabul

The traditional "lepa", a houseboat from Bajau Laut, is about 8 meters long and 1.5 meters wide in the middle, where it is widest. Very flat and often equipped with carvings, the boat glides smoothly on the sea, but is not very suitable for boat engines. Few know, however, that the carvings on the Lepa consisted of specific fragments from the Koran. These carvings are similarly found on Islamic headstones and on the pulpit in the mosques. The Bajau people used this concept to share Muslim teachings with those who lived around them. These carvings are unique to the Bajau and are deeply rooted in their religious history.

On the front decks of the Lepa boats, smiling dancers and musicians are dressed in equally colorful traditional attire from the Sea Bajau.
There is also a group of musicians and a few dancers in the lepas and the lepas will sail around for the VIPs and the jury stage.
During the Lepa festival, the Lepa boats are decorated in the village colors, complete with musicians and dancers.
While the Lepa boats sail the main Regatta Lepa tour they are rated. The music plays while the dancers perform traditional Bajau dances.
The highlight of the festival is the floating parade of leprosy boats.
The overall rating is based on the most beautiful and colorful Lepa and their dance performance.

The winner will be chosen based on their sambulayang (sails), tipas tipas (triangular pennants), panji panji (small rectangular flags) and traditional music and igal-igal dance performances. The winner may take home cash prizes and other goodies including speedboats, boat parts, trophies and certificates. Other highlights of the festival include water sports activities such as:

1. lepa tug of war;
2. kelleh-kelleh (small trunk boat) race
3. duck catching contest.

Celebrations continue into the night, with karaoke, cultural music and igal-igal dance performances, beauty pageants, fireworks and even a 'Lepa Car' competition at Semporna stadium.
The Sea Gypsies are very adept at building leprosy boats. Records indicate that the single-masted lepa sailboats were used by seafarers in the region as early as the 14th century. Much of the Bajau Laut's lifestyle revolves around their lepa, which is used for permanent living, fishing, transportation, and weddings.

The Lepa boats are often replaced today by the "Kumpir" (Sappit), a slightly larger boat that is used in daily practice instead of the lepa.

Most Semporna hotels are full during the week leading up to the festival, so make a reservation in advance if you're traveling here during this time.

The Regatta Lepa is an annual event that pays tribute to the lepa, a traditional single-masted sailboat of the Bajau Semporna. A fleet of colorful boats rest on the Sulu Sea as they compete for the title of 'Most Beautiful Lepa'. The celebration continues with various cultural performances, the Lepa beauty pageant, as well as traditional and contemporary sports and games.




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